Against Newcastle on Saturday, the list of unlikely near-misses was piling up in a way that practically wrote the words ‘desperately frustrating 0-0 draw’ in giant purple letters in the sky. Or that’s the way it looked, at any rate, if you’re an habitual fatalist, which approximately 99.9 per cent of football fans would probably agree that they were.
Or, worse, you weren’t even going to get the 0-0 draw because, after about 89 minutes of inexplicable goallessness, your opponents would somehow break out of the headlock in which you have been holding them around their goal mouth, streak up the other end and punt in a freak winner.
We’ve all seen it happen. And on Saturday it was all set up.
Those unlikely near misses in full: there was Willian’s header just wide in the first half from Callum Hudson-Odoi’s perfectly scooped cross; there was Martin Dubravka’s lightning save from Mason Mount’s peachy spin and snap-shot, an act of athleticism from Mount which would surely have produced a goal 99,999 times out of 100,000; there was Tammy Abraham rising through a small thicket of Newcastle defenders only to head against the bar; there was Tammy Abraham rising through exactly the same small thicket of Newcastle defenders to head over the bar; there was (and this was the point where, as a fatalist, you really began to wonder) the point-blank save that Dubravka produced from a sliding Christian Pulisic, which, never mind earning Dubravka a reasonable chance of the man-of-the-match award, should probably have seen him singled out for sainthood.
Even after the tension was released by Marcos Alonso’s goal in the 73rd minute (karma for the visiting fans who had taken the unwise decision to bait him all afternoon), things continued to happen that contradicted all the known laws of physics and likelihood as we understand them. Abraham had practically put the ball in the net before a leg wearing a Newcastle sock appeared out of nowhere to block it - the kind of trompe l’oeil effect which you would normally need flights to Las Vegas and tickets for a Cirque de Soleil show to witness.
Abraham’s expression of disbelief at that point is worth revisiting by watching the video below. He spoke for all of us at that exact moment. I suspect if the score had still been 0-0 when that happened, we would have concluded that Steve Bruce had used his hitherto unmentioned connections in the occult world to get some kind of mystical force field deployed in front of the Newcastle goal, and that we might as well go home.
As it was, the lead was held and a clean sheet was maintained, and three points were earned. And this, in itself, was encouraging, on a sticky day, against obdurate opponents, when things weren’t quite snapping and crackling the way they can do. Indeed, perhaps in some sense this was a watershed performance for this young team, on its way to becoming the complete side. We’ve seen them in high-scoring, free-flowing royal cruise mode, away at Southampton. We’ve seen them assume intelligent, unflappable control in the home victory over Brighton. We’ve seen them play with high-flying class in the two moral victories over Liverpool (league and Super Cup). Now we’ve seen them grind one out. And, as all the pundits will you, in the course of a league season, the ability to grind one out every now and again cannot be over-valued. Indeed, it’s what separates the great sides from the Tottenhams. Or one of the things that does, anyway.
Let’s further celebrate the fact that Saturday’s game, in stark contrast to some of the other matches on the roster, inspired no game-changing interventions from VAR. Indeed, I can recall just one brief moment on Saturday when the ref had the game on pause and his finger in his ear to indicate that he was taking instruction from the secret agents in the Stockley Park bunker. It was almost like the old days.
Conclusion: the system works really well when it doesn’t have anything important to do. It’s only when VAR is called upon to intervene that things start to go wrong.
With our own business concluded, Sunday offered the irresistible pleasure of a relaxed hour or two in front of the televised games, on an afternoon when the wrong or right result (depending how you look at it) could have lowered Manchester United into the relegation places. Which would, of course, have been a highly temporary situation, but my view is if you don’t enjoy these things in the brief moments when they’re available to you, what does life become?
Of course, it was all irrelevant, as it turned out, because United somehow scrambled their way to an unlikely point against Liverpool. My expert take, formed on the sofa between two cups of tea and a number of Ginger Nuts, was that the home team basically got trampled all over for 90 minutes, but had the all-important advantage of an illegal goal. Always been a difficult place to go, Old Trafford.
Anyway, onwards to Amsterdam.