MONDAY’S BIG STORIES
Flipping Heck, part 1
As Emma Hayes said afterwards, it was over before it began. Which meant it wasn’t a particularly exciting game, even if it was, for the first half hour, a completely ridiculous one. A freak own goal after 30 seconds, a penalty after 12 minutes: there are ways to begin games against great possession teams, and this was the precise opposite of all them.
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Chelsea had their chances in all that early chaos. Pernille Harder could have reset the game in the second minute. But Barcelona took the two goals they were gifted and then made a couple more, as Chelsea wilted before their sharp movement and rat-a-tat passing. A one-nil deficit? Fine. Two is the most dangerous lead in football. But three leaves you in Liverpool territory, and four? Nobody’s coming back from that in one half. Not against a team this good.
Perhaps the only person with a harder job than Chelsea’s full-backs was the poor soul in charge of picking a player of the match. Uefa went for Aitana Bonmatí, and we’re not arguing… but then we wouldn’t have argued with Caroline Graham Hansen or Lieke Martens, who brutally exposed Chelsea’s flanks. Or one of the other midfielders: they were a brilliant unit. At least pass of the match was an easier call.
Obviously a closer game would have been more entertaining for the neutral and, at a guess, a little less crushing for the losing side. But it might not have been quite so instructive. Chelsea were essentially given a very public dressing down: all their faults ticked off in devastatingly public fashion. Which makes this not just a defeat, but a to-do list. A very stressful stress test.
After all, it did the job for the winners. Two years ago, Barcelona were on the wrong end of a thrashing in the final, taken apart 4-1 by Lyon. Now they’ve passed that chastening lesson on to Chelsea. Football can be cruel and it can be brutal. But when life gives you lemons, as the saying goes, make tactically nuanced, powerfully driven, brilliant lemonade. Then give the lemons to somebody else so they can have a go. It’s the circle of lemons.
Flipping Heck, part 2
Now, this is how you do the end of the season. All of the penultimate games on at the same time, and all with something riding on them: a relegation spot, European qualification, and of course the title. Well done La Liga. And welcome to another episode of Putting Yourself Through Hell, starring Diego Simeone and his Merry Mattress-Makers.
This torment has been long anticipated. It was happening as they opened up that huge gap early in the season. It was happening as the gap narrowed through the winter. It was happening when Real Madrid took the lead over Athletic Bilbao in the 68th minute. And it was definitely happening a few minutes later, when Atleti went one-down, at home, to Osasuna.
Real Madrid were now top of the league. And Atlético Madrid, as they always do, as they always must, were going to collapse and hand the trophy across the city.
Even Renan Lodi’s excellent equaliser didn’t change things enough: level on points, but still in second. A sharper agony. They needed a winner. They needed a paceless greying 34-year-old they’d picked up for buttons because his basketcase club wouldn’t know a useful player if they fell over one. Whose move to Italy had fallen through in farcical and possibly illegal fashion. And who hadn’t scored in a couple of months, but never mind that.
Football is a simple game. You play it for 90 minutes, or for a whole season, and then Luis Suárez just sort of happens.
He’s scored more spectacular goals, of course, and maybe one or two as important. But we can’t think of any that served to release so much tension, so much nervous energy. You can almost feel the stadium unwinding around him. This is presumably why he ended up at the bottom of the largest bundle in footballing history. Everybody ran over to celebrate and their legs just turned to jelly.
Atleti held on to win, which means they stay two points clear at the top, which means they are just 90 minutes from another title. Their last opponents are Real Valladolid, 19th and near-as-dammit relegated. And if we know one thing about Atleti, it’s that this game that they should win will be a comfortable experience and they certainly won’t do their best to stuff everything up. Oh no. Name on the trophy…
Flipping Heck, part 3
How Barclays are you? You are not Barclays enough. You are not, for instance, Alisson coming up for a last minute corner. You are not Alisson, wholly unmarked, leaping and twisting and putting a massive forehead on it. You are not Alisson sending the ball into the net and the nation into creases of baffled laughter.
All that to keep the race for fourth alive. Perhaps nobody has ever been quite so Barclays.
With Leicester and Chelsea busy over the weekend, winning the FA Cup and modelling their new kit respectively, Liverpool finally got their games in hand done. As one might expect, in this oh so sensible season, they were very good against Manchester United and powerfully ordinary against West Brom. But the Barclays is with them, and now Chelsea-Leicester on Tuesday becomes more than just a weird hungover echo of Wembley.
But Liverpool need to be careful. Barclays is a powerful force and cannot always be controlled. And perhaps the one thing that would be more Barclays than getting into the Champions League with a header from the goalkeeper would be doing that, and then missing out on goal difference.
IN OTHER NEWS
Tielemans’ goal: good. Schmeichel’s save: also good. This short film documenting the agony of VAR, the transitory nature of joy, and the precise speed at which adrenaline can leave the human body? Exceptional. (Parental advisory: explicit disappointment.)
Barnsley, who are thought to have a bottom-three budget, ran Chelsea close in the FA Cup in February and [manager Valérien] Ismaël believes that narrow defeat proved a “game-changer” in fuelling the squad’s belief about what was possible – they won nine of their following 10 games, drawing the other. “We could see that we can compete with top players,” says the forward Dominik Frieser. “It was a key moment that ‘we could go to the Premier League’.”
Watford are up by right. And Leicester have just won the FA Cup. But it’s always worth checking in with this extra-large slice of custard-covered footballing nonsense. You can’t beat the playoffs.
Here come the playoffs. And here come the fans, just in time. Bournemouth vs. Brentford, then Barnsley vs. Swansea. Glorious.
Ben Snowball will be here tomorrow. In the last minute. With his trackies on.
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