THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

Ta-Ra, Ronald

Typical, isn't it? You go to bed and Ronald Koeman's manager of Barcelona; then the alarm goes and you stumble bleary-eyed into consciousness and— wait, something's changed. Something feels different. They gave him the phone call overnight?
Liga
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On one level it's a bit of a shame. Barca's timing of the inevitable will suck attention away from Rayo Vallecano's excellent win, Radamel Falcao's fourth goal of the season, and the glorious sight of this small, strange team mixing it with the big boys. That win puts Rayo in fifth place, two points off the top. It puts them in one of the European places. It puts them four points and four places ahead of Barcelona.
But so it goes. The big clubs get a headache and the world trembles. According to Barca's official statement, Koeman has been "relieved of his duties", and you have to say that's probably the correct choice of words. Everybody will be relieved. Even Koeman, we're guessing, once he's had a break. A chance to tally his miseries and marshal his regrets.
So begins Operation Get Xavi. We're not going to pretend to know if Xavi's is good enough for the job — the internet is already preparing the Pirlo 2.0 memes — but he does tick the most important boxes. One, he's so central to Barcelona's recent memories of glory that he'll get given a bit of patience; maybe, possibly, theoretically. And two, he might still be sweet enough on the place that he'll take the poisoned chalice with some degree of optimism.
That, presumably, was part of the reason Koeman jumped from a Netherlands job that was going well into the mess at the Camp Nou: a lingering affection for the club where he was brilliant. Now the mess is even messier and Messi is gone. Any manager good enough for the gig is probably good enough to say "No thank you. Not right now. I'm just not sure this is the right opportunity for me."
Quique Setién lost the job after that 8-2 devastation by Bayern Munich, a brutal clarification of Barcelona's position relative to the best teams in the Champions League. Koeman has gone after a 1-0 loss away from home in La Liga, a defeat much less spectacular in its execution but much heavier in its implications. Here are Barcelona: a mid-table team in mid-table form. The last time they missed out on the top four, the Europa League was still called the UEFA Cup.
Still, La Liga watchers have other and better things to think about. While Barcelona minister to their crisis and fret about their revenue streams, something very special is unfolding above them. Real Madrid's 0-0 draw with Osasuna sent them back to the top on goal difference, ahead of Sevilla, Real Betis, and Real Sociedad, but the whole top four is sitting on 21 points. Atlético can join them with a win tonight, and Rayo and Osasuna are just two points back.
The league that was supposed to deliver two-team title races from now until the end of time has found itself in the early stages of something really quite special. A title scramble. A title free-for-all. A title one of the those weird endurance races where everybody's covered in mud and falling over each other. Long may it continue.

Signs Preceding The End Of The World

The last time Manchester City were knocked out of the Carabao Cup, it was October 2016. Kelechi Iheanacho was up front for City. Barack Obama was president of the United States. And the Warm-Up didn't have all this lingering back pain. Truly, it was a different time.
Since then, City have picked up the three-handed cup in four straight years. Pep Guardiola has achieved many wonderful things in the game, and perhaps the greatest is this: he is the most Carabao man that ever Carabao'd.
But all fizzy energising things must come to an end, and it seems clear that this season is the season of West Ham United. After holding the holders to a nil-nil draw, Mark Noble stepped up to take the first penalty. The memories of that miss against Manchester United swirled. But he slammed this one home, the first of a perfect five that ended with Saïd Benrahma running off to take pictures with the crowd. Some have suggested that this is an appropriate divine punishment for City's third kit, which looks like club pyjamas. These suggestions are obviously correct.
Elsewhere, Liverpool survived an almighty scare against Preston, who made and wasted several tremendous opportunities before bowing to the inevitable. And also the inexplicable: Divock Origi's quest to become the perfect cult hero continued with this reverse-contortion spasm-jab-swat-poke thing. Not so much a finish as a giant full-body sneeze. But then, City are out of the League Cup. This is a time of strangeness.

South America Says No

It's not often one of football's governing bodies gets something quite this correct, so let's enjoy it.
Or in English, and with thanks to our Spanish expert Dr. G Translate: "CONMEBOL Council ratifies its rejection of the World Cup every two years." Their reasoning? Well, first they note that there is no reason to change the World Cup. And then they add that the World Cup is great. Hard to argue with either point.
That will be that, we're going to (foolishly) assume. At least for the plan of having something every two years and calling it a World Cup — no Brazil, no Argentina, no Uruguay? No party. Imagine waving that weird bulbous trophy around, knowing that three of the previous winners, with nine titles between them, hadn't even failed to qualify.
Of course, this doesn't mean that FIFA isn't going to try something else, in its ongoing bid to capture more of the football calendar and more of the football money pile and more of whatever else Gianni Infantino sees when he closes his eyes. A million-team Club World Cup. A World Cup every three years. A tournament on the moon.
There is no more powerful combination of forces on this earth than a man with power who has decided he has to do something, yet knows there is nothing sensible for him to do. That conjunction is where the magic happens.

IN OTHER NEWS

Thing is, right, when you think about it, the keeper essentially makes a decent tackle here. Gets to the ball first, under pressure, puts it behind the attacker and forces him away from goal. Yes, actually catching it properly would have been better. But it's not like the attacker's about to knock it up and then bicycle it back over… oh. Oh right.

HAT TIP 1

Two bits of recommended reading for you today, both from our friends at ESPN. The first is Sid Lowe talking to Chimy Avila, Osasuna's wrecking ball striker, about his extraordinary (and really, that doesn't begin to cover it) journey from Argentina to La Liga.
I would go out on the streets late at night to take penalties to earn money for my mum. Very important people would come to the barrio and say: "take penalties for me, I'll bet on you". Now when I take a penalty, it's fun. Why? Because when I was taking penalties then, it could be against a goalkeeper with a machine gun hanging round his neck.

HAT TIP 2

And the second comes from Zito Madu, who has been talking to Marco Reus — now 32, and an old 32 as far as footballers go — about staying at Dortmund, about watching young superstars come and go around him, and about making peace with his often malfunctioning body.
That Reus is old is a banal fact and a strange reality. People get old, things change, the years stack on top of one another; it's the most simple rule of the universe. What's strange about Reus being old is that because he has stayed on a team for which young players are consistently coming in and leaving from, he is an outsider within that machine. Talented players like him aren't supposed to make Dortmund their forever homes.

COMING UP

Atletico Madrid can join the rest on 21 points with a win at Levante, while Napoli can go top of Serie A if they beat Bologna at home.
Assuming Andi Thomas (hey, that's me!) doesn't put himself in hospital attempting to recreate the Origi goal, he will (I will!) be here tomorrow.
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