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GILES SMITH’S THURSDAY THOUGHTS

A taste for the Europa League – that is what Giles Smith has developed midway through the group stage. He gives his fan’s-eye view in his latest column…

I don’t know how you’re feeling about it but, four games in, I’m finding that I’m settling into the rhythm of these European weeks rather comfortably, the routine now taking a regular and pleasingly familiar shape.

There’s a clear Monday night to relax, allow the events of the weekend to subside (the 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace in this case), contemplate the challenge ahead and generally take stock. And then there’s two further evenings of slow and gentle build-up – the undercard, if you will, in the form of the Champions League fixtures.

And then finally, with your appetite thoroughly whetted, and right when you need it, there’s the main attraction on the Thursday, which is where we are now – specifically about to play BATE Borisov of Belarus in the early evening kick-off in the Europa League.

And if you’re longing for some serious action at this point, it would be no surprise because the Champions League undercard this week has utterly spoiled us for slapstick – a whole catalogue of clown-car moments across the two nights. Which is great, of course, especially if, like me, you really love Laurel and Hardy, though there comes a point eventually where you want to rest your aching sides and cry ‘Enough! Let’s have some proper football now.’

For instance, there was that incident during Manchester City’s demolition of Shakhtar Donetsk when Raheem Sterling sped into the penalty area, accidentally caught the front end of his foot in the turf and went down like an elderly person over-burdened by shopping bags. The fact that there was nobody close enough to Sterling at this point even to poke him with a long stick did not deter the referee from immediately awarding City a penalty – a misreading of the situation so blatant that you didn’t know whether to laugh or launch an investigation into spot-fixing.

Meanwhile it was hard to say which was the more comical last-minute winner scored by an English side this week: Manchester United’s absurd, slow-motion pile-up at the back post in Turin last night – not so much a goal, more a pinball machine on tilt; or Harry Kane’s double-deflected header for Tottenham at home to PSV on Tuesday, which seemed to have very little to do with football at all and looked instead like a slow-motion replay of the after-effects of a knot coming undone on a balloon.

Adding to the carnival, the Spurs game took place on a Wembley pitch that was still bruised and mashed following a recent visit from the NFL – a patchwork of brown strips and faded tattoos which made the surface seem almost as mistreated as it did for Chelsea’s FA Cup final of 1970.
 

And if that wasn’t comedy enough, we’ve also been treated to the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo showing the world how to celebrate a goal against a former club (Manchester United). Now, in some ways that was a straightforwardly good thing, because there is a whole raft of unnecessary sensitivities around this area nowadays (I wrote about it here last week, with regard to our own Frank Lampard). So let’s at least hand it to Ronaldo for pointing the way to qualm-free self-expression during a moment of discomfort for former team mates and once-cherished supporters - the chest-bumps, the overhead clapping etc.

But the act which really caught the eye was the sprint away to the corner flag, culminating in Ronaldo lifting up his shirt to stretch his impressively chiselled six-pack in the direction of the friends and family section, as you do.

Funny old game, though, no? The ref can yellow-card you for revealing a solemn slogan on a t-shirt in the wake of a widely-felt club bereavement, but he can’t touch you for wilfully exposing your stomach-muscles in a built-up area – not even if you’re out of condition and bit blobby, which, of course, Ronaldo emphatically isn’t.

Like I said, though, enough is enough, so bring on tonight’s encounter. Predictions are a mug’s game, but I feel justified in stating this much at least: that, whatever else happens, it will be a relief to me to watch a match in which, most likely, nobody will stub their toe and get given a penalty for it.

To watch a match in which a late free-kick almost certainly won’t ricochet off two attackers and at least three defenders on its comical path into the net.

And to watch a match in which nobody will celebrate a goal by pointing their stomach at their nearest and dearest.

I realise we’re meant to be longing for the higher ground, but sometimes it feels a touch more real down here in the Europa League.

 

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