THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

And The Reds Go Stumbling On, On, On

If playing badly but still winning is the sign of a team going places, then playing well and losing is, by implication, the sign of a team going nowhere. Nowhere except the bottom of their Champions League group, that is. And for Manchester Uni— HANG ON IT'S ANOTHER COMEBACK.
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Manchester United cannot go on like this forever. You know it, they know it, and even the Glazers probably have some idea. (Our own Graham Ruthven explains why very nicely here.)
But while they are going on like this, we can all agree that it is (a) great fun and (b) great television. The neutral gets to both laugh at and curse Manchester United in the space of a single match, while United's fans get dragged up and down, round and round, over and under and through. Old Trafford may have produced a few boos at half-time, but it was bouncing by the end, triumphant delirium edged with terror.
This is the odd thing about United right now. Generally speaking, dysfunction breeds dissatisfaction: a team that doesn't work quickly becomes an unhappy team. And United, in several key departments, simply do not work. The midfield and the attack are trapped in a long-distance relationship, while the defence, quivering and exposed, offers up far too many chances. If David De Gea hadn't rediscovered his personal magnetism over the summer, things would have got far messier.
But in among all that lack of function, United kept going. They made chances in the first half, which they lost, and chances in the second, which they won; they flapped their arms and they pumped their fists and they clapped and shouted. Nobody has given up on anything yet. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is still at the wheel, and everybody's still up for that, even if the car is sliding all over the place and the satnav is weeping.
The club is both a heart-warming tale of belief and togetherness working to overcome any obstacle, and an object lesson in the limits of belief and togetherness. It's like what you get when you paper over the cracks with really expensive paper, but that paper has a cool picture on it that everybody likes. It's perhaps an underrated virtue in the serious world of football, being liked. And here's Solskjaer building his castle on vibes.
It's at this point cold, hard logic — or Paul Scholes — steps in and suggests that it's all very well doing this sort of thing against an injury-hit Atalanta: attacking-minded, defensively vulnerable, almost built in a lab to lose 3-2 at Old Trafford. And it's at this point that cold, hard logic gets laughed out of the room by Manchester United, football's worst good team, football's best bad team, football's silliest superclub. Liverpool at the weekend. Should be a hammering. Could be anything.

Future Proofing

The other contender for the title of football's silliest superclub, the large pile of IOUs that we call Barcelona, actually had a pretty good day on Wednesday. First they won a game of football, and then they announced that Ansu Fati, carrier of all hopes and dreams, has signed up for another six years.
His release clause has been set at a cool and precise €1 billion, and may we be the first to congratulate him on his move to Newcastle.
The timing of Fati's new contract was trailed a little before Barcelona kicked off against Dynamo Kyiv, and the Warm-Up, cynical and embittered, started to wonder if this was intended to distract from the actual game. Had Barcelona lost, after all, they'd have been stranded at the bottom of their group, four points away from even the Europa League. What better time to announce that the future is secure.
Fati's new contract comes a week after Pedri signed a similar deal, with a similar Dr. Evil-inspired release clause. These are the twin pillars around which the new Barcelona will be built, by whichever fortunate soul/poor sucker gets the job after Ronald Koeman. And abstractly, thinking just about the two players, that's a delightful prospect: one sparky attacker who seems to be able to do anything with the ball, and one smooth-passing midfielder to give it to him.
If only it were possible to believe that Barcelona, skint and strange, are going to get all the harder decisions right as well. Tying your best young players to massive release clauses is the easy bit. Giving them the right team to play in? That's going to be a little trickier.

Infantino's Baby

It's been a week of arguments over FIFA's extremely clever plan to hold a World Cup every five minutes, and as discussions have drawn to a close, it's clear that one thing has been decided: more discussions are needed.
On Tuesday, Gianni Infantino held a meeting with the various heads of European football, all of whom — we assume — spent their time shouting "What are you doing?! What?! Why?! What?!" Or, to quote Mr FIFA himself:
The debate has been and will probably continue to be heated. I understand being passionate myself about football that you can have different opinions. We have received some legitimate criticism and some enthusiastic comments as well. It is so important for everyone to make their voice heard. Boycotts were not discussed today.
That "Boycotts were not discussed today" t-shirt is raising a lot of questions already answered by the shirt.
There's a FIFA summit coming up on December 20th, though it appears that the governing body will not push for a vote, on the quite reasonable grounds that you should never ask for a vote on a question if you're likely to lose. This will instead provide more time for talking through all the big questions, such as "What if we had a World Cup every two years but nobody could play in consecutive ones," and "Wow, how did you manage to make this idea even worse?"
It has been illuminating, this argument; we've all learned a lot about how the people who run the game think about the game, and the poor saps that watch it. And even if - as seems likely - the biennial World Cup dream has foundered and failed, we're betting that the consequences of the argument will be serious. The conversations about boycotts, about leaving FIFA, about doing something else: they won't be ending any time soon, whatever the outcome of the heated discussions.

IN OTHER NEWS

Splish, splash, splosh. Truly, the slightly flooded football match is one of life's great pleasures.

RETRO CORNER

Happy birthday to Paul Ince, history maker and title winner, who spent two years in Serie A back when that was a very unusual thing for an Englishman to do. It feels like his goalscoring can sometimes be forgotten, so to redress that balance, here are his ten best goals for Inter.

HAT TIP

Steve Bruce is no longer manager of Newcastle United. Given the pace at which football works these days, it's astonishing he lasted two years in the job: nobody seemed to be enjoying it, least of all Bruce himself. Here's George Caulkin and Chris Waugh, over at the Athletic, combing through the detritus.
His 1,000th game in management, a testament to longevity, passed without pomp. There was no presentation on the pitch, no acknowledgement of his achievement. Instead, once his team capitulated in familiar fashion, he was subjected to chants of, You’re getting sacked in the morning from Spurs and Newcastle supporters. As he attempted to conduct his post-match interviews pitchside, he was heckled by one inebriated fan in the executive boxes.

COMING UP

Starters over, onto the meat: Europa League, Europa Conference League. Spurs are away at Vitesse Arnhem, West Ham at home to Genk, and we reckon the pick for the discerning neutral is Marseille's visit to Lazio.
And Andi Thomas will be back tomorrow with all of that plus a new plan: what if we held a World Cup every week, but with only four teams, and also it's in that cage from the old Nike advert?
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