(With apologies for silence last week and brevity this – AANP is still ringing a bell and yelling ‘Unclean’)
1. Ange-Ball Until the First Goal
Our Glorious Leader had promised that he – and by extension we – would not abandon his principles, so I suppose I ought not to have been surprised to see our lot stroke the thing around our own penalty area right from the off, a good half dozen Woolwich chumps in pursuit at every turn, all as if this were the most natural way in the world to approach the Away leg of a North London shootout.
It was all perfectly terrifying of course. Vicario and chums seemed to approach the job as if they had just got together to sip cocktails at a pool in Vegas. Good for them I suppose, the laid-back approach apparently likely to add years to one’s life – but had I been anywhere near the vicinity I’d have been inclined to vault the advertising hoardings, leap onto the pitch and grab one of two of them by the shoulders, to give them a good shake and bellow in their ears that their own net was only a couple of metres behind them dash it, they seemingly laid-back about this detail to the point of being completely oblivious to it.
Indeed, even when young Maddison received the ball on his own penalty spot, put in a solid dawdle and promptly had his pocket pilfered, the general reaction seemed to be at best philosophical. Such things happen, seemingly the gist amongst those in lilywhite. Nothing about which to worry.
Which is precisely the point of Ange-ball, when you think of it. Our Shot-Caller-In-Chief has been adamant throughout that our heroes are actively encouraged to embrace their inner Maddison and swan around on their own penalty spot, dipping shoulders and escaping a press, because sooner or later the harvest will be rich. And if it’s all too much for the delicate constitution of such as AANP, who does indeed make good on that long-held promise and keel over while watching our lot, never to unkeel, well then that can simply be marked down as ‘Collateral Damage’.
But the manner of the thing in that opening half hour was rummy, to say the least. It was pretty gripping viewing, for sure, so no concerns on that count. The Woolwich press, particularly in that opening half hour, was, as expected, pretty intense stuff, and although those in lilywhite tasked with navigating the priceless orb from our goal to theirs fairly regularly evaded this press, one did not have to be an expert in the field to detect that this was not a straightforward routine.
So few complaints there; on the contrary, I raised a glass and murmured a salute, for there trod braver souls than mine. But what made the whiskers bristle a bit was that our heroes seemed convinced that if they could triangle their way to approximately 30 yards from Vicario’s goal, then it was job done and Ange would be along with his treats.
Of genuine inclination to slap on a backpack and go exploring the Woolwich half of the pitch there seemed to be few signs. Easier said than done of course, the other lot hardly likely to step aside and usher us through. But nevertheless, once the initial press had been craftily eluded and the confines of the centre circle hove into view, urgency seeped from our play.
Mercifully – and slightly oddly – the sands shifted like the dickens once we fell behind.
2. Ange-Ball After the Opening Goal
Actually, the sand-shifting probably occurred after Maddison’s own-area faux-pas, but thereafter, there was finally a spot of Ange-Ball as intended by its maker, viz. crossing the halfway line and approaching the opposition goal.
Senor Porro was responsible for the dinky little release from inside his own half that set events in motion for the Brennan Johnson shot that was clawed off the line; while Maddison was at the controls when it came to setting Kulusevski free down the right in the rather long-winded build-up to our equaliser. The common feature here being that in both instances our heroes did not approach halfway brimful of ideas and then rather lose enthusiasm as countdown neared zero, but instead lived by the sword and went adventuring into the unknown.
As such, I had our lot down as fair value for the draw by half-time, and every bit as likely to win it by full-time. Which might not sound like much, for a Sunday afternoon’s efforts, but in the grand scheme of things is a bit of a doozy. For our lot to go to that place, bounders and hoodlums baying at us from every corner, trail twice and not just stick around for the ride but actually gain the upper hand and mooch off a tad disappointed not to have won – all in the historical context of countless capitulations at the first sign of trouble – was telling indeed.
If AANP allowed himself a private chunter or two at the curious absence of swashbuckling elan in the opening 30 or so, there was plenty about the remainder to sate the appetite. In particular, the eye was irresistibly drawn towards the glorious move near the end, no doubt described by the experts as ‘ping-ping-ping’, and requiring only a better final ball from, of all people, the absolute master of final balls – Pedro Porro – in order to allow Sonny a tap-in for his hat-trick.
In short, both in the mentality – in approaching a dashed intimidating atmosphere, giving the chest a good puff and somehow emerging as the Alpha – and in quality of play throughout, our lot were as impressive as I suspect we’d all hoped, but few amongst us would genuinely have believed us capable of being. As first acid tests go, it was ripping stuff.
3. The First Goal
Plenty went on about which to lose track of time and excitedly chew the ear off a long-suffering loved one, but I was particularly taken by the precision involved in our first goal. As ever, step forward Master Maddison for a rosette, whispered compliment from a dignitary and pointless bunch of flowers to wave at the crowd, for his were the critical touches of precision.
Spinning Saka to such an extent that the young bean seemed briefly to slip out of existence was a strong start. But then as the ball raced off towards the by-line, providing little opportunity for our man to pause proceedings and summon the great minds for a conflab, Maddison was forced to roll up his sleeves and start earning those millions. And earn them he did. The AANP eyes aren’t what they used to be, but I’m pretty sure there were 3 Woolwich sorts polluting the atmosphere around Sonny at what might be deemed the point of impact. A quick spot of maths told me that that left not more than half a smidge of space to hit in order for the outcome to be anything other than a bit of a washout.
All of which is to say that the odds were stacked so heavily against Maddison that they rather threatened to topple upon him and bury him alive. Those whispered compliments and pointless flowers ought therefore really to be top of the range stuff, because to say that Maddison picked a needle from a haystick – at full stretch, at full pelt and with some red-clad fiend lumbering into view – would be to understate the thing.
At which point, one might suggest that Sonny had little to do in order to earn his accolades and make his little hand-camera-square thing. ‘Pop Ball In Net’ would have about covered the instructions.
Again, however, this final part of the operation was a tad more nuanced. As alluded to earlier, one could hardly suggest that when Son crept into view the coast was clear. The coast was crowded, and in fact fast becoming something of a claustrophobe’s nightmare, with bodies advancing upon the poor lad like vultures getting right down to it for their daily spot of carcass.
Throw in a goalkeeper who had only minutes earlier demonstrated a penchant for the elastic, and the equation upped a few notches in difficulty.
It is therefore to Sonny’s immense credit that he put into effect just about the only type of contact that would win the day. The computer in his head, no doubt whirring like the dickens, told him that a first-time poke, using the pace of the ball and placed as far as physically possible from Raya was required; and Sonny’s left peg rather stylishly did all of the above.
There is of course a further volume or two to be penned on this one. Destiny deciding that they could brandish all the early yellow cards in the world at him but he’d be dashed if such nonsense would prevent him from dedicating his evening to keeping under wraps one of the world’s premier right wingers. The entire back-four exchanging some furtive nods and seeing to it that not a single, clear second half chance would be ceded. Bissouma gliding effortlessly this way and that, no matter the geography or number of chasing foes. Vicario making saves that, while of the standard one would expect, might still have brought a concerned frown to the map of a previous custodian or two – whilst also proving his value as the final ball-playing option with his feet.
On this occasion however, there will be no further elaboration. AANP is off for several species of medication, and with hopes unreasonably high about what damage we might inflict upon Liverpool.