I stand on a gravel path, wearing my trusty grey coat, a rucksack weighing heavily on my shoulders. Ahead of me lies a long, winding road that wraps itself around a distant mountain, the top of which is obscured by clouds in front of a blood red sky. The clouds turn from blue to red as I watch them, swirling and twisting, breaking apart and reforming.
“Franjo…” a booming voice echoes. “FRANJO!”
I jolt awake to see a familiar face just inches from my own. It’s Pedro Botelho, my assistant Manager. He beams as he sees that I am awake. “Ah, apologies for waking you my friend but we are landing soon.” He says as he removes himself from my personal space and sits down in the seat next to me, buckling his seatbelt.
We have arrived in Moura to play our first opponents of the new season: The efficiently named “Moura”. I don’t really know what to expect from them, which worries me slightly. They had a torrid campaign this time last year, finishing 8th out of 10 teams in their group in the first stage and looking like a relatively safe bet for relegation. But then they had an excellent Relegation Stage, finishing 2nd in their group like we did. Now they’re predicted 4th so I just don’t know how good they’re meant to be.
With this in mind, I will opt for the safer of the 2 systems I’ve created here so far: Heróis Original. Although it will be tweaked slightly as I have mainly picked the team that have most impressed me during pre-season.
Azevedo starts between the sticks, but Serginho will have the chance to impress me in our next match. Our back 4 is almost unrecognisable, with Vitor Miranda the lone survivor alongside Lassina Touré, Olivier and Mauro Aires. I’d rather have Miguel Oliveira as backup than a starter and Santos has recently decided he should be allowed to move for free so he’s the latest player to enter my bad books. Rúby partners Jaime Seidi in a withdrawn double pivot, although Rúby will be getting forward to support attacks. Amonike and Kevin start on the flanks, with Hurley trying his hand at the number 10 role between them. Antunes is back in full training but is not quite fit enough to start. Magina starts as the lone striker.
I walk out through the tunnel and take a deep breath. The summer break is such a bloody long time, I say to myself as a broad grin stretches across my face. The players take their positions, the referee blows his whistle, and our new season gets underway.
Almost quarter of an hour in Moura are pushing, but we break forward on the counter: Moura have their defensive line far too high, it’s pretty much on the half way line. Magina holds the ball up just into the Moura half before releasing Amonike on the right with a good pass behind the defence. Amonike sprints to the byline, chased by a couple of defenders but he’s too quick for them. When he reaches the edge of the pitch he cuts the ball back to Hurley, who sends the keeper the wrong way from 10 yards.
Pedro and I leap to our feet, punching the air. For all the preparation and research that went on this Summer, there was always a voice in the back of my mind saying “You don’t know anything about these teams, they could all be better than anyone you faced last season. You could be a few goals down in the first half of the first match”. Well we’re back and we’re refreshed, and right now I’d back us to beat anyone.
The rest of the half flies by without either team creating anything of note, until straight from kick off in the second half when Magina releases Hurley with another good ball through the defence. Hurley tries to double his tally but his shot goes wide of the near post.
I did ponder at half time whether I was comfortable with having 2 defensive midfielders on the pitch, both of whom were on yellow cards. I decided that…yes. Yes I was comfortable with it. Needless to say with almost an hour played Jaime Seidi sees his 2nd yellow for a silly trip and earns himself an early bath. I won’t be too harsh on him, that’s the first black mark on his record for me. I decide to drop Hurley back slightly and play a 4-1-1-2-1 formation.
And to be fair, it works. The game dies down once more and again, nothing happens until the 83rd minute, when a good Moura passing move ends with N’Goy releasing Lopes, whose shot flies just wide of the near post.
In an attempt to freshen up our attack I bring on a couple of youngsters. Batista replaces Amonike and Silva replaces Magina to make his debut.
With 92 minutes and 30 seconds played I’m perched right on the edge of my seat, glaring at the referee. Blow your bloody whistle, I silently urge him. This match has not been comfortable.
Just as I think that, Kevin lays the ball back for Mauro Aires, who’s on the left hand side about 15 yards into our half. He looks up, and in a moment of brilliance, smacks the ball into the left channel, over Moura’s defensive line. As he does, Renato Silva makes a diagonal run from the left wing, losing his marker. The ball falls perfectly into his path and he only needs 1 touch of the ball to stroke it into the far bottom corner on the half volley.
I fall backwards into my seat and breathe a massive sigh of relief. The broad grin returns to my face. There’s something about this boy. His intelligence, his movement, his finishing, his composure. The sheer arrogance to effortlessly score such a goal on his debut at 16 years old. He’s got it all. I know time will tell whether this is just a good pre-season and a good debut or genuine quality, but… I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years. The optimist in me says Barcelona, Manchester United or Bayern. Somewhere like that. And call me crazy but I reckon I could take this lad with me.
After another week or wearily declining daily offers for Antunes, Batista and Silva, it’s time to welcome Aljustrelense to Estádio Municipal de Angra do Heroismo. Our first home game of the season and a chance to put down a proper marker. I’ll let us off for not exactly making this place the isolated island fortress I wanted it to be last season. We were adjusting. If we lose here in any of our first phase matches now though, I’ll be furious.
Aljustrelense lost their first match of the season and if someone else in this league can beat them, then so can we. That’s a philosophy I feel like I’ll be adopting for all of our league matches.
We are at home, we are the favourites, and we are the better side, so here comes my feline formation, Project: Meatloaf. Seidi is suspended after his red card so Hurley drops back into midfield. Antunes takes his place behind Magina. In all fairness that change would’ve probably happened even if Seidi had been available. Aires will be encouraged to attack down the left and overlap Kevin or Amonike. Serginho starts.
It takes nearly 10 minutes for us to carve out our first chance. The ball is cleared following our corner and Lassina Touré finds himself on the ball with his back to goal on the edge of their area. He lays it back for Antunes, who curls it first time in front of Amonike on the left. Amonike’s first touch takes him down the line past a defender and he drills in a low cross that finds Magina 8 yards out, but Runa manages to get a foot in and scramble the ball away to the edge of the area. Our new left full back Mauro Aires controls the ball before smashing it against the left post. The ball bounces away and is cleared.
Less than a minute later Benjamim cuts out a Dias cross and clears the ball to Magina on the left wing, just inside the Aljustrelense half. He makes one of his patented powerful runs with the ball diagonally towards the edge of the penalty area but is thwarted once again by Runa, who clears the ball. Touré picks it up on the half way line though and plays it onto the right for Amonike, who whips a cross into the 6 yard box and Magina’s volley somehow crashes off the bar. Runa clears and we’ve struck the woodwork twice in the first 10 minutes. This had better not be an omen. I bloody hate omens.
The rest of the half is quiet. It feels like we’ve become nervous after wasting those 2 chances. I tell the lads that they’ve been unlucky at half time. We’ve made 2 good chances but we’ve just not had the rub of the green. I send them back out, hopefully with a bit more self-belief and confidence.
Just over 5 minutes after the restart, Miranda throws the ball to Amonike, who’s level with the Aljustrelense penalty area on the right hand side. He passes well to Magina just inside the box, who turns and lays it off to Hurley. Hurley takes a touch, looks up, and fizzes a shot into the far bottom corner.
The relief in the team is clear, for a while it felt like one of those matches where it just doesn’t happen. At least we’ve got the breakthrough, now we just need to protect it.
With an hour gone I replace Aires, who has been booked and is looking nervous, with debutant Luciano Serpa. Serpa will play on the right and Miranda will come over onto the left. Nerves cost you in situations like this, and they also make people do silly things, like send your team down to 10 men for the second match in a row.
With just over 10 minutes to go, we revert back to Heróis Original and Miguel Oliveira comes on in place of the goalscorer Hurley as he’s apparently an adept holding man. It does the trick and we completely kill the match. We come away with a not-so-convincing 1-0 win, but I’ll take 3 points and a clean sheet any day.
Only at this stage of the season can you have a 100% record, 0 goals conceded and still drop down the league. The table is pretty meaningless this early on but you can already see a 3-horse race starting to emerge. Pinhalnovense have come out for the new season looking extremely dangerous. They’re the only other team that are yet to concede but they’ve already racked up a +9 goal difference. We’ll have to keep an eye on them.
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