THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES
Harder: Better, Faster, Stronger
Pound for pound, chance for chance, goal for goal, inexplicable defensive hiccup for inexplicable defensive hiccup, there cannot be a better side to watch right now than Emma Hayes's Chelsea. For the neutral, that is. For Chelsea supporters it looks incredibly stressful, even with all the winning.
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But where there's Pernille Harder, there's hope. Over the last couple of weeks Chelsea's most expensive player has almost proved to be the club's… clutchiest? Most clutch? Quite an awkward word, "clutch". Let's say "most likely to intervene at a crucial moment in decisive fashion". Much better.
A 92nd minute equaliser against Wolfsburg last week. An 83rd minute opener against Leicester at the weekend. And last night, in Turin, she popped up in the 69th minute to score the winner. Good players score goals. Great players score important goals. Clutch players score important goals at precisely the right time.
And neatly enough, the winner against Juventus was a perfect illustration of this strange quality of being clutch. Of clutchness. Because at no point in the entire move is the ball where anybody expects it to be. Fran Kirby fires the ball into Sam Kerr's feet but it's a little too hard, and the ball bobbles up into a defender, then back into Kerr's path. She nudges it into position and shoots, but that gets blocked, and the ball screws back through the penalty area.
At this moment there are five Juventus defenders in the heart of the box, four of whom aren't sprawling on the floor. There are two more arriving on the edge. There's Kirby and Kerr, and the goalkeeper, making ten people in the penalty area who don't know where the ball is going. And then there's Harder, who knows, and who scores.
It looks like magic, just a little bit. Some uncanny knack that lets her see just a few seconds into the future. We're guessing it's not actually magic, otherwise (a) that's probably cheating, and (b) Wolfsburg really should have held out for a bit more cash. It's just that happy blend of talent, training and cleverness that all excellent attacking players have, that allows them first to interpret space, then to exploit it. To find it and to use it, before anybody else has even noticed it's there.
You can take the broader picture as you like. A team that regularly needs bailing out in such fashion may not be a good team, in several important ways, and is certainly a more vulnerable one. One quiet Harder performance, one turned ankle, and all that clutchitude is gone. One the other hand, that is the point of having really good players: they do really good things and win football matches.
Let's split the difference. If Chelsea are searching for control — a predictable, systemic, repeatable way of winning football matches — then they haven't found it yet. But while that search goes on, the weight of quality is such that the results keep coming, the games are great fun to watch, and everybody gets to admire the ineffable clutchiosity of Pernille Harder.
We Believe In You, Claudio
You'll have your own thoughts on whether Watford's free-wheeling hire 'em and fire 'em policy is a sensible way to run a football club. But one definite problem is that the teams never have any time to develop a personality. Just as you're starting to get the hang of what Vladimir Ivić's Watford are up to, along comes Xisco Muñoz's Watford and you have to start all over again. It's all so transitory.
One way around this problem — and to be fair, it's not really a problem for Watford — is to appoint somebody that comes, as it were, pre-loved. Like Claudio Ranieri. Who doesn't just win league titles he's got absolutely no right to be winning, but comes out and says things like:
Football is my life. If I feel good, if I feel emotion, if I feel I have enough energy to give to my players, I want to continue.
He's not even picked a team, but suddenly the whole world — except maybe Luton — feels that little bit warmer about Watford's endeavours. Such is the nature of Ranieri, who seems a pleasant man hurled into a shark-infested business, trying to smile the whole way through. The pizzas! The opera! The dilly-ding, dilly-dong! The getting brutally sacked so that José Mourinho can come in and smother the Premier League in a cloud of deepest evil! It all adds up.
That line comes from a conversation with the BBC about longevity, in which Ranieri says he's got Roy Hodgson's record as oldest Premier League manager in his sights. "Why not?" he asks. "I am so young. I don't feel [my age]." Ranieri, who turns 70 next week, will need to keep going for another four years to pass Hodgson, and we wish him nothing but the very best of luck.
He'll need it. Winning the title with Leicester, at odds of many thousands to one? Unlikely. Very unlikely. But staying manager at Watford for more than four years? That truly is an impossible dream.
IN CANADA NEWS
Alphonso Davies is absurd. Absolutely absurd. Obviously this doesn't count as a goal from inside his own half but, well, that's where he starts sprinting.
Incidentally, Canada's men's team haven't made it to a World Cup since 1986. Still some way to go in the CONCACAF process, but last night's big win over Panama — that Davies goal was the second of four — puts them back in the automatic qualifying spots behind Mexico and USA. It's threatening to get a little bit historical.
Since we're talking about Watford today, here's a lovely little montage of their rise from the Fourth Division to the First, back when shorts were short and pitches were sand. Includes, as is obligatory, John Barnes being brilliant and Elton John wearing a powerful jacket. Aspiring Youtube montage makers take note: Kate Bush works really well for this sort of thing.
Following on from the arrests at Wembley on Tuesday night, the Guardian have an interesting piece from Tomasz Mortimer on the historical roots of Hungarian football violence and the rise of the black-shirted Carpathian Brigade.
The Carpathian Brigade soon became a victim of its own success. For many years it was able to keep its members in check, but as the group grew, so did the trouble. Games against fierce rivals Romania in 2013 and 2014 saw coordinated violence, and at Euro 2016 the Carpathian Brigade made headlines around Europe for the first time after clashing with stewards during the game against Iceland in Marseille.
Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Lyon and defending champions Barcelona are all in action in the Champions League. And we round off the international break with a couple of CONMEBOL qualifiers: Bolivia vs. Paraguay and Colombia vs. Ecuador.
Here tomorrow for more clutching at straws, it'll be Andi Thomas again
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