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Hey guys,

Thanks for tuning into this fresh edition of 31/7. Today, I'm thinking about:
  • when allegiance and entertainment collide
  • the timeless joy of a bundled-in goal
  • the future of Sarina Wiegman's Lionesses
  • ...and other bits!
I hope that you enjoy reading it and also that you tell a friend, as though Shady himself were back.

Flora ⚽️

A Really Difficult Job

Weeks after dreams of the quadruple crashed and burned with their League Cup final defeat and exit in the FA Cup semi-final, Chelsea have pulled off what the BBC are calling “the greatest performance of manager Emma Hayes’ tenure”.

No wonder Hayes hardly seemed to give a shit when her team were beaten by Man Utd; the fish she was thinking of frying were a whole lot juicier than Mr Marc Skinner. In pursuit of an impressive finale to her impressive stint at Chelsea FC, her Blues have earned themselves a one-goal advantage to take into the second, home leg of their Champions League semi-final against the holders, Barcelona.

On Saturday lunchtime, Scottish midfielder Erin Cuthbert blasted the only goal of the game past the despairing dive of Barca keeper Cata Coll, finishing off a cracking team move inspired by Mayra Ramirez’s ceaseless hounding of Irene Paredes and passing up the opportunity to hand over the shooting opportunity to box-edge specialist Lauren James as she did so. Pretty neat.
Describing the goal, Cuthbert said: “Emma wants discipline but sometimes you’ve just got to take a chance if you see it.”

Then, it was a case of protecting their 40th-minute lead, which would be no mean feat since it’s been two years since the Blaugrana failed to score a goal before hearing a referee blow for full time. That might not have been the case had opposition managers tried pissing Barcelona off so much that they are unable to assert themselves in the game which, as it turns out, is a viable solution. Against Chelsea, Barcelona struggled to find openings — and when they did, two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas scuffed it humiliatingly wide.

Aitana Bonmatí’s post-match comments revealed the problem with being miles better than all of their Liga F opponents; if you've rarely chased a game, you'll rarely have encountered time management tactics, so of course you'll find them “dirty".
Fortunately for Bonmatí, there’s still loads of time to turn the tie round — ninety whole minutes. I’m going to Stamford Bridge on Saturday and I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds. I had worried a 3-0 Barca win in Spain might render my six-hour round trip to London a bit boring and annoying. Instead, with Barcelona forced to come out of their half and score, it should be a right spectacle.

I hate Chelsea a little bit, and by turns find Emma Hayes admirable and irritating. While I am bored of watching the Blues win the WSL title, I hoped for sentimental reasons that Hayes would get her Champions League, the only thing she’s not won with Chelsea, before she fucks off and betrays us by managing the US to the World Cup, or something. This semi-final, therefore, is the last hurrah for the tiny bit of my heart that still permits itself to love Emma Hayes. And even though it’s two different teams with plenty of different players, there’s also a stupid sense of wanting England to re-conquer Spain after the devastation of last August.

Most of all, though, I want football to win and, frankly, it looks likely. On Sunday, with Leeds United approaching the finale of their hunt to win automatic promotion to the Premier League, I watched episodes 5 and 6 of Amazon Prime’s Take Us Home documentary, which tells the story of the Whites’ devastating almost-promotion of the 2018/2019 season.
The season concluded with a two-legged play-off semi-final against Derby County. After a stuttering end to the regular season, everything looked almost rosy again as United took a 1-0 lead from the first leg away at Pride Park, and it felt like job done when Stuart Dallas made it 2-0 on aggregate early in the second leg at Elland Road. But Derby pulled one back on the stroke of half time, giving Leeds the jitters and the rest of the world one of the craziest halves of football imaginable – two red cards, two equalisers, a penalty, and an 85th-minute winner for the looked-beaten Derby County just as everyone was bracing themselves for extra time.

A 1-0 lead from the tougher-on-paper away leg, you say? Chelsea should be more than chuffed with their spoils from the first leg, but they know it’s a job half done. Despite the positive start, goalscorer Erin Cuthbert would rather be anyone than Hayes right now: “It’s going to be a different game at Stamford Bridge. Honestly, I don’t know the game plan yet. That’s why I don’t want to be in coaching because it’s a really difficult job. So I don’t envy the staff.”

Hold your Nerve

Over in Manchester, Marc Skinner has been refining his plan for Man Utd’s FA Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur by playing them in a league fixture.

A decent team that has a habit of turning into a terrible one at the first sign of adversity, the psychological robustness of Skinner’s players has been called into question this season, but their FA Cup semi-final victory over Chelsea seemed to defy those doubts. When United’s 2-0 lead was halved by Ms Lauren James just before the break, whatever Skinner’s lot said to each other in the changing room at half-time fortified them to hold on for another 45 minutes.
Of course, not all game-changing moments are followed up by an opportunity to take a breath and regroup. How did they fare when Bethany England equalised half an hour into their Women’s Super League game against Spurs on Sunday? Not well…

The good news was that unflagged England’s significantly offside position gave Skinner an outlet for his deflected blame in the post-match; the bad news was that the good work his players had done to get an early lead through Melvine Malard was completely undone moments later as Spurs chased their equaliser with a second goal. From winning 1-0 to losing 2-1 in just two minutes, this is the Skinner Way.

Meanwhile, Spurs were proving that they could do the job without their star player, 21-year-old Grace Clinton, who is not allowed to play any games against Manchester United this season because she’s actually theirs — only borrowed by Spurs — and could therefore do a big cheat. Clinton recently made her senior England debut and is in line to become a Sarina Wiegman fave, so it’s a bit galling that Spurs are forced to leave their midfield magician on the bench.

Swedish young’n Matilda Vinberg gave a memorable performance in Clinton’s place, playing a role in both of Spurs goals and delivering this absolute corker of a miss.
It was fellow young person Maya Le Tissier, however, who would steal the show with a love letter to the timeless joy of simply bundling it in. Some goals require finesse and placement, for others it’s enough to see the ball, want it to be in the net, and throw your body accordingly.

It's honours even between Spurs and Man Utd until the pair meet at Wembley on May 12.

Park at You

Elsewhere in tiny people doing well, has anyone checked on Jess Park lately?

The 22-year-old probably wasn’t expecting to have such a role in City's season but, since Jill Roord broke her ACL in January, Park has been positively SIZZLIN' in the Sky Blues' midfield.

I suggest you watch her contribution to Man City’s first goal against West Ham from Sunday. She’s the slight no.16 with the swishy pony who plucks a high ball from the sky with her inside boot like it’s nothin’. It’s one thing being really good at football, but the confidence with which she attacks the game here is pretty remarkable for someone who only got her first regular starts in the Women’s Super League on loan at Everton last season.
She makes experienced Canada international Shelina Zadorsky look an absolute mug before politely rolling the ball into the path of Leila Ouhabi, who buries it in the far corner. The assist of dreams.

That was the first play of the game. Three City goals and 85 minutes of bossin’ later, Park had the ball at her feet in the centre circle, then West Ham parted like the red sea to let the menace stride 40 yards at pace then stroke the ball into the bottom corner. Park is absolutely full of it at the moment and joins Grace Clinton in Sarina Wiegman’s thoughts about the future of her England team.

City had to win to stay in their race against Chelsea for the title, but putting five goals past West Ham reduced the goal difference deficit to just three goals. It was looking as though, if both sides won all of their remaining games, Chelsea would easily edge on this measure, but Park’s taking the piss has made the fight for first place even tighter.
How are you finding the end of the season? Fascinating? Excruciating? Can't believe it's all gone so fast and staring down the barrel of a long summer without football? Let me know how you're getting on by sending a message to [email protected] or hitting reply at the top of this email 😊

More at The Square Ball

Leeds United Women players and staff form a huddle before their game against FCUM

Let's hear it for the regroup

by Flora Snelson

Leeds United have nothing left to play for this season, but they're as united as they've ever been, helped by Jess Rousseau getting back in the goals.
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