FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES

Flaky Foxes

These days, it makes little sense to talk about a Premier League manager or team having a problem in Europe. Football is at once a globalised and an EPL-centric thing: there is nothing lurking out there, on the continent, that can't also be found in England. Often the English version is better funded, too.
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But by way of contradiction, Brendan Rodgers teams do seem to have something of a problem in Europe. Across Liverpool, Celtic, and now Leicester, the record is consistent: relative domestic strength that doesn't quite translate into appropriate European progress. Last night's 3-2 loss to Napoli can perhaps be blamed, for the most part, on Leicester's depleted squad, or alternatively on Napoli being a very good football team. But last night's elimination came after six games of inconsistent goalscoring and profoundly wobbly defending.
It was, in the final analysis, the two home draws that did it for them. Couldn't quite keep Napoli out in September; couldn't quite overcome Spartak in November. Finished two points behind both of them. Although it could have been different, since football is a silly game. Twenty-two players run around for 90 minutes and then, at the end, it all comes down to a bloke standing over a penalty more than a thousand kilometres away.
You knew he was missing from the moment the commentator said "former Tottenham player."
Perhaps it's simply a question of fixture multiplication. Europe may no longer be a place of mystery and wonder and crack eastern European outfits, but it is still two games a week rather than one. Leicester's first team can go toe-to-toe with anybody in the Premier League, but injuries plus a crowded calendar make things a little sketchy.
Or perhaps it's a mental block. That's certainly Rodgers' explanation, or at least the part of his explanation that he's willing to share with us…
There is a lot of naivety in our team, with a lot of young players and it has been a big demand for them this season. We have played a number of systems but individually it comes down to having that mentality to track a runner or stop a cross. We were good offensively but it was nowhere near good enough.
… although, of course, he would say that, because that's always what managers say. Footballers and coaches love to talk about mentality because it feels like a problem that can be solved: everybody just has to concentrate a bit better, to want it a bit more. "I've got no idea how to organise these clowns" isn't quite such a solvable problem. Still, one thing is certain. With every dodgy performance from his uninjured colleagues, Wesley Fofana's reputation increases.

NAPLES, ITALY - DECEMBER 09: Eljif Elmas of SSC Napoli (obscured) celebrates with teammates after scoring their team's third goal during the UEFA Europa League group C match between SSC Napoli and Leicester City at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on Decembe

Image credit: Getty Images

After the game, Rodgers professed not to know anything about the Europa Conference League - "I've got to be honest I don't even know what the competition is," he told BT Sport. "I was focused on the Europa League and winning this group and at the very least finishing second. But I am sure I will find out soon enough." - which doesn't exactly suggest that Leicester will be taking it too seriously. You'd understand if he decided to sack it off entirely and play the kids, in the interests of protecting his fragile first-teamers.
But perhaps that would be an error, and not just an error of arrogance. A deep run in this new competition wouldn't just be a bright thread through a so-far muted season, a swing at some silverware. It would also serve to offset this peculiar record of European underachievement that Rodgers and Leicester share. Reputations are sticky things, and when the chance to scrape one off comes along, it's probably worth taking.

Liquid Europa

The big innovation in the Europa League this season is the knockout round. It has replaced the last-32, which is good, because honestly the last-32 was far too big to take seriously. Half the size, twice the fun. And it's an elegant solution to the sudden arrival of eight extremely annoyed Champions League teams: point them at the equally annoyed group stage runners-up and let them work through their feelings with each other.
Not all on the same pitch at the same time. Although that would be great. Something to consider for the future.
Obligingly, the shenanigans in the Champions League have given us a fine collection of drop outs: Atalanta, Borussia Dortmund, Porto. Some chancers called "Barcelona", too. Don't know who they are. All told, we've got exactly what the Europa League has always struggled for in the early knockout stages: the potential for some seriously enticing fixtures.
In itself, the Conference League may not quite have captured Brendan Rodgers' imagination. But the knock-on effect for the Europa League has been wholly positive. It's amazing what debloating a competition can do.

Return Of The Protocols

Following on from last night's cancelled Europa Conference game, Tottenham's game against Brighton at the weekend has also been called off, as the club attempt to manage an outbreak of Covid-19 in the first-team. But the consequences will be broader than just a fixture pile-up in north London: according to the Telegraph, the Premier League and the Football League have brought back emergency Covid measures.

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New measures from the Football League include keeping goalkeepers apart as much as possible, staggered shifts for meals and gym sessions, and the minimisation of close contacts across first and reserve teams. The stated priority, with Christmas and its packed schedule looming on the horizon, is "to avoid decimating squad numbers"; the underlying message is that as well as the obvious health priorities, English football is not ready for a clatter of postponements.
The really eye-catching move from the Football League is the suggestion — and it seems to be a suggestion, rather than a requirement — that teammates be grouped together, on coaches and elsewhere, in accordance with their vaccination status. Call us cynical, but if we don't have the papers trying to work out who has had their jabs and who hasn't, on the basis that players are suddenly getting off the bus in a different order, then we'll be very surprised.
Add to all this the new requirements for fans to demonstrate either vaccination or a negative test, and it seems clear that football's slow creep back towards normality has been arrested. Fingers crossed, then, that this negotiated abnormality has the desired effect, and keeps thing going while keeping everybody safe. Covidball isn't perfect for anybody, but it's a clear sight better than no football at all.

IN OTHER NEWS

A while ago, a friend asked the Warm-Up the following question: if we'd been a professional footballer, and over our career we'd scored precisely one goal, what kind of goal would we like to have scored? At the time we couldn't decide between "something brilliant like Maradona's second goal against England" and "something funny like Maradona's first goal against England", but looking back, both answers were wrong. The correct answer was something like this …

HAT TIP

Over to the Athletic's Andy Mitten for a frankly delightful interview with Dwight Yorke. Subjects covered include unfair stereotyping, the lack of opportunities for black coaches, and Yorke's preparations for management. It also includes the line "Was Darren Fletcher world class? John O’Shea? Nicky Butt? Phil Neville? No," which is quite funny if you remove all the context like we just did.
Anyway, if Yorke is half as good a coach as he is an interviewee, he's going to win everything. Somebody give him a job immediately.
You never hear a manager say that he wants to go out and be defensive because fans don’t want to hear that, so I’m not going to be joining any bandwagon. I’ll look at the players and make the best decision so that a team can win a game, how we can unlock opponents, break them down. I’d like a team to be comfortable in two or possibly three formations and to change these — even within a game if needed.

COMING UP

The Premier League returns with Brentford against Watford, which nobody is calling The Ford Derby. There's also a smorgasbord of other league games across Europe, and the Scottish Open snooker continues on Eurosport.
Have a good weekend everybody. Tom Adams will be here on Monday with some mournful reflections on whatever Arsenal have been up to.
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