THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

Here Come The England

For 45 minutes of last night's World Cup qualifier against Poland, everything was going to plan. England were a goal up, Poland had created nothing, and the nation was once again sliding into that kind of drowsy half-sleep that comes when a team have this much control. "Could be a little more exciting," remarked England to England, as they popped the kettle on.
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And then: it was! Be careful what you wish for. Poland came out brighter in the second half and, just before the hour, a good old-fashioned John Stones clanger gifted the visitors an equaliser. Cue nervousness, a hint of desperation, a collective national cry of "Why hasn't he made any subs yet?"
Then cue redemption. Stones made up for his fecklessness at one end with an excellent spring at the other, sending a corner ball bouncing down to Harry Maguire, who kicked it very hard through Wojciech Szczesny's hand and into the goal. So England got the win they wanted, and the nation got the excitement they wanted, and everybody went home happy. Well, except Poland.
For England, the optimistic read of the game is that they found a way. A penalty and a goal from a corner count just as much as any flowing team move, and you get just as many points for grinding out a win as you do for a hammering. And given that they were playing their third game in a week and every footballer in the world is knackered, we think that's probably fair enough. That's how tournaments tend to go.

Southgate praises Stones 'composure' after error against Poland

But Gareth Southgate's job is to wear waistcoats and worry about things, and he's all out of waistcoats. Probably. Actually he had a coat on, so we're not sure. Look, forget the waistcoat thing. The point is: England had control, and then they didn't. That's the kind of thing that managers fret about.
Obviously a lot of the credit there goes to Poland, who are a decent team even without Robert Lewandowski, and whose half-team tweaks brought them right back into the game. But we're betting that Southgate has been having thoughts, treacherous thoughts, about five at the back. Maguire Plus One, Covered With Rice is probably correct. It's also a little stressful.
Maybe we're overthinking things. Three wins from three, control of the group, an aggregate score of 9-1 for a week's work: that's all entirely acceptable. And the fact that this is what a bit of drama looks like just goes to show how spoiled England have been in recent years. Qualifying used to be a dangerous adventure. Now we're trying to find peril in actual victories.
One final thought. Harry Kane hit his penalty pretty hard. Jakub Moder gave the ball a decent smack as well; Pope had barely started moving before it was past him. And then Maguire gave it the full laces, nearly disarming Szczesny in the process. Just goes to show, it's a simple game. Kicking the ball at the goal is good. Kicking the ball really hard at the goal? Much better.

'Great reaction from Stones' - Maguire lauds England team-mate

Here Come The Minnows

Set against the rest of the continent's adventures, England's three wins look even better. You may recall, somewhere in the dim and distant days of last week, that England's easy win over San Marino reawakened the debate over whether Europe's smaller teams should be sent off to do their own thing. You know so they don't inconvenience their betters by occupying the same pitch, breathing the same air, pretending to be anywhere near as important or worthy.
Well, since then, the disrespect has been palpable. And delightful. First Luxembourg (ranked 98th in the world) beat the Republic of Ireland, while Malta (176th) gave Slovakia a terrible scare, taking a 2-0 lead and eventually a point. Then Armenia (99th) overturned everybody's favourite thunderclappers Iceland, while Georgia (89th) took Spain all the way to the last minute.
Into the second half of the break, and Latvia (136th) took a point off Turkey, while Cyprus (100th) took all three from Slovenia. And then yesterday. First Armenia beat Romania to make it three wins from three, putting them on top of Group J. And then North Macedonia (65th) went away to Germany, took the lead, got pegged back, and then won the flippin' game. It wasn't a fluke, either, although Timo Werner won't want to see this again.
You might remember the last time Germany lost a World Cup qualifier at home, Michael Owen scored a hat-trick.
For an explanation, we're torn between "Hey, weird stuff happens" and "Everybody's knackered". But as an illustration of why hiving the elite off from the rest would be an appalling act of cultural destruction, this will all do nicely. Perhaps San Marino are a degree or two worse than anybody else we've mentioned here. But better to live in a world where the upset is possible, even when it never arrives, than to let probability and snobbery destroy possibility for good.

Here Come The Chelsea

Meanwhile, over in club football, Chelsea's all-conquering women's team are through to the semi-finals of the Champions League. And in some style too. Having beaten Wolfsburg 2-1 at home in the first leg, they improved the trick away with three unanswered goals, those scorelines hinting at the underlying story. The first leg was ridiculous, everybody forgot how to defend, and it could have been any score. This time, Chelsea were in control.
How did they do it? Well, tactics glasses on, friends. Here is a fascinating mini-compilation of Chelsea manager Emma Hayes instructing, barracking, and encouraging Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder through their pressing jobs.

IN OTHER NEWS

Credit to Aidy Boothroyd: he called it. On Friday he declared that managing England U21s was an impossible job; on Saturday, his team went out and did everything they needed to do, only to lose to this.

RETRO CORNER

England's relentless competence naturally sent our mind drifting back to stranger and more chaotic days: that 3-2 loss to Croatia. Do you know, we'd forgotten just how soft that penalty was. And just how far into the box England were when it was taken. VAR would have melted down.

HAT TIP

On the off-chance you missed it over the weekend, the Observer ran a nice long feature on Forest Green Rovers and their sustainability revolution. It's about a lot more than vegan food, apparently. So, er, here's a nice quote about the vegan food.
They sell the fans pies, sausage rolls and burgers, chips and gravy, all plant-based, as well as options that are not imitating meat. Away supporters, the club chef Jade Crawford tells me, mockingly turn up in butchers’ aprons. They chant "Where’s your burger van?" But, she says, the products she offers "sell out, so they must like them". Some home fans "said at first they were a bit annoyed about it. They said they might stop coming, but they tried the food and said it was really good."

COMING UP

The international break may be over, but Bayern Munich will be looking to set up a semi-final against Chelsea: they take a 3-0 lead into the second leg of their women's Champions League quarter-final against Rosengård. And there's football in La Liga 2. There's always football in La Liga 2.
And Tom Adams will be here tomorrow to pick over the ashes of the international break and get all hyped about the return of the Premier League.
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