As another international break lowers itself upon us like a wet blanket, there is at least now a patch of spare time for us all to catch up with some basic admin and get our diaries in order. To that end, do note that the home game against Brighton, which was postponed while we narrowly failed to win the Carabao Cup final, has been re-scheduled for Wednesday 3 April.
This is good news. For one thing, a routine weekend league fixture now becomes a midweek night game under floodlights, a piece of alchemy with much to recommend it, especially at this time of year, when the evening’s grow a little warmer. It also means the match now falls in the run-up to Brighton’s FA Cup semi-final, which could also be useful. Certainly it’s not beyond the bounds of reason that, while they’re trying to concentrate on playing us, a big, potentially season-defining game against Manchester City at Wembley will be jumping up and down behind the goal, waving its arms and trying to distract them. (Following our unhelpful performance at Everton last Sunday, points are going to be at an absolute premium for the rest of the season, so we can’t be sneezing at any advantages at this point, however marginal.)
We also now have dates and opponents for our Europa League quarter-final legs, and also, beyond that, should we need them, for the semi-final and the final. You could argue that organising the entire end-phase of the tournament in one go, as they did in Switzerland last Friday, takes some of the surprise out of it. At the same time, there’s a limit, I’m sure, to the number of times in a season anyone wants to go hopping off to Nyon to watch people pull plastic eggs out of a bucket.
From the way the draw worked out we’ve skipped around two potentially tricky Spanish sides. We can’t meet Napoli until the final. And nor can we meet Arsenal until the final. And hopefully we won’t meet them then, either. (No disrespect. It’s just that this is European football. You go there to broaden your horizons. Playing against people who only live up the road and who you already see at least twice a season is not quite the point.)
At first the draw decreed that our friends in north London and ourselves would both play at home in the second leg – widely agreed to be the most favourable outcome, draw-wise. However, European competitions prefer not to tolerate two games in the same city on the same night, so the draw had to be amended. Thus Arsenal’s tie was reversed and they will now play away in the second leg.
‘Why them and not us?’ Arsenal fans might have wondered. What had we done to earn this possibly decisive favour, apart, obviously, from having a significantly better record in both domestic and European competitions over the last decade and a half?
Well, I read two separate sources, both highly reputable, maintaining that the privilege of the switch was ours on the grounds, not that we had finished above Arsenal in the league last year (which we did), nor that we are the only team in London to have won the European Cup (which we are), but on the grounds that we won the FA Cup last season (which they didn’t).
In which case, what do you know? People constantly talk about the devaluation of the FA Cup in our times. Perhaps they don’t realise (as I confess that I didn’t until last Friday) that the winners automatically qualify for priority scheduling in the later stages of the Europa League in the event that the draw for the quarter-finals, or later, creates a clash of home fixtures with another team from their city. Bonus! If I’d known this at Wembley last May, maybe I would have celebrated even harder at the final whistle. And if this revelation doesn’t in the future encourage a few fussily non-committal sides to field stronger teams in the country’s oldest club knock-out competition and generally take the old pot more seriously, then there really is no hope for them.
On the topic of talking down perfectly good competitions, one was more than a little surprised to hear Harry Kane this week (as the England squad gathered, its calibre immeasurably boosted by the drafting of Callum Hudson-Odoi) suggest that winning the inaugural Nations League competition with England this summer would outweigh, in Kane’s mind, the achievement of advancing to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Russia.
Really? Bear in mind that the Nations League is, essentially, a bunch of friendlies, slightly tweaked to add a vague sense of edge, and with a feature climax added at the end. Never mind getting to the semi-finals; I would say that, at the current rates of exchange, merely qualifying for a World Cup outweighed winning a Nations League. Qualifying for a World Cup, after all, involves completing a sustained campaign in a competition that people care about. Whereas the Nations League is pure space-filler, an invention devised mostly to keep people busy.
Could anyone seriously claim that being one step away from world football’s pinnacle game is less significant than squeaking past the Netherlands and then either Portugal or Switzerland in an artificial jamboree in June? It’s quite a contention, if so. Of course, one gets used to hearing perfectly good tournaments talked down in this age of rapidly shifting priorities. The League Cup, the FA Cup, the Europa League – each take their turn in our time’s impatient mincer. Even so, it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear someone casually devaluing the World Cup, and especially when the someone in question is an England captain.