THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

Here Come The Underachievers

In 2002, Senegal reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations. And lost. In 2019, Senegal reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations. And lost. So, third time lucky, lads?
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Last night's semi-final against Burkina Faso took a familiar shape. Senegal rocked up, locked up, waited for the opposition to let something slip, and then took care of things. In the group stage this approach led to just the one goal, a penalty; since then, they've scored eight in three knockout games. And while Burkina Faso were saved from a hammering by VAR, which reversed two penalties in the first half, they were well beaten in the end.
It's always difficult, trying to work out what's going on inside the collective head of a group of football players and coaches. More so when you're doing it from several thousand miles away through a television screen. But as well as a victory, last night provided something else: an opportunity to collapse. And it was not taken.
Having gone one-up in the 70th minute and then doubled their lead in the 76th, Senegal were cruising… until Burkina Faso scored a goal equal parts beautiful and bizarre, a sweeping team move finished off by Blati Touré's knee. But not in a weird, deflected way. This looked like it was guided home. With the knee. Which is impossible, for knees are stupid hinges with no touch about them.
To be 2-0 up is to be home and dry; to suddenly find that lead halved, with ten minutes left, is rainclouds gathering and a long way to go. And it's not as though Senegal's underachievements belong to other people, long gone. Aliou Cissé was there for both lost finals, captain for the first and coach for the second. There's a miserable hat-trick looming in one possible future.
But if it is, it's coming right at the end of the tournament. Five minutes after Touré made things interesting, Mané was sent sprinting clear and free into the opposition half. One touch to clear the ball out from his feet, another to tempt the goalkeeper forward, and a third to send it drifting over his head. Not the hardest goal he'll ever score. But in its calm and collected simplicity, this was a goal that suggested Senegal are moving forward with clear heads, and that the weight of past underachievement isn't dragging them down. Not yet, anyway.

Prawn Sandwiches Down, Popcorn Up

There's a job going at Sunderland. This is not particularly unusual: since the departure of Martin O'Neill in 2013, Sunderland are averaging slightly over a manager a year, not including caretakers. Go on, see how many you can name. Answers at the end of this section.
But this time, reportedly, there's a job going at Sunderland and Roy Keane is in the frame to take it. Which makes this more than just another search for a future ex-Mr Sunderland. This gives the whole thing narrative heft.
It's easy to forget — at least, it has been for the Warm-Up — just how effective Keane was in his first spell in the Sunderland dugout. For a season or so, it all looked like it was going to plan: that Keane the manager would turn out to be precisely the figure promised by Keane the captain. Subsequent managerial failures, and then his reinvention as this almost too-convincing "Roy Keane, pundit" character, have rather cast a shadow over the opening act of his post-playing career. But he took over a team in the Championship relegation zone, took them up as champions that same season, and kept them up the next. Which is pretty good going, all things considered.
Pretty good… and a decade and a half ago. Since then football has changed at a relentless pace, and Keane's role as a pundit has been a kind of one-man barricade against those changes. The last proud voice of the old loud school. Of course, television is television, and we're not ready to pronounce him a dinosaur yet; it's only a couple of years since his last assistant's job. Still, this unfinished business? It's gone very cold.
And it's not as if the scenarios are quite the same. Last time around, Keane took over a side under caretaker management at the bottom of the table, exploited his contacts at Manchester United to reinforce the squad, and professionalised them up the table. Whereas now Sunderland sit third in League One, with a young and exciting squad as capable of winning games by five as losing them by six. What this young squad needs is consistency. Whether a path to consistency leads through Roy Keane is an open question.
Of course, that does mean that Sunderland have a bit of a free swing here, and reports all suggest that this would be a short-term arrangement. It would take something utterly spectacular, probably involving point deductions and a small alien invasion, for Sunderland to get relegated from third; as such, the worst that can happen is the club loses half a season and a swing at the playoffs, and Keane returns to the Sky Sports studio a little more lined and a little more furious.
But in a sense, none of that matters. There are ideas that, once had, absolutely need to happen, and this is one of them. Imagine the alternative: imagine that the solution to Sunderland's woes was a glorious comeback for Roy Keane, and you — yes, you — didn't take that chance, on the grounds that "it was ages ago," or "nostalgia is no way to run a football club," or "he mostly seems to shout in an increasingly high-pitched voice about Cristiano Ronaldo and we didn't think that was relevant to League One." Some stories demand to be told. This is one of them. Get him back in.
(Those permanent managers of Sunderland, then: Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat, Sam Allardyce, David Moyes, Simon Grayson, Chris Coleman, Jack Ross, Phil Parkinson, and most recently Lee Johnson. Give yourself one point for each, and pat yourself on the back however well you did. We're all friends here.)

IN OTHER NEWS

Unfortunately for Celtic's Reo Hatate — and this seems to be the only thing going against him at the moment — his first goal against Rangers last night was deflected and so is not eligible for all the "OH MAN WHAT A GOAL" plaudits it received before and, strangely, after the replays. His second, though? Oh man. What a goal.

IN OTHER OTHER NEWS

You thought a goal off the knee was fun? Consider this, which comes off the back, or possibly the back of the head, of Canadian captain Atiba Hutchinson. Who was lying on the floor and facing the wrong way at the time. A worthy attempt by the goalkeeper to claim a goal kick, but no luck.
Having watched this several times, we can only conclude that Hutchinson has some kind of spring-loaded panel just above his shoulders. Not much use in a game like football, you might think, which is traditionally played facing towards the ball and also standing up. But oh, how wrong you'd be. Here comes the ball, and: boinngggg! Up it goes!

RETRO CORNER

Some proper old-school content today, as we rewind all the way back to February 3rd, 1960, and the fourth round of the FA Cup. Crewe Alexandra, then in the Fourth Division, had done exceptionally well to earn themselves a replay against title-chasing Tottenham. And we're betting they regretted it about five minutes into the second game, which ended 13-2. Thirteen. A record win for Spurs, a record loss for Crewe, and record levels of Pathé-announcer-voice here as he tackles the word "avalanche".

HAT TIP

Over to Tony Evans at the Independent for a broad perspective on the apparent recent upsurge in football spectators taking ill while at the game. He makes the point that these aren't new: what's new is that games now stop while individuals are treated. This has great benefits from a medical point of view, but it also turns every such stoppage into a major incident that halts the game, which in turn brings delays, which then flags it up to the attention of anybody keeping an eye on the scores.
There is nothing new here but a change of attitude. Far from it foreshadowing doom, it is a positive development. First responders say that a break in play reduces the risk to the patient. It calms the crowd, it makes it easier for medics to move around because they are not blocking views and it allows them to focus and communicate without being distracted by shouting and chanting. Plus, it means club doctors can get involved if needed.

COMING UP

Maybe-favourites Egypt take on hosts Cameroon in the second AFCON semi-final, which looks juicier than the peach of your dreams. There's a fair amount of peachiness in the Copa del Rey as well: Real Sociedad vs. Real Betis, and Athletic Bilbao vs. Real Madrid.
Andi Thomas will be spending all day in the park trying to recreate Hutchinson's goal, but once he's popped his shoulder back in he'll be back with tomorrow's Warm-Up.
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