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‘Incredible’ Ibrahima Konate was worth the wait…

Mon, 09/20/2021 - 04:58
Patience has been a virtue for Ibrahima Konate.

Liverpool’s £35 million signing from RB Leipzig spent the opening month of the season watching from the bench.

Rather than throw his new recruit straight in, Jurgen Klopp opted to play Joel Matip alongside the commanding Virgil van Dijk.

The manager believed Liverpool would benefit most from the understanding that existed between two experienced centre-backs who had recovered from serious injuries. He also felt that Konate needed more time on the training field to adapt to what was expected from him tactically.

Klopp reassured the young French defender that his time would come and Saturday’s hard-fought victory over Crystal Palace gave him the opportunity to showcase why he was Liverpool’s No 1 transfer target this summer. He did not disappoint.

Konate completed 48 of his 55 passes (87 per cent) and made three tackles, three clearances, two blocks and an interception. He got better the longer the game went on.

“We all saw what kind of potential the boy has — it’s incredible,” said Klopp. “Physicality, technique, game understanding, it’s all there. He’s in a really good way. There is a lot more to come from him.”

Konate was too strong for Wilfried Zaha when danger lurked in the first half and then too quick for Christian Benteke as he tracked back to snuff out the threat of the former Liverpool striker.

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Solanke: Being at Chelsea and Liverpool was like taking a Master’s degree in being a striker

Sun, 09/19/2021 - 05:10
Dominic Solanke has a confession to make.

“In my senior career, this is the best frame of mind I have ever been in,” he tells The Athletic. “I am scoring regularly, which is something I have enjoyed doing since I was a young boy. I’m just happy that it’s going well at the moment.”

He celebrated his 24th birthday this week by scoring in Bournemouth’s 2-1 win over Queens Park Rangers. It was Solanke’s fifth goal in six appearances and his impressive form is helping the Championship club make a strong start to their promotion bid.

Life couldn’t be going much better for the one-time England international right now. People are taking note of his performances again and the striker’s vast potential looks like it is being realised.

This is some turnaround given the number of setbacks he suffered after making his Chelsea debut six weeks after his 17th birthday.

Solanke will never forget the day Jose Mourinho singled out him and two close academy friends, Lewis Baker and Izzy Brown, for praise. The club were on a pre-season tour and the Chelsea manager was being asked about the club’s prospects of bringing youth talent into the first-team squad.

“My conscience is simple,” Mourinho said. “If, in a few years, Baker, Brown and Solanke are not national team players, I should blame myself. When they become Chelsea players, they will become England players, almost for sure.”

Three months later, it appeared Mourinho was going to be accurate as far as Solanke was concerned. The striker became the club’s youngest debutant in the

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Sadio Mane’s Liverpool century

Sun, 09/19/2021 - 05:08
Sadio Mane, welcome to the hundred club.

The Senegal international’s first-half finish against Crystal Palace at Anfield saw him join an elite an illustrious group. Mane is the 18th player in Liverpool’s 128-year history to score 100 goals or more for the club. He reached the feat in 224 appearances and is the 10th quickest to reach the landmark.

The 29-year-old’s strike against Palace means he is the only player in Premier League history to score against the same opponent in a run of nine games. A day of records for the winger then.

The Athletic have taken a look back at some of his best work in a Liverpool shirt as well as a full breakdown of the century.

Arsenal, 2016

Where better to start than at the beginning of Mane’s Liverpool odyssey?

The road to his hot 100 started at the Emirates, two months after he joined the club from Southampton under scepticism over his £34 million price tag.

Mane, initially dispatched as a right winger before Mohamed Salah’s arrival the following season, latched onto Adam Lallana’s pass and left defenders Nacho Monreal and Calum Chambers in his wake as he weaved his way into the Arsenal box. He then knitted an excellent finish beyond Petr Cech.

Not only is this a spectacular solo jaunt but it is remembered for the celebrations too.

Instead of legging it to the South East corner, which was going berserk, Mane wanted to thank the man who brought him to Liverpool. Pointing out Jurgen Klopp on the touchline, Mane proceeded to jump on the back of his new boss.

A moment immortalised in tweet form by James Pearce.

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Homebaked: The bakery that embodies the soul of Liverpool

Sat, 09/18/2021 - 04:59
“Me nerves are shot,” says Lily Aitchison. The mum of one is working her first match-day shift at Homebaked — a community-owned bakery that opened in 2013 and is located directly across the road from Anfield.

The Athletic has been invited to work a match day at the cafe renowned for its award-winning selection of pies.

Laura Aney and Evie Mock are the other young women working behind the counter. They make conversation with me as I stand near the doorway that looks out onto the Sir Kenny Dalglish Stand.

Luke McKay had been my point of contact in the weeks prior but the Everton fan, who runs the marketing side of things at Homebaked, is already on a coach to Brighton away. In an exchange of messages the night before he reminds me to ask for Angela and to wear comfy clothes.

Angela is also a McKay. In fact, the Homebaked operations manager is Luke’s mum. When she comes to collect me from the front there is a phone clamped between her ear and shoulder. The card machine isn’t working, a problem Angela is keen to resolve with eight and a half hours until Liverpool kick off against Chelsea and with around 800 pies to sell in that time.

While on hold, Angela roots out a black apron and blue hairnet for me to wear. She gestures for me to sign in and I am given a locker.

Once the card machine has been revived, Angela then gathers her staff, which is also made up of her niece Jamie-Leigh Dooley and close friend Julie Coyle — the latter of whom is introduced to me as “Our Ju”.

Last week, the team had completed their “first proper match day” in 18 months as Liverpool hosted Burnley. Angela is congratulating her team for their hard work but knows this Saturday with the kick-off slot scheduled for a later time of 5.30pm it is going to be “chaotic”.

After Angela’s pep talk is over the group conversation switches to who supports who.

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Shearer meets Carroll: ‘I thought I would finish my career at Newcastle. I’ve still got so much to give’

Fri, 09/17/2021 - 05:15
The first time Andy Carroll left Newcastle United, he was flown to Liverpool in Mike Ashley’s helicopter. Funny what a £35 million transfer fee can get you. The second time was a bit of a contrast; no announcement from his hometown club, no chance to say goodbye or empty his locker at the training ground and definitely no helicopter. Just a contract tailing off and a cold, familiar silence.

Andy isn’t bitter. Football rolls on, a hype-powered juggernaut, and the big man wants to roll with it. At 32, he doesn’t have a club currently, but he is keeping himself fit, training every day and waiting for a chance. “I want to play for as long as possible,” he says and the frustration is that his return to St James’ Park in 2019, which carried a tang of romance — he described it as “a dream” — did not pan out as he would have liked.

By the end, any notion of romance was dead. Is that fair, I ask him? “Yes, definitely,” he says, speaking over Zoom from his home in Essex. “I thought I was going to be finishing at Newcastle. I thought that was going to be me for the next four or five years. It didn’t happen and it didn’t happen for many reasons … To be honest, it was really hard for me, not playing when I thought I could have made a difference.”

That frustration is heightened by the number of games Andy has missed when he could not make a difference. At this stage of his career, time is fragile. “There’s still unfinished business,” he says. “I didn’t really get a run out at Newcastle. I was in, I was out, I was in again. And I was fit all season. The stats say that for 43 games, I was available for 40 of them.

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EFL chief Rick Parry: Why English football needs a reset

Fri, 09/17/2021 - 05:10
At the grimmest point in the pandemic for football, when nobody knew for certain what the future looked like across the entire game, it was predicted that a lot of clubs in the EFL — as many as a quarter by some estimates — would go out of business.

What followed was the curtailment of a season followed by a campaign played out in almost its entirety in front of empty stadiums. But despite revenues disappearing, the clubs survived — at least, for the time being.

On Sunday, September 19, it will be two years since Rick Parry was appointed as the EFL’s chair. He started the job five weeks later and four months after that, the whole world was turned upside down. An already challenging terrain for the organisation’s members became a lot worse very quickly.

The feeling is calmer now. Football is back, grounds are open, and attendances are encouraging. Yet in March 2020, Parry shared the concerns of those who claimed things would never be the same. Without the resilience of the owners in the EFL, the landscape now would have been very different.

“They have been phenomenal,” Parry tells The Athletic. “Owners tend to get a rough ride but, on this occasion, I think it needs to be acknowledged it would have been impossible to get through the period without their commitment. We had to stay relevant.”

Parry knows, however, that such praise should not deflect from the problems that remain in football. He says the pandemic has “highlighted a lot of the challenges our clubs face,” when “we should have been talking more seriously about a financial reset anyway”.

Though the EFL and its clubs’ owners found a way to navigate their way through the last 18 months, it remains a reality that in the 2018-19 season, clubs relied on more than £400 million in terms of owner subsidy.

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With most of Europe’s top sides in transition, this could be another good year for English clubs in the Champions League

Fri, 09/17/2021 - 05:03
This season’s opening round of Champions League group matches was dominated by the sense that most of Europe’s top sides are in transition.

Of the 12 clubs considered to have a vaguely decent chance of winning the 2021-22 competition by the bookmakers — Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona and Inter Milan — the vast majority have undergone at least one significant change to their playing identity over the summer.

More specifically: they’ve either lost a key attacker which will necessitate a change of approach, they’re busy trying to accommodate a new key attacker, or they’ve changed their manager. Few are immune from such upheaval, with the big English clubs notable exceptions.

The three clubs to have lost key attackers are Barcelona, Inter and Juventus. Two of them were defeated in their opening group game. Barcelona were absolutely thrashed at the Nou Camp by a Bayern side playing at half-pace and Ronald Koeman’s side failed to record a single shot on target in a bleak demonstration of their current plight.

For years, the all-round brilliance of Lionel Messi hid Barcelona’s steady decline into the current shambolic outfit, but his departure has left them bereft of serious quality.

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Fantasy Premier League: the Ronaldo, Lukaku, Salah dilemma and how to get them all in your team

Thu, 09/16/2021 - 17:00
Is it viable to have a team that includes Mohamed Salah (£12.5 million), Cristiano Ronaldo (£12.6 million) and Romelu Lukaku (£11.6 million) in FPL?

That’s the hot topic in the community going into Gameweek 5.

All three players delivered last weekend, scoring five goals between them, which has managers considering whether it’s worth going with all three points-machines…

For this week’s column, I’ve put together two teams, one fitting in all three big hitters and one with just two of them, so you can get an idea of what each approach looks like.

Hopefully, this will help you decide which path to take over the next few weeks.

Trent Alexander-Arnold (£7.5 million) is in both teams. A player at his price who is averaging 8.5 points per game this season is simply undroppable. But keeping him makes it very tricky to squeeze in all three premiums. The squad needs to be trimmed significantly around the edges.

The teams below were created using my team value.

Here’s the Three Premiums Team…

I feel 4-4-2 is the best formation to go for if you want to fit all of Salah, Ronaldo and Lukaku in.

Looking at this draft hurts my eyes, though.

First, the bench is very weak. It would be made up of Tino Livramento (£4.1 million), Moussa Sissoko (£4.

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Liverpool have enjoyed a more iconic fightback against AC Milan – but this was still immensely satisfying

Thu, 09/16/2021 - 06:42
If there is one nagging concern about Liverpool’s ability to compete for the biggest prizes this season, it surrounds the depth of Jurgen Klopp’s squad compared to their rivals.

It’s a lively topic brought into sharp focus by a quiet end to the transfer window and the subsequent loss of Harvey Elliott for most of the season with a serious ankle injury.

Klopp has a star-studded starting XI capable of beating anyone but does he really have enough in reserve to be able to handle the challenges ahead? Will Liverpool pay the price for not splashing the cash this summer?

A thrilling victory over AC Milan in their Champions League opener at Anfield added weight to the manager’s bullish claims that he’s got what he needs. Tougher tests lie ahead but this was a productive night for some of those on the fringes.

Klopp gambled by giving Virgil van Dijk the night off and consigning Sadio Mane and Thiago to bench duty. In their absence, others stepped up and delivered. Not least Divock Origi, who gave another kiss of life to an Anfield career which had long since looked beyond rescuing.

Having not even made the bench for the previous three games, the Belgian striker was brought in from the cold and tasked with leading the line. It was his first start in all competitions since January.

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Milan are back – but this is just the start of a long Champions League journey for Pioli’s young team

Thu, 09/16/2021 - 05:00
By the time a sense of calm returned to Anfield at the end of a raucous evening, AC Milan’s young players were back in the dressing room, reflecting on what might have been, and Paolo Maldini was standing on the touchline, taking it all in and no doubt thinking how much he would have loved playing on a Champions League night like this.

Maldini made 135 appearances in the European Cup over a 20-year period, including eight finals, but the Milan teams he represented with distinction never played at this madhouse. Anfield is one of those places where, as a defender, you have to maintain your focus and keep your head while all about you are losing theirs. To a grand old age, Maldini excelled at that.

In those days, stretching from the late 1980s to the late 2000s, Milan were the great aristocrats of the European football scene — “a point of reference,” as Maldini put it before this game. It was unthinkable that they might endure a seven-year exile from this competition or that, when they finally returned to the Champions League stage, it would be as outsiders.

Even Maldini, who is now their technical director, might not have been too surprised that Milan’s first Champions League game since March 2014 ended in defeat. But the fascinating thing was the nature of that defeat. At times early on, Milan’s youngsters looked overwhelmed, totally out of their depth against a truly rampant Liverpool side. But against the run of the play they scored twice to lead 2-1 at half-time, only for Liverpool to claim a 3-2 win thanks to Jordan Henderson’s crisp first-time shot in the 69th minute.

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Loris Karius: Dogged by misfortune or his own worst enemy?

Wed, 09/15/2021 - 05:04
“I’m sorry,” mouthed Loris Karius, his hands apologetically held up to the devastated supporters in the stand in front of him.

As the tears streamed down his face, he was begging for forgiveness. The biggest night of his career had turned into a nightmare.

“I know that I messed it up with the two mistakes and let you all down. I’d just like to turn back the time but that’s not possible,” he later posted on social media.

The Champions League final is the pinnacle of club football. Shine, and your heroic deeds echo for eternity. It’s why names such as Jerzy Dudek, Djimi Traore, Vladimir Smicer and Divock Origi are now cemented in Anfield folklore.

But when it goes so painfully wrong, there is no hiding place.

From the depths of despair against Real Madrid in Kyiv, glory soon followed for Jurgen Klopp’s side, but it was achieved without Karius after Liverpool invested £65 million in Alisson less than two months after that 3-1 defeat to Gareth Bale and company.

Over three years later, the German goalkeeper continues to be defined by the events of May 26, 2018.

Medical tests carried out in the days that followed showed Karius was concussed when he inexplicably rolled the ball straight to Karim Benzema, who scored the first goal of the night, and then made a hash of Bale’s long-range strike that made it 3-1. Moments before the Benzema goal, he had been struck in the head by Sergio Ramos’s stray elbow at a corner, and the offence had gone unpunished.

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‘The ball, the song, the dream’ – The Champions League isn’t perfect, but it is a reminder of what we almost lost

Tue, 09/14/2021 - 05:15
In those head-spinning few days last April, when 12 of Europe’s leading clubs came together to declare the end of football as we knew it — only for half of them to lose their nerve within 48 hours and pull out — something interesting happened.

There was an outpouring of love for the existing Champions League format. Ander Herrera, Mesut Ozil, Bruno Fernandes and other current players spoke up against the European Super League (ESL) proposals and the naked greed behind them. 

As Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Herrera put it, “I fell in love with popular football, with the football of the fans, with the dream of seeing the team of my heart compete against the greatest. If this European Super League advances, those dreams are over (…). I believe in an improved Champions League, but not in the rich stealing what the people created, which is nothing other than the most beautiful sport on the planet.”

Perhaps the most poignant words of all came from Wolverhampton Wanderers forward Daniel Podence, who previously played in the Champions League for Sporting Lisbon and Olympiakos. “The ball. The song. The dream,” he posted on Instagram. “The Zidane volley … Kaka’s solo … Liverpool in Athens … Ole in Barcelona … Cris and Seedorf. There are some things we just can’t really pay for it.”

Presumably he meant Liverpool’s dramatic comeback against AC Milan in Istanbul 2005, rather than the Italians’ revenge victory in Athens over two years later, but the meaning and sincerity behind was clear.

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Champions League: 10 players set to light up the group stage

Tue, 09/14/2021 - 05:10
That’s right, the Champions League is back. 

Ahead of the new campaign, as the best footballers in the world prepare to pit themselves against each other in Europe’s top club competition, we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to profile 10 players to watch across the group stage and beyond.

So let’s dive straight in…

Donyell Malen — Borussia Dortmund

He has already had a taste of Champions League football with former club PSV Eindhoven, playing a part in all six group games in 2018-19 as the Dutch side finished bottom in a difficult group containing Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan.

Malen will be hoping for a more successful European campaign at his new club, as the 22-year-old looks to lead the line for Dortmund alongside a certain Erling Haaland for new manager Marco Rose.

Looking at Malen’s smarterscout profile — which employs advanced analytics to break down elements of a footballer’s game into different performance, skill and style metrics to produce a score from 0-99 — at PSV last season, his attacking attributes are very strong. He regularly contributes towards his team’s creation of goalscoring chances (xG from shot creation 82 out of 99) and his 19 goals in the Eredivisie last campaign is evidence of that. 

Despite his ability to get on the end of attacks, the Dutchman is not one to hang around the penalty area (receptions in opposition box 54 out of 99) and does like to drop deep and advance the ball into dangerous areas for others (xG from ball progression 73 out of 99), whether that is through his carrying or passing.

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Cox: Mane spinning both ways makes him a dangerous option through the middle

Mon, 09/13/2021 - 13:00
Not for the first time, Sadio Mane’s fine performance in Liverpool’s 3-0 victory over Leeds was overshadowed by the contribution of Mohamed Salah. It was the Egyptian who scored Liverpool’s opener, which brought up his 100th Premier League goal and inevitably dominated the headlines. Mane had to wait until the 92nd minute — and his 10th shot of the match — before getting onto the scoresheet.

But this was a contest made for Mane, against a Leeds side using their typically aggressive man-to-man press across the pitch. Whereas Salah was a threat primarily with his speed in behind, Mane was capable of coming short to receive the ball to feet, spinning past opponents and turning in either direction. He was Liverpool’s key attacker.

While Diogo Jota is arguably ahead of the injured Roberto Firmino in Jurgen Klopp’s pecking order at the moment, this would have been a useful match for Firmino. His deep positioning between the lines would have caused Leeds’ man-marking problems, and his recent performance against Chelsea demonstrated how effective he remains at collecting the ball in clever positions between the lines. Jota, for all his qualities running towards the opposition goal, isn’t quite as adept as Firmino in those situations. Therefore the attacker playing the Firmino role here was, effectively, Mane.

Mane has rarely been used centrally under Klopp.

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A weekend for the strikers: Analysing Ronaldo 2.0, clinical Lukaku and centurion Salah

Mon, 09/13/2021 - 05:09
In what was, relatively speaking, a fairly uninspiring weekend of football in the Premier League from a goalscoring perspective, there were three key men who dominated the headlines.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Romelu Lukaku, and Mohamed Salah. They are three of the world’s best forwards, and all three made a difference for their team this weekend, with five goals between them and plenty to unpick.

United’s Ronaldo 2.0: More occasions on the ball but more efficient with it

“Well, I didn’t expect that — to score two goals. I expected one, but not two.”

Actually, Cristiano, based on the quality of the chances you had in the game, you should have expected to score 1.4 goals. Small sample siren, I know, but it is of little surprise to hear that the 36-year-old had more than double the xG of any other player on the pitch on the day.

It wasn’t just the two goals that were of interest, but also the manner in which Ronaldo got on the ball for Manchester United, in his second coming. 

As you can see below, a large proportion of his touches were dropping off between the lines to link the play, often pulling to the left-hand side to find some space before directing his focus towards goal. 

In total, Ronaldo had 63 touches in the game — or more accurately, 63 separate occasions where he had possession of the ball. Here, Opta defines touches as the “sum of all events where a player touches the ball”.

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Liverpool floored by Elliott injury but Klopp will not let negativity creep in

Mon, 09/13/2021 - 05:05
The mood in the away dressing room after such a commanding victory should have been euphoric. Liverpool had silenced a hostile Elland Road crowd with a dazzling show of force.

But as players and staff regrouped there was little talk of how they had put Leeds United to the sword. Thoughts were elsewhere. “It was very subdued in there,” one senior player tells The Athletic.

By then Harvey Elliott was sitting in a hospital bed at Leeds General Infirmary. He had family members and club doctor Jim Moxon for company. His phone was soon buzzing with a succession of WhatsApp messages from concerned team-mates. “We’re all here for you mate,” promised captain Jordan Henderson.

Every serious injury cuts deep but this cruel hand dealt to such a vibrant youngster feels especially heartbreaking. Elliott had been the surprise package of Liverpool’s flying start to the season. His was the feel-good story.

He had earned the faith of the manager, the respect of the senior players and the adoration of the supporters with how he had seamlessly adjusted to a new midfield role since returning from his loan spell at Blackburn Rovers. With talent in abundance and a tireless work ethic, the fearless teenager had given a fresh dynamic to the right-hand side of Klopp’s purring unit.

He was living the dream for the club he’s supported since he was a toddler. Now his world has come crashing down but he won’t walk alone during the long rehab programme facing him. He will be surrounded by love and support every step of the way.

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Liverpool floored by Elliott injury but Klopp will not let negativity creep in

Sun, 09/12/2021 - 05:05
The mood in the away dressing room after such a commanding victory should have been euphoric. Liverpool had silenced a hostile Elland Road crowd with a dazzling show of force.

But as players and staff regrouped there was little talk of how they had put Leeds United to the sword. Thoughts were elsewhere. “It was very subdued in there,” one senior player tells The Athletic.

By then Harvey Elliott was sitting in a hospital bed at Leeds General Infirmary. He had family members and club doctor Jim Moxon for company. His phone was soon buzzing with a succession of WhatsApp messages from concerned team-mates. “We’re all here for you mate,” promised captain Jordan Henderson.

Every serious injury cuts deep but this cruel hand dealt to such a vibrant youngster feels especially heartbreaking. Elliott had been the surprise package of Liverpool’s flying start to the season. His was the feel-good story.

He had earned the faith of the manager, the respect of the senior players and the adoration of the supporters with how he had seamlessly adjusted to a new midfield role since returning from his loan spell at Blackburn Rovers. With talent in abundance and a tireless work ethic, the fearless teenager had given a fresh dynamic to the right-hand side of Klopp’s purring unit.

He was living the dream for the club he’s supported since he was a toddler. Now his world has come crashing down but he won’t walk alone during the long rehab programme facing him. He will be surrounded by love and support every step of the way.

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Explained: How England-based South and Central American players avoided bans this weekend

Sat, 09/11/2021 - 11:48
The Premier League resumes this weekend after the September international break and, following a week of tense discussions, there will be no enforced absences for players as a result of representing their countries in World Cup qualifiers.

Football’s global governing body FIFA confirmed on Saturday morning that an agreement had been reached to waive the usual five-day suspension for any player not released by their club during this past international break as a sign of “good faith, goodwill and cooperation”.

Eleven players from eight Premier League clubs had been in danger of missing out this weekend after they had been blocked from representing their countries this month, owing to the need for 10 days of COVID-19 quarantine upon their return to the UK.

The Premier League will see this as an important victory but this is not yet the end of the matter.

Here The Athletic assesses the key developments.

So, at last, a resolution. How did it finally come about?

For much of this week, there has been an awkward and uncertain stand-off.

The Brazilian FA (CBF) followed the lead of Chile, Mexico and Paraguay in asking FIFA to suspend players who had not been released by their clubs for international duty. The clear ruling brings an automatic restriction covering five days — in this instance, from September 10 to 14.

The Premier League remained bullish, though. Chief executive Richard Masters wrote to its clubs on Tuesday saying there had been dialogue with FIFA and the aim was to find a solution that would see any suspensions avoided.

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9/11: The Champions League matches when football became irrelevant

Sat, 09/11/2021 - 05:15

On September 11 and 12, 2001, there were due to be Champions League fixtures across Europe. Our writers — who were covering three of the matches — look back at what happened…

Real Mallorca vs Arsenal, Group C, September 11

David Seaman went into his hotel room, picked up the remote control, and started flicking through the channels, hoping to find anything watchable to pass the time before Arsenal’s first Champions League game of the season. Match-day preparations for away fixtures always followed the same schedule. Manager Arsene Wenger liked his players to go through a stretching routine in the morning, then have a meal and go back to their rooms for a rest before reconvening later in the afternoon.

“I put the TV on and it was just Spanish channels, so I couldn’t really understand it,” goalkeeper Seaman recalls. “I could see this tower burning. I was trying to figure it out. I swear, as I was looking at it, that’s exactly when the second plane hit the second tower. I thought it was a clip from a movie. It was too unbelievable. When it dawned on me that it was real, it was hard to know what to do. It was so horrible to watch. You start thinking of the people who were in the towers. The TV pictures were fixed on live events and showed everything. We could see people jumping out of the building. Oh my god.”

Arsenal were in Palma on the day of 9/11. Their hosts, Real Mallorca, were Champions League debutants. It was lunchtime in Spain on a day that felt like one of those almost-perfect away trips — beautiful late-summer warmth, lovely food, a new stadium to tick off — when news began to spread about atrocities so extreme it was an attack on humanity itself. Arsenal’s directors were in a restaurant close to the beach when Danny Fiszman’s phone rang. Mobile communication was much more rudimentary in those days so there was no internet at the touch of a button, no app alerts, just a call or a text message.

On the other end of the line was one of Fiszman’s relatives — a New Yorker. “Are you watching the news?” The voice down the end of the phone relayed the basic details. “I just wanted you to know that, when you do see the news, I’m OK.” Lunch was curtailed and Arsenal’s senior figures returned to their hotel to watch, horrified, the footage unfolding on their TV screens.

Versions of the same scene were being replicated in restaurants and bars across the city as word spread to the fans who had travelled to the Mediterranean island for the game. Miles Saward, from Sport Options, was used to arranging for groups to criss-cross Europe and beyond as a travel operator specialising in sporting events. Even though he had supporters of Hibernian and Manchester United on the move to Athens that same day (both clubs were due to play in Greece that week), as an Arsenal supporter he had chosen to accompany the trip to Mallorca instead. A busman’s holiday of sorts.

“I was at a bar, watching the news like probably everyone else somewhere in the world,” he remembers. “I felt sick. The Marriott which was under the World Trade Centre had been reduced to rubble, and we had stayed there. We had a lot of people for Lennox Lewis vs Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden not that long before. We used that hotel. We had about 400 people in there. Fuck. It was so eerie.

“I started getting these vague messages that all international flights would be grounded.” Saward felt responsible for the 200 people he had brought to Mallorca for the game, plus those heading to Greece. Quite apart from the logistics, he couldn’t face going to the Arsenal match. It felt somehow immoral.

David Miles was Arsenal’s club secretary. He had been at lunch with the directors and as soon as he returned to the hotel he got in touch with the UEFA representatives and venue director to find out what was going on. His first thought — and the thought of many — was that their game, and all games, would be called off. “The venue director told me he was in touch with UEFA HQ — because they don’t do anything unless it is cleared by Nyon. A little later, I got a call back to let us know all the games were going ahead.” Even reflecting on it now, the shock at the decision still reverberates. Miles takes a deep breath and his voice carries that same disbelief he felt on the day. “‘Really…?’ It did seem strange, after something so horrific, to think football must go on.”

UEFA instructed there should be a minute’s silence at all matches but otherwise clubs were ordered to go on as normal. “We were advised there could be more security issues and problems if we postponed,” a UEFA spokesman explained. ”We took the decision that there should be a minute’s silence to show respect but recognised that, at an advanced stage of preparations, the games should go ahead.”

“I let everyone know at our end,” Miles continues. “I told Arsene, from a team point of view. We had to talk to our travel people. Because the towers had gone down, there was a sense that this could happen to other targets around the world. Canary Wharf (a 770ft — 235m — office building in London), for example, could have been a target. We looked into landing the charter (flight back to the UK) outside the London area, because of concerns about the air space around London. Even as late as during the game we were taking calls about the logistics and possibilities. The team were not aware of the background conversations, we didn’t want to unsettle them any more than the case already by telling them we might not fly back tonight.”

Seaman explains how it is for players, even in the most unusual circumstances. What you feel, what you want, gets suppressed. “It was hard to focus on the game,” he says. “This was a major incident in the world and that was obvious. But as a player you have to wait for a decision, you have to wait for the authorities. Players are used to being told what to do. We were told it was going ahead and we had to play. We had to switch our minds to player mode and try to do our job.”

Lauren, Arsenal’s right-back, says the club tended to try to protect the players as a matter of course: “I couldn’t believe that America, the most secure country in the world, could have that security broken so easily. It did not seem possible. But as players, we didn’t talk about it. Wenger always tried to take the pressure off the team. The staff did not extrapolate their worry into us. We were in a kind of bubble. I tried to concentrate on the game.” The more profound thoughts would come later.

For the record, Arsenal lost 1-0. Ashley Cole conceded a penalty and was sent off early on. While mindful that this was an unprecedented situation with no rules about how to behave, it is bizarre to now read a match report from the time which focuses on the details of the game before mentioning the events of the day only in the final couple of paragraphs. “I bet there was not a player on the pitch who had not thought about what had happened that afternoon while they were playing,” Seaman says. “It’s not often that you feel a match doesn’t mean anything. But in that scenario, it didn’t. It’s a feeling I never experienced again and I never will. I don’t want to…” His voice trails off.

Ashley Cole trudges off after his red card in Arsenal’s loss to Real Mallorca (Picture: Laurence Griffiths/Allsport)

Miles remembers the atmosphere inside the stadium being strangely sombre and disconnected from normality. “Someone asked me afterwards what was the game like, and I couldn’t tell them,” he says. “ I couldn’t tune into it at all. It got totally glossed over.”

Saward was waiting outside the ground for the fans on the Sport Options trip to come out. “We had coaches going back to the airport, and everyone was crowding around, some shouting, some not shouting, some saying, ‘Let him speak’. I do have that recall of absolute fear, and trying to be calm for everyone. ‘What am I going to say?’ ‘If we can’t go home, what are we going to do?’

“There are all sorts of bods around Arsenal. It is one of those clubs where people just know stuff. People were saying, ‘You are definitely not getting out tonight, what are you going to do?’, there were people who thought we were going to get shot down. It was a mad night. It was dramatic. It was a real moment, wherever you were and whatever you were doing, and we happened to be trying to get on an aeroplane a few hours after the attacks, which was very surreal.”

On the runway, the fans boarded their plane in total silence. Some were praying. Some were close to tears. Some were palpably struggling to keep calm. Saward did not even know if the flight would take off even as the doors closed. “I was in the cockpit with the pilot and co-pilot, and they genuinely did not know if we would leave or not. We were waiting on the tarmac for an hour or so. Suddenly, they got the nod. We had clearance to take off. We had to fly at lower altitude than normal to get back as quickly as possible. We must have been one of the last planes flying before they grounded all flights,” he remembers. There was a panic mid-flight as their path took them through an electrical storm and with all the fear some people wondered if they could see bombs in the sky.

“When we landed,” he recalls, “everyone was grateful.”

Seaman still wonders why they played that awful day. UEFA’s reasoning was that it was too late to call off the games on the Tuesday night without any contingency for what to do with all the teams, fans and delegations who had travelled. But they did postpone all football that week from then onwards. UEFA’s chief executive, Gerhard Aigner, explained how the governing body felt it was “right that the European football family should respect the loss and suffering now being felt by those families who have lost their loved ones by postponing all games scheduled to be played this week”.

Many from Arsenal wished the same had happened when they were asked to carry on at a time when nobody really wanted to play or watch sport. “Nothing of that magnitude had happened before in our lifetimes,” says Seaman. “When they cancelled the rest of the Champions League games the next day, I wondered why they didn’t act quicker for us. It was not the right way to go about things.”

Amy Lawrence

Liverpool vs Boavista, Group B, September 11

For Liverpool, it was supposed to be a red-letter day. There had been a few of those already in 2001 — putting the frustration of the 1990s behind them as they won the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup finals in the space of three heady months — but for manager Gerard Houllier, his players and the supporters, there was a real significance to their long-awaited return to the European Cup stage.

This was not just Liverpool’s first campaign of the competition’s Champions League era. It was their first since their defeat by Juventus in a 1985 European Cup final overshadowed by the Heysel Stadium tragedy. Liverpool had been banned from European competition for six years — other English clubs for five years — as punishment for the hooliganism that culminated in tragedy at that final in Belgian capital Brussels.

Their return to Europe in the 1990s brought a succession of humbling experiences: knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Genoa, Brondby and Celta Vigo, and from the old Cup Winners’ Cup by Spartak Moscow and Paris Saint-Germain. On other occasions, they missed out on European qualification altogether. Liverpool had been left behind, so winning the UEFA Cup and then finally reaching the Champions League felt crucial in terms of prestige, never mind finance.

At his pre-match press conference, Houllier looked ahead with a sense of pride and excitement at being “back into the major competition” after such a long time. In his column in the match programme, he said the visit of Portugal’s Boavista would make for a special night at Anfield.

Liverpool players line up as the Kop watches on, just hours after the terrorist attacks in New York (Photo: David Davies – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

“It had been hugely hyped,” one Liverpool executive from that era recalls. “There had been such a big build-up. Even for us as officials, it was a big step up from the other competitions. There had been a lot of excitement within the club. But it was rendered completely irrelevant by the ghastly things that were happening in the world that day.”

For Liverpool’s players, the usual routine before an evening match at Anfield was to meet for lunch at a local hotel, then go for a couple of hours’ sleep and relax before meeting again for their pre-match meal during the afternoon. 

It didn’t work out like that at the Moat House hotel that day.

Some of the players drifted off to sleep quickly enough, but others turned on the TV and were stunned by the news that was filtering through from New York. Defender Jamie Carragher recalls he slept first and then, upon waking up, was directed to the news channels. Others didn’t sleep at all, either because they were watching the harrowing coverage or because, having done so, they were so horrified they couldn’t get what they had seen out of their minds.

Carragher says it was all he and his team-mates were talking about when they reconvened at the pre-match hotel. If there were any discussions about whether the match would go ahead, they took place through chief executive Rick Parry and club secretary Bryce Morrison. The players were sheltered from any such discussions, but not from the horrifying reality of events across the Atlantic.

A personal recollection is of walking into the press room at Anfield beforehand and seeing every journalist huddled around a TV, watching in stunned silence. The usual small talk and airy chit-chat was abandoned. Then, on heading up into the press box maybe 10 minutes for kick-off, you were struck by the number of empty seats in the ground and the lack of crowd noise. Anfield would usually be raucous on a big European night. Not that night.

Carragher recalls the atmosphere was “weird”. Jorge Silva put Boavista ahead inside three minutes and, whereas an early goal for the opposition would usually rouse the Anfield support into pumping up the volume, the atmosphere that night remained flat. Michael Owen equalised on the half-hour, but the game simply petered out towards a 1-1 draw in the second half. 

Looking back, it seems incongruous that there was a minor squabble between the managers afterwards. Boavista had seven players booked, but their coach Jaime Pacheco blamed Liverpool for what he considered an over-zealous approach, saying, “We came here to play football, not rugby. Compared to Liverpool, we are not well endowed physically. We could have been massacred by some of their challenges.” Houllier disagreed, saying his players were “strong and physical”, but never excessively so.

Gary McAllister said a few days later that, unlike some, he didn’t feel the events in New York affected him for the simple reason that, despite having spent the afternoon watching the TV coverage with room-mate Nick Barmby, “the vastness had yet to register”. Had they been playing the following evening, he would have found it more difficult because by then “the full significance had sunk in — and there was a need to show respect”.

Perhaps Houllier put it best, reflecting later in the week that the game should not have taken place.

“If you don’t have that drive and desire to win the game, there’s not much point in playing,” he said. “At the end of the night, a journalist wrote that a draw was the right result because no one would have wanted to celebrate. I agreed with that. No one had the heart to celebrate.”

Oliver Kay

Olympiakos vs Manchester United, Group G, September 12

It was Steve Curry, one of the journalists who regularly covered Manchester United in those days, who broke the news to Sir Alex Ferguson. We had just arrived at Athens airport. Ferguson had agreed to do his usual interview by the luggage carousel with the journalists who travelled alongside the team on their foreign excursions.

“Apparently, a plane’s gone into the Twin Towers, Alex.”

Ferguson wanted to know more. He asked if it was a light aircraft and we did not know. He remembered there had once been a freak accident that took a plane into another New York landmark, the Empire State Building. But nobody really knew any more. So the tape recorders went on and his interview started.

He was on good form, too. On the Saturday, United had beaten Everton 4-1 at Old Trafford. Midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron had put on a masterclass and, in the match-day programme that day, the more observant readers might have noticed newly-signed Laurent Blanc’s face had been superimposed over Jaap Stam’s in the official team photograph. Centre-back Stam had been sold, controversially, two weeks earlier.

On the morning of September 11, United were flying into Greece to play Olympiakos the following day in their first Champions League group match of the 2001-02 campaign. The final that season was to be at Hampden Park in Glasgow, and Ferguson was becoming irritated by the media narrative that he might lift the trophy in the city where he grew up.

“Some bloody idiot with a television camera has just come up to me asking about it,” he growled. “I’m fed up listening to it all.”

It was, he said, in danger of becoming “an albatross” and it felt like a warning to all the journalists in his company that he wasn’t going to tolerate the same question being put to him before every Champions League game.

We changed the subject to talk about Veron’s mastery of the ball. Ferguson was just as effusive about Blanc and seemed surprised to learn it was going to be the first time the Frenchman had ever played in the Champions League. And there was a classic Ferguson put-down when he was told David O’Leary, his Leeds United counterpart, had said the decision to move out Stam to Lazio could cost him the European Cup. “What can I say?” Ferguson responded, in his most dismissive tone. “I am only 60, after all.”

He ushered us away with the usual fond farewell — “away, and write yer shite” — and the players were on their bus to the team hotel when the news came through about a second plane going into the World Trade Center’s other tower.

Fabien Barthez, United’s France international goalkeeper, heard about it first. He was dating supermodel Linda Evangelista, a New York resident at the time. She had rung Barthez, who was sitting at the back of the bus, and the other players could see from his reaction that something serious had happened.

Barthez did not speak perfect English, and that added to the confusion. But his voice was raised and he was unusually animated. Very soon, the other players were huddled around him, trying to find out more information, taking in the news. Ferguson heard the commotion and walked down the aisle to the back of the coach.

In ordinary circumstances, the players would have had a bit of lunch at their hotel and spent the afternoon resting in their rooms before travelling to the Olympic Stadium for a training session that evening.

Fabien Bartez trains the night before the planned match Fabien Barthez, seen here training the night before the eventually-postponed match with Olympiakos, was the first Manchester United player to hear about the terrorist attacks (Photo: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

These, of course, were not ordinary circumstances.

When the players arrived at their hotel, they did not even check in before heading to a downstairs lounge that was showing the horrors unfold on rolling 24-7 news. Ferguson and all the coaching staff joined them. There was no Twitter at the time. But in those moments, nobody needed it. Thirty, maybe 40, people were gathered around one small television.

“I’ll never forget what we saw,” says one player.

Back in Manchester, United chairman Martin Edwards was going about his usual business.

“I was in my office,” Edwards tells The Athletic. “I took a call from my stockbroker. ‘Have you got a television in front of you?’. There was one in the next room. He said, ‘Turn on the television – now!’”

United’s supporters had already begun arriving in Athens. Many had flown in the morning and knew nothing about what had happened until they touched down and switched on their phones.

Others had flights out from the UK booked for the Tuesday evening and half-expected they would be stopped from taking off. Hibernian were also due to play AEK Athens in the first round of the UEFA Cup on the Thursday, and the Scottish club’s followers were arriving in the Greek capital.

“We were on one of the last flights out of Gatwick airport,” says Kerry Davies, one of the United fans on the trip. “I’d been watching everything unfold on television during the day and when we got to the airport we weren’t even sure the flights were going to leave. It was just a really weird atmosphere, from start to finish.”

Edwards had stepped down as United’s chief executive a year earlier and that meant it was his successor, Peter Kenyon, who liaised with UEFA and the travel authorities about what would happen next. Ferguson’s pre-match press conference was cancelled, and the Tuesday night training session curtailed.

The decision to call off the match was officially relayed in a statement from UEFA headquarters the following morning and Kenyon made it clear United backed the decision. Football, he said, felt “irrelevant” in the context of what had happened in New York and Washington, DC.

Olympiakos, however, were unhappy with UEFA’s stance. “We are very, very upset,” said a spokesman for the Greek champions. “This cancellation changes all our plans.”

If that sounds terribly callous, it is worth remembering it was one of those occasions when the football authorities all seemed to have a different idea about the best course of action. The Football League went ahead with their midweek League Cup matches. FIFA also opted against postponing international matches in Asia the following weekend. But UEFA had been heavily criticised for going ahead with the Champions League matches the night before.

It was different for the Wednesday night games (the UEFA Cup fixtures scheduled for the Thursday were also called off) and, as soon as the announcement was made, United set about trying to find out when they would be allowed to fly back to the UK.

Every player got a knock at their hotel-room door to be informed that a team meeting had been arranged downstairs. They had already guessed what it would be: Ferguson was waiting for them. He told them their game was off and that they would be returning to Manchester as soon as it could be arranged.

The Olympiakos game was eventually played on October 10 and United decided at some point to make a financial gesture to all the supporters who had travelled for the original date. Every fan who had bought a ticket was given £150 in compensation to help cover their travel costs.

First, though, United had to arrange with the relevant authorities how to get Ferguson and his players safely back to England.

Many of the players on their flight out of Athens were keen to get home but, at the same time, anxious about being in the air in the circumstances. The players talked between themselves about whether they, too, might be a target for terrorists.

Ferguson was in his usual position — front row, aisle seat — beside his coaches and the directors but, for once, he did not have a book with him to read. The players were a few rows back and the journalists were at the back of the plane. Security was at its highest level. And it was quiet.

Usually, the mood on those trips would be quite upbeat, as long as United had not lost. Not that day, though. The plane took off and everyone sat there in near-silence.

Daniel Taylor

 Arsenal’s players line up for a minute’s silence ahead of their Champions League game with Real Mallorca on September 11, 2001 (Top photo: Laurence Griffiths/Allsport; graphic: Sam Richardson)

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