ENGLAND (AND SCOTLAND) EXPECTS
Not content with routing every European country in the Covid death stakes, England is now teaching them how to play football, again. It’s impossible to convey how hard it is to admit this but, for the first time in The Fiver’s lifetime, England might actually have the strongest league in the world. Premier League also-rans Chelsea’s disturbingly easy victory over La Liga leaders Atlético Madrid reinforced the feeling that, after almost three decades of ludicrous braggadocio about the Premier League being the best in the world, something has changed.
This, admittedly, is hard to reconcile with some of the erratic fiascos we have seen in domestic football this season. But the litmus test will always be European competition, and English teams have already seen off some of the finest in Spain, Germany and the Republic of North Macedonia. On Thursday, there’s a chance to add Italy to the list, with Manchester United visiting Milan in the kind of the tie that could give Big Vase a good name. Milan drew 1-1 in the first leg at Old Trafford, and were the better team, but United can be lethal away from home and nobody will remember last week’s performance if they do the necessary. It’s a huge game, almost as big as West Ham at home last Sunday. “The league is always the bread and butter and that’s when you see how capable you are,” roared Ole Gunnar Solskjær. “The cups are sometimes an ego thing for managers and clubs. It’s not like a trophy will say ‘we are back’, no. Sometimes the cup competitions can hide your progress a bit.”
In an unrelated development, José Mourinho is hoping to win his 26th trophy and his third Big Vase. His Spurs side have a 2-0 lead going into the second leg at Dinamo Zagreb. The Croatians will have a new coach, Damir Krznar, after Zoran Mamic signed a four-year contract with Big House FC. Spurs are likely to be joined in the quarter-finals by Arsenal, who are 3-1 ahead from the first leg and will have to work extremely hard if they are to embarrass themselves against Olympiakos for the second year running. Last, and definitely not least, are the Pope’s Newc O’Rangers, who host Slavia Prague after a 1-1 draw last week. $tevie Mbe’s side have had Solskjær’s cake and eaten it by making so much progress in the league that they won the bloody thing and got to lift a trophy as well. Anything that happens in Europe is a bonus, though it would be quite an achievement to reach the last eight for the first time since 2008.
The draw for both the quarter- and semi-finals of Big Cup and Big Vase will take place on Friday, and England could provide six of the 16 teams. That would be at least twice as many as any other country. On the back of the 2018-19 season, when all four finalists were English, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that any tea-time emails with an allergy to jingoism might want to spend the next few months at a digital retreat on the Kerguelen Islands.
LIVE ON BIG WEBSITE
Join Rob Smyth and Simon Burnton from 5.55pm GMT for hot clockwatch coverage of the Big Vase last-16 second legs.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“The matter was blown out of proportion as Fenwick only chose to express his disapproval of a certain member of the media fraternity being present at a scheduled media briefing. Apologies were exchanged and Fenwick and Fuentes have since agreed to put the incident behind them” – the Trinidad and Tobago FA denies reports that Terry Fenwick butted the national team’s media director Shaun Fuentes before a press conference on Wednesday.
“I like Belgium. They specialise in beer, chocolates and smothering chips in mayonnaise. But their latest little wheeze of combining their league with the Dutch top flight (yesterday’s News, Bits and Bobs) will only have one guaranteed outcome. Residents of Scotland will be subjected to acres of painful newspaper and social media disgrace coverage, as the grasping associates of the Old Firm make yet more ponderous claims that their clubs should be allowed to join the English Premier League, even if that league doesn’t particularly want them. Stop it now!” – Colin Reed.
“The infamous German police file Gewalttäter Sport that lists people potentially showing delinquent behaviour at future sporting events has had some new entries since March 2020 – from issue No 158 (March 2021) of Austrian football magazine Ballesterer. This came as no surprise to me, I must say. I knew there was something wrong with all the others” – Karl Leigart.
Send your letters to email@example.com. And you can always tweet The Fiver via @guardian_sport. Today’s winner of our prizeless letter o’the day is … Colin Reed.
Here’s Football Weekly Extra.
NEWS, BITS AND BOBS
The FA has confirmed that former Crewe manager Dario Gradi is “effectively banned for life” from football. It suggested an assessment concluded that Gradi, suspended since 2016, “could potentially cause or pose a risk of harm to children”. Meanwhile, the Offside Trust has called on Gradi to have his MBE revoked.
Morecambe midfielder Yann Songo’o is beginning a six-match suspension after using a homophobic slur in a League Two match against Tranmere.
Ollie Watkins and Sam Johnstone are in the England squad for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers, but Trent Alexander-Arnold has been cast aside. Full squad: Henderson (Manchester United), Johnstone (West Brom), Pope (Burnley); Chilwell (Chelsea), Coady (Wolves), Dier (Tottenham), James (Chelsea), Maguire (Manchester United), Mings (Aston Villa), Shaw (Manchester United), Stones (Manchester City), Trippier (Atlético Madrid), Walker (Manchester City); Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Foden (Manchester City), Lingard (West Ham), Mount (Chelsea), Phillips (Leeds), Rice (West Ham), Morris-Dancing Fiver (Fiver Towers), Ward-Prowse (Southampton); Calvert-Lewin (Everton), Kane (Tottenham), Rashford (Manchester United), Saka (Arsenal), Sterling (Manchester City), Watkins (Aston Villa).
Former Italy defender Daniele De Rossi is the Azzurri’s new technical coach, joing Roberto Mancini’s national team staff.
Charlton have named Nigel Adkins as their new manager. “I believe Nigel is the perfect personality, with the perfect background and the perfect experience to get us to where we want to be,” cooed owner Thomas Sandgaard.
And after a flamin’ spell with Newcastle Jets, Wales midfielder Joe Ledley has now rocked up at Newport County for the rest of the season.
STILL WANT MORE?
David Conn analyses the findings of the Sheldon report, and how the horror of sexual abuse managed to take hold in football.
Sid Lowe picks the bones out of Atlético’s defeat to Chelsea … and it’s not pretty.
Meanwhile, here’s Barney Ronay on a Chelsea goal that exemplified “the fevered, whirring dreams of Thomas Tuchel, waking at dawn murmuring about rejigs and combinations, the launch codes for an attack assembled last summer in the way you might sluice together a hopeful late-night omelette”.
David Hytner reckons Luke Shaw’s England recall rewards a player in the form of his life.
Oh, and if it’s your thing … you can follow Big Website on Big Social FaceSpace. And INSTACHAT, TOO!