It took us a little while to get fully on board with the Nations League, we must admit.
Maybe it was more to do with a more general disillusionment with the international game, and with the Republic of Ireland football team in particular, on our part.
When the Nations League was introduced – after the 2018 World Cup – watching Ireland wasn’t altogether that much fun.
Plus the competition itself felt little more than busy work to us, glorified friendlies. On that score we were dead wrong, we’re happy to acknowledge. It’s given teams something to play for, and graded as it is, progression is feasible even for a country of the size of Ireland.
The group the boys in green have been drawn in for this third edition of the competition offers enough of a competitive landscape to be challenging, yet not so vaulting as to make it impossible to do anything.
Ukraine will be big favourites for the group, not just because they’re the highest placed team on the world rankings, also obviously because of the wave of emotion that’s followed the invasion of their country by Russia (who have been barred from taking part).
After Ukraine, Scotland and Armenia complete the group with Ireland. Scotland are ranked a bit higher than Ireland, but Ireland should be competitive against Steve Clarke’s men (who faced Ukraine in a World Cup play-off mid-week as it happens, and lost).
First up for Ireland, however, are Armenia. Even though it’s away from home in Yerevan, it’s a relatively nice start to the campaign for Stephen Kenny’s men.
A chance to keep the good vibes going from when last they met – including that famous draw in a friendly with Belgium. Yes, we know friendlies aren’t worth a curse, but the vibes they produce can be useful.
Interestingly Udinese’s Festy Ebosele and Swansea’s Michael Obafemi are in the squad for this weekend. Exciting prospects. It’s a long way removed from the gloom of 2019.
Still for all those vibes, it’s time for Kenny and co to put something tangible on the table. Who knows, a Nations League run might be just the ticket.
Have Liverpool reached a plateau?
Just about everything about it was near perfection.
The floated pass, at just the right height once it arrived, with just the right amount of power to get it to where it needed to be and no more.
The way it was controlled. The touch Mo Salah showed to take it on. Then with the finish he couldn’t have done much better either and, yet, there to stop it again with another miraculous save was Thibaut Courtois.
For months to come when Reds everywhere have nightmares, the pallid visage of the Belgian number 1 is sure to be front and centre. His arms outstretched, the 6 ‘7 former Chelsea man in perpetual movement, forever denying Liverpool what they’ll feel was their due.
Even if Courtois is not quite Freddy Krueger, that didn’t stop the feeling of ever increasing dread the longer the game went on, the more saves he made.
Whatever about his rather bizarre contention that he wasn’t respected before the game, this was his final, his world and Liveprool were just living in it.
When Salah pounded the ground in utter frustration after that particular save we’ve referenced, he was channelling the mood of Reds everywhere. In the micro and the macro sense.
After the season Liverpool have just had, was this really how it was going to end? In frustration, despite playing all the football, despite piling on the pressure, despite creating chance after chance.
In frustration despite chasing the quadruple and carrying the fight longer than any club has ever managed before, despite taking the Premier League to the final day, and the Champions League all the way to Paris.
To be honest such was the quality of Liverpool’s play all season long – not to mention the resilience and cussedness they’ve shown along the way – the two domestic cups feel like scant reward at the end of it all.
In hindsight you’d even wonder if the FA Cup final was more hindrance than help, especially with Thiago Alcantara picking up that knock in Wembley.
Sure, the Spaniard played in Paris. One sublime first half pass aside, however, was he anywhere near his best against Real Madrid on Saturday evening? Not even close.
It might seem a bonkers thing to say, but for Liverpool’s season to be a genuine, unqualified success they needed to finish the job in the Stade de France.
Real and Courtois ensured that they didn’t. The best Liverpool team in generations denied by a force of nature, just as the Reds had been in the Premier League by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
One couldn’t conceivably ask Liverpool for much more. They were, as we’ve said, near perfection. And still they were denied.
Perhaps, we’re being overly dramatic here, but it’s possible that Liverpool might have hit their plateau.
It’s hard to imagine them spending enough to keep touch with City (or even to replace Sadio Mané who looks Bayern bound).
Thankfully Jurgen Klopp is on board for another four seasons. He might need to reinvent this team again.
Ferrari need to get their elbows out fast
It feels oddly appropriate that Roger Federer was in Monte Carlo last weekend for the Grand Prix. Why? Well let us explain.
As a tennis star the Swiss number 1 knows a thing or two about holding serve and, watching the action play out around the streets of the tiny principality, Federer no doubt must have winced as he witnessed Ferrari double fault their way to handing Red Bull another a win against the head.
The metaphor, we must admit, is not ours, but it feels too good not to use. All weekend long Ferrari had the quickest car, the fastest driver.
It was a circuit that played to their strengths. Their traction and acceleration out of slow corners is the envy of the pit-lane and that’s what Monaco is all about.
Red Bull’s straight line advantage? Irrelevant on the twisty circuit with barely a straight worthy of the name.
With pole position secured for the imperious Charles Leclerc and track position king in the race, it was all set up for the Scuderia to get their title challenge back on track (pardon the pun).
That Red Bull left with enhanced leads in both the drivers’ and the constructors’ championships marks a fairly significant change in the balance of power. It was a must win race for Ferrari and they lost it.
In what’s likely to be a tight championship race, on the days that favour you, you absolutely have to deliver. You have to hold the serve. Handing Red Bull a break of serve, well that’s just not good. Not good at all.
To be fair to the Milton Keynes outfit, it was more so that they pressurised Ferrari into those double faults.
Sunday’s race was by no means a straight forward one. With a drying track and changeable conditions, being on the right tyres at the right time was easier said than done, and Red Bull as the team, with less to lose, probably could afford to gamble that little bit more.
Nevertheless Ferrari seemed (judging by team radio) that much more spooked by both the conditions and the opposition.
It felt like the only person in red to have a clear idea of what to do was Carlos Sainz. No coincidence that he finished ahead of his desperately unlucky team-mate, whose home-town curse continues, albeit that he actually finished a race at home for the first time ever.
At least it was Sergio Perez and not Verstappen who got the win from Leclerc’s point of view.
Still it’s two races in-a-row that the one-time championship leader ought to have won and didn’t. In a season that’s sure to ebb and flow with certain tracks favouring Ferrari and others Red Bull, those are wounds that will be hard recovered from.
It means that Ferrari and Leclerc must go on the offensive, be a bit braver and bolder. In short they need to take a leaf out of Perez’ book. Red Bull are the clear favourites for the next race in Baku.
As Federer would not doubt tell Ferrari, the very best time to break back is right away.