And there it is, international football in all its glory. England v Iceland in Tirana, Albania, in a clash that has already been described as — to borrow a line from Mitchell and Webb — on next Wednesday.
Why? What the hell? Truly, is there any scenario more ludicrous than England’s players, already reeling from the hectic start to the season, flying more than 1,500 miles across the continent to fulfil a schedule for a competition that seems less relevant with every passing day?
By the time the plane departs it is possible this will be the deadest of rubbers. Iceland could already be confirmed as bottom of UEFA Nations League A Group Two, England could no longer have a chance to win it.
England’s exhausted players could be asked to fly 1,500 miles to face Iceland in Albania
Yet even if the countries were joint top, would it really matter? England coach Gareth Southgate has already taken his team to the finals. It was good experience, but little more.
It is not the World Cup, or the European Championship. It is not even the League Cup of international competition. It is the Full Members Trophy. Yet no one at UEFA is prepared to recognise that. No one is ready to put the Nations League and international friendlies in their rightful place, and abandon them in the common good, for now.
What is at stake? Future seedings? Seriously? Not the European Championship qualifiers. There is a major tournament to be played in 2021 we hope, and UEFA need to know who is in and out. Those games have to be played for the successful maintenance of the sport, like UEFA club competitions and domestic leagues.
Yet the risks involved in the rest of it, and bizarre solutions such as the trip to Albania, are putting into sharp relief the dangerous stubbornness of football’s administrators in the face of this pandemic.
England coach Gareth Southgate has already taken his team to European Championship
These people, remember, will soon have to address a summer tournament that is currently slated to be spread across the continent, at a time when it has never been more hazardous or foolish to travel.
In recent months, speculation has been growing that the 2021 European Championship will be sensibly shifted to one country. Yet last week it emerged that, no, UEFA were sticking to the original strategy. A competition in London, Baku, Munich, Rome, St Petersburg, Budapest, Amsterdam, Bucharest, Bilbao, Glasgow, Dublin and Copenhagen was still going ahead.
What could possibly go wrong? A coronavirus mutation in 15million Danish mink — that is what could go wrong. Substitute any animal in any country and that is the world of barely conceivable possibility we inhabit right now. Danish mink farms are November’s pandemic problem, by the summer it could be something else.
And the wider the tournament is spread, the more chance there is of impact. The current crisis, which affects Iceland’s match against Denmark, and therefore England’s fixture with Iceland, makes travel to Copenhagen a threat. And that is a city scheduled to host three group games, plus a round-of-16 fixture next summer.
By then, the mink scare should have long passed. Yet another emergency could unfold in any one of UEFA’s other 11 cities, or its 24 qualifying nations.
England may have no chance to win group while Iceland could be bottom before their game
Talk of vaccines always brings hope, but no more than that. There are no guarantees, and a thousand possibilities. In many ways, this latest development should be guiding UEFA towards sensible solutions and alternatives. Instead the prospect of a trip to Tirana next week shows how obdurate they have become.
Do they seriously believe the Nations League needs to be prioritised at this time? It is an artificial competition, forced into a calendar that is already straining at the seams.
It would do no harm at all if every country bar those involved in European Championship qualification simply used this international break for training camps. That way players could decide to travel, or not, based on health and safety requirements and quarantine regulations.
In many ways, this was UEFA’s test. This was a chance for the governing body to look beyond self-regard.
Instead, as Europe’s borders close, Tirana here we come. Where are the FA in all of this? What if we just said no? That might actually constitute leadership. So don’t count on it.
Why smaller clubs will not play ball on substitutions
Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola wanted the freedom to make 10 substitutions when their teams played on Sunday. They could have made six. They actually made three, Klopp two, Guardiola one. So that’s not the fault of Richard Masters or the Premier League.
Both managers were scathing about the strain this truncated season is placing on their players and they undoubtedly have a point. Equally, Klopp gave the game away when he came up with his compromise.
‘If the 14 teams say they don’t want it, at least let us sub five times when the top six play each other,’ he said.
And there it is: them and us, six versus 14. That’s why they can’t get anything through. An elite cabal of Premier League clubs began having their own meetings, to advance their own agendas, and alienated the rest. Now even reasonable requests are met with suspicion and resistance.
Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola want the Premier League to allow five substitutions per match
This extends to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s complaint about Manchester United’s Saturday lunchtime kick-off. He’s right. It does seem ludicrous that a team returning from Istanbul at 4am on Thursday should be the early starters. A very simple understanding with broadcasters that those playing away in Europe on the previous Wednesday should not be considered for a kick-off earlier than 3pm on Saturday would resolve this.
It is common sense yet, at the same time, why would a club beyond the elite support change? The Big Six have already claimed these UEFA competitions and their spoils as if by right. Every rule amendment they propose makes it less likely a smaller club can break through or succeed. They are even discussing turning the Champions League into a closed shop. So what incentive is for there for Brighton, say, to support an elite cause?
How much understanding did the Premier League’s wealthiest show for those threatened by relegation when they were pushing for a resolution by points per game, at whatever cost? What do Aston Villa owe them, considering the elite would have cut them loose in the Championship had a restart not been possible?
The league is skewed in favour of the cabal and one of the only chances the 14 have when they meet is that they might face an elite squad tired after a hard night in Europe, with scant opportunity for recovery. Didn’t work for Everton on Saturday, though, doesn’t work for many clubs really.
They called for rule change after Alexander-Arnold became latest star to suffer a muscle injury
United and Liverpool have returned from Turkey on 11 occasions this century and won nine of their subsequent league games, with two draws — and one of those was on Monday at Fulham five days after a Wednesday fixture. But there’s always hope.
So while the players are caught panting in the middle, the continued stand-off between the clubs is a result of ongoing political skulduggery.
Take the Boston Consultancy Group that have been appointed to assist with the Premier League’s review provoked by Project Big Picture. Much has been made of the Liverpool connection, given that Fenway Sports Group is based in Boston. Yet Boston Consultancy are mainly used by Ferran Soriano of Manchester City, to the extent that previous reports and recommendations from them have been commissioned by him, and placed before the Premier League on Manchester City headed paper.
Klopp and Guardiola would like to make this black and white, a battle between those who care for player welfare and the heartless owners who would see their employees run into the ground. As usual, it’s more complex than that.
Klopp and Guardiola are coaches, so we must believe that they would feel the same if in charge of Burnley or Brighton. The problem is the impasse among the owners, which is why those at the helm of the cabal despise the democracy of one club one vote. It means they cannot bend football to their will just yet — and they object to that even more than injured talent.
All is not lost for Burnley
If Burnley fail to beat Crystal Palace a week on Saturday, it will be only the third time in English football history that three teams in the top division are still without a win after eight games.
However, on the previous two occasions, four out of those six teams stayed up. In 1973-74, Stoke, West Ham and Birmingham remained in the old Division One, with Stoke even finishing in fifth place.
In 2018-19, only Cardiff and Huddersfield dropped, with Newcastle ending up safe by 11 points and 29 goals. It just shows how a season can change.
Still, for the record, it would be interesting to hear how keen Sheffield United and Burnley are on those points-per-game calculations they supported so wholeheartedly last year.
History is on Burnley’s side if they fail to win again when they face Crystal Palace next
Bielsa’s free-flowing style not the be-all and end-all
Marcelo Bielsa is the hipster’s choice among Premier League managers, and it is true Leeds can play lovely, ambitious football.
They are also going into the international break in 15th place, having lost back to back matches 4-1, meaning Bielsa is currently trailing Steve Bruce, David Moyes, Roy Hodgson and Dean Smith. Cosmic.
There may be no end to Mason’s England exile
There has been some surprise that while Phil Foden has returned to the England fold, Mason Greenwood has not. Gareth Southgate explains that Foden is simply getting more football, and numbers bear this out.
Since England last played on October 14, Foden has been given more than twice as many minutes as Greenwood, 324 to 159. He has started three of Manchester City’s seven games, and appeared as a substitute a further three times. Greenwood has started twice and been a substitute twice.
Plainly, too, England have several contenders for Greenwood’s role, whereas Foden’s talent is unique in the English game. Yet what this demonstrates above all is that opportunities are fleeting in international football. A player takes his chance and, if he does not, the way forward narrows as quickly as it opened.
England boss Gareth Southgate has other options for Mason Greenwood’s role
Usually this is determined by performances on the field or in training. Fabio Capello thought Scott Parker was too quiet during practice matches and cut him from his 2010 World Cup squad. Ryan Shawcross walked on to a Zlatan Ibrahimovic hat-trick during a 16-minute substitute appearance in a friendly with Sweden and was never picked again.
Greenwood made his mistake in the team hotel in Reykjavik, but its ramifications could set him back, just the same.
Not Portugal? You must be joking, Wolves
A harmless joke from Leicester on social media upset Wolves head coach Nuno Espirito Santo. Before playing Sporting Braga in the Europa League, and with the Wolves match to follow, Leicester’s official account tweeted: ‘The first of two games against Portuguese opponents this week…’ Wolves have seven Portuguese players and the coach and most of his staff are from that country.
‘I think it’s a bad use of the social network,’ said Nuno.
‘We are a Premier League club, an English club, a West Midlands club and we represent the fans and Wolverhampton.’
Wolves winger Adama Traore (above) in the Portugal-inspired 2020-21 third kit
Fair enough. So why do Wolves look like Portugal then, rather than Wolverhampton Wanderers? Wolves wear gold and black and have done since 1891. Yet at Leeds on October 19 this year, when there was absolutely no colour clash, they inexplicably ran out in a third kit, maroon shirt and shorts with green socks — pretty much the same colours as Portugal.
‘Wolves unveil Portugal-inspired 2020-21 third kit,’ announced the Wolverhampton Express and Star on September 18, and one can presume as a local newspaper they do not set out to antagonise.
So Wolves knew exactly what they were doing, acknowledging their Portuguese influence in a bid to boost shirt sales. Indeed, they have prioritised this over their true identity by wearing the Portugal knock-off. The fact is, Wolves could look like Wolves in 38 matches this season, the most they would ever need to do is change their black shorts to gold. Instead, they disguise themselves as Portugal. So let’s not pretend.
Lookman won’t get another Look-in from the spot
Nobody can accuse Ademola Lookman of lacking confidence. Even after taking one of the poorest penalties in recent memory, which cost Fulham a point at West Ham, he wasn’t backing down.
‘I take full responsibility,’ said Lookman of his disastrous Panenka attempt, as if anybody else could be blamed.
‘I vow to put the next one in.’ Next one? That’s chutzpah. Give the man a round of applause, just don’t give him the ball.
Fulham forward Ademola Lookman had no place to hide after his shocking penalty miss
Would top-flight clubs bail out Derby if £15bn man takes over?
Were Sheik Khaled Bin Zayed Al Nehayan to buy Derby, it would be interesting to see the reaction of the Premier League club owners if required to produce bailout funds for a club owned by a man worth £15billion.