THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

A grand day out

transfers
Alli confident of PSG move, Pogba’s apology to team-mates – Paper Round
11 HOURS AGO

It's the night before Christmas. And we were going to try and do the rest of this bit in verse, but we couldn't think of a decent rhyme for "Van De Beek", so a lucky escape for you there. "On Pogba! On Donny! On Mason and Bruno!" No, it wouldn't have worked.

So, prosaically: Manchester United won another potentially tricky game of football, and in some style. Edinson Cavani did most of the busywork, missing a load of chances in the first half, taking advantage of the lack of VAR to give Yerry Mina a quick pat on the face, and then winning the game with a swerving missile from the edge of the box.

Never dull, is he? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was quick to dismiss suggestions afterwards that his player could and should have walked for his tangle with Mina: "nothing", apparently, just "two South Americans that have had a few battles before". You should see Solskjaer whenever he runs into a Faroe Islander. Grrr.

If you were being picky, you might point out that United didn't actually get the game sorted until Solskjaer deployed the big guns from the bench. But if you were being generous (and it is the season, after all), you might allow that this was not for any lack of creativity. Cavani in particular had chances, and by the end of the first half appeared to be trying to literally kick the ball through Robin Olsen.

Not very festive, that. He's got bob-bob-bobbing along to be getting on with.

United's reward for their eventual win is another Manchester derby, and since there's no scientific way in which it can be as boring as the last one, we're quite looking forward to it. Perhaps that's foolish: United lost three semi-finals last season, and there's every chance their first priority will be not losing this one.

But this recent uptick in United's form and good feeling has been built on trying to actually score goals and win games, and on the discovery that they are, on balance, quite good at it. There's something coming together: maybe not anything perfect, and certainly not anything sensible. But something fun, and effective. And besides, the semi-final's coming after the rush of games for New Year. Everybody's going to be too tired to defend properly.

Man Utd win race for Ecuador sensation - Euro Papers

In the cup with Tottingham

The concept of a wet evening in Stoke has rather taken on a life of its own. Back in the old days, it was a vaguely distracting, mostly ridiculous hypothetical to be thrown at Barcelona and Lionel Messi, when they were at their tippy-tappy best and Stoke were at their most violently Pulistoric.

But that was ages ago. Years and years. Barcelona aren't that side any more, and Stoke certainly haven't kept up their side of the hypothetical. Yet the question hangs around, refusing to die, there for any team that wants to make a big show of how serious they are. Like Spurs, apparently.

And to give Spurs their due, this was a classic League Cup quarter-final. You've seen it before: the big team makes changes to the first eleven, the underdog stays organised, stays in the game, and sucker punches an equaliser … and then a couple of big names off the bench sorted things out. The old ways are the best ways. And as a traditional bonus, Mourinho then told off his most imaginative player for trying something fancy and giving the ball away:

A player in that position is a player that has to link and create and not to create problems for his own team … We were unbalanced because when you are in possession you have full-backs out wide and another midfielder in a different line and they caught us in a counter-attack and they transformed the result of the game that was totally in our hands, so yes I am upset.

Perhaps even more important than the performances, or Mourinho's ongoing war against joy and light, is that Spurs got the fat end of the semi-final draw. While the two Manchester clubs get ready to treat us all to another thrilling derby, Tottenham will be at home against Brentford. It won't be easy: Brentford are both decent and interesting. But Spurs will be strong favourites.

If getting through an evening of poor weather in Stoke is supposed to indicate a certain fortitude, a resilience of spirit, then a home semi-final against a team from the division below is a different test of seriousness. Serious teams - big teams, trophy-winning teams - win these games. Most of the time they win them convincingly, and often they win them in style. Whatever the weather.

Big Sam's charm offensive

We don't know how things are going to work out for West Brom fans. But the return of Sam Allardyce to the Premier League has already paid off for the rest of the watching world. While everybody else dances delicately around the edges of the big question - are Arsenal in the relegation battle? - Allardyce is straight in. No messing.

If they are in the bottom eight at the moment, yes. Absolutely. Getting beaten [4-1 by Manchester City], even though it is not in the Premier League, as it would do with ours, drains the confidence of Arsenal's players.

Now, you might think the timing's a little odd for holding forth about confidence, big hammerings, and related subjects. After all, West Brom don't actually play Arsenal until the New Year, and have games against Liverpool and Leeds in the meantime. You can see at least one heavy defeat looming in there.

But a manager has to pick and choose when it comes to mind games. Liverpool are too good, and Bielsa will just ignore them. Arsenal, on the other hand …

They will be wondering what has hit them. They will be wondering why they are down there. They will be wondering what it takes to get out of that position. I know what it takes. I hope to convince my players to respond to that. I hope we can push at Arsenal, when we play them, because they have a lack of confidence.

Or to put it another way: it's a relegation six-pointer. Allardyce has looked down the calendar, put a cross through Liverpool and a question mark by Leeds, and then drawn a big heavy circle around the Arsenal game. Then he's kicked back, put his hands behind his head, and allowed himself to drift away into happy thoughts.

We will try to beat them, or anybody in the bottom eight.

The league table never lies.

IN OTHER NEWS

Anybody know the Italian for "traction engine"?

RETRO CORNER

Well obviously we had to go and double-check just how effective Stoke were, back when they were proverbial. And it turns out that Rory Delap's long throws still look absolutely terrifying, even from 2020, with his whirring trebuchet arms safely retired. A particular nod to the second goal against Arsenal (1:25): you don't see many collapsing face nutmegs.

HAT TIP

Watching them combine, the question arose: could Pedri be what Messi needed to stay? After all, it wasn’t that Messi broke the record or played superbly - and it was only Valladolid - it was that he seemed to be enjoying playing this time, and with Pedri particularly. It wasn’t just the assist; it was everything.

Over on the Guardian, Sid Lowe watches Messi breaking another record, this time with the assistance of 18-year-old Pedri, and wonders: is this new kid on the block bringing the smile back to the great man's face? Just a little bit? Maybe?

COMING UP

Not a whole lot of very much at all, it being Christmas Eve. Treat yourself to a chestnut and a day off. And another chestnut.

And no Warm-Up tomorrow, it being Christmas Day. Have a good one, and we'll see you back here next Monday, when your host will be … oh hey, Andi Thomas again. Love that guy.

Premier League
Opinion: It's Liverpool’s attack, not makeshift defence, which could cost them title
21 HOURS AGO
Premier League
Liverpool and Manchester United both win by not losing — The Warm-Up
YESTERDAY AT 09:06