THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

Mist-al Palace

Yesterday's big game was supposed to be Manchester United away at Crystal Palace. With Leicester dropping points earlier in the day, United had the chance to make themselves a little more comfortable in second place. They did not take that chance.
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Indeed, they barely made any chances to take. Crystal Palace, in true Roy Hodgson fashion, were set up to do a job, and they did it competently under no great pressure. The game came and it went and the fog rolled in, trying to do us all a favour. At one point the entire game slipped into complete and total darkness: at least, we thought it had, until we realised we'd just closed our eyes instead.
Putting our tactical hat on, we reckon United have two major problems. The first is that, in the absence of Paul Pogba, the creative burden falls almost entirely on Bruno Fernandes. And while he is brilliant, he is merely human, and when he has an off-day United's attacking options diminish to something like, "Can one of the forwards dribble past three people, please?"
Taking our tactical hat off, this team look knackered. This was Bruno's 40th club game of the season; Marcus Rashford is ahead of him, with 42. Caught between the compressed calendar, and the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer clearly doesn't think he has that many match-winners in his squad, the creative heart of the team is running on fumes.
It's not just United that look knackered, of course: it's everybody apart from Manchester City, who are now 14 points clear. Perhaps this is less a Big Team Crisis and more a Premier League Warning. The end of this season is going to be filled with drab games of nothing much at all, interspersed with strange games of, 'What the hell was that?' And we won't always have a helpful fog trying to save us from ourselves.

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Sheffield United are safe!

Yesterday evening, Sheffield United beat Aston Villa. That puts them up to 14 points and the thing about the number 14 — one of its main features, in fact — is that it is bigger than 11. Which means that this Sheffield United side are now officially better than Derby County 07/08, and will not be remembered as the worst Premier League side of all time. Glory, glory.
They had to work for it, too. Villa had made and missed a few good chances before Phil Jagielka was sent on his way just before the hour: after that came blocks and scrambling saves. The red, incidentally, seemed a little harsh. But more than that it seemed entirely unnecessary: VAR acting less as refereeing support and more as an active participant in the game. But it didn't change the result, and it gave Chris Wilder the chance to speak for the nation.
I don’t know where I’m at with it all. Maybe I’ve gone past caring.
It's the "maybe" that's heartbreaking there, isn't it? Hey, maybe he could get somebody to have a look at the tape, draw a line, see if he actually is past caring. Some kind of Video Anguish Referee.
Of course, while Sheffield United may be safe from history, they still have the prospect of relegation to deal with. 14 points from 27 games, 12 points from safety… there's always hope, until the very last moment, but from where we're sitting they look as doomed as a dodo trying to disguise itself with a burger bun, ketchup, and slice of dill pickle.
But this was, for an hour, a good performance against a good team, and then for another half hour it was a minor act of collective heroism. That bodes well, first for the prospect of a bid for survival, however remote, and second for whatever comes afterwards. This isn't a squad that has given up: not on their manager's methods, not on each other, and not on themselves.

Barcelona get exciting

No club does high-level chaos quite like Barcelona. Former president Josep Maria Bartomeu was arrested on Monday over "alleged crimes related to property and the socio-economic order", which we know isn't really treason but does sound quite a lot like treason. Come Wednesday, the manager appointed by that former president oversaw a three-goal comeback in the Copa del Rey.
If, come the weekend, Antoine Griezmann is swallowed by a giant intergalactic space-squid, don't say you weren't warned.
A proper comeback too, this one, with great goals, penalty saves, a last-minute equaliser, a clatter of red cards, and then an extra-time winner that set Ronald Koeman a-dancing on the touchline. Even Gerard Piqué, normally so stylish and composed, ended up giving it The Full Maradona.
Before the game, Piqué predicted that a result here could turn Barcelona's entire season around. Afterwards, well, we're not going to argue with him. This is still a very strange Barcelona on the pitch, to go with the simmering mess off it. But this is the kind of result that galvanises a team, brings focus and new impetus, renders everything down to the moment. Three months left, a cup final to play and a league title to chase. Could be exciting.

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IN OTHER NEWS

Here's Rotherham's 97th minute winner against Sheffield Wednesday, with commentary from the club. Sound on.

HAT TIP

Over to the Guardian for Nicky Bandini's excellent interview with Gianluigi Buffon, who will be retiring no later than 2023. Definitely. Almost certainly. Just like he retired that other time, and that other time before that.
It has become a little hard to trust Gianluigi Buffon when he talks about retirement. In 2017, he told me he had reached a decision to hang up his gloves at the end of the season – his 17th as a Juventus player. Reminded of the fear he once felt at the prospect of a life without football, he said that there remained "almost none". A year later, we were in France, discussing his surprise move to Paris Saint-Germain.

RETRO CORNER

The "should we wire referees for sound" debate is back again, which means it's time to take a trip back to 1989, when they gave it a shot for documentary purposes. David Elleray was wearing the microphone, Arsenal were doing most of the talking, and everybody came across really, really well.

COMING UP

Hot relegation zone action! In the early slot, Fulham host Spurs and West Brom take on Everton. After that, the small matter of Liverpool against Chelsea. Jurgen Klopp against Thomas Tuchel. Fifth against sixth.
Tom Adams will be dancing in the technical area of tomorrow's Warm-Up
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