I’m the first off the plane. We’ve arrived in Évora for our 3rd match of the season against Juventude Évora, a newly promoted club who we should really be making mincemeat of.
As soon as I step out of the plane and down the staircase to make my way towards the terminal, I switch my phone on and let out a groan. 23 missed calls. Why won’t they leave me alone? I’ve made myself perfectly clear haven’t I? No, you can’t buy Antunes. No, you can’t buy Batista. No, you can’t buy Silva. So why am I drowning in missed calls from several Liga Nos, Greek Super League and Ligue 1 sides? I’ve never known anything like it, some of them have been calling me all Summer and are now calling 2 or 3 times a day. Dinamo Bucharesti’s latest bid for Batista could have risen to £75k, which for a club like us is an extraordinary amount of cash, but I am not selling, and I’ve been so clear about that.
Annoyed, I switch my phone back off. Is it possible to just ghost other football clubs? Do they eventually give up if you keep ignoring them? I don’t know but I don’t need this today. We’ve got preparation to do.
I won’t fall into the trap that so many fall into. I won’t send my team out gung-ho against a poor side who will be sitting right back and trying to play on the counter. We need to be smart. I’ve looked at how they played in their first 2 games and they’ll most likely set up with a narrow 4-3-1-2, focusing everything through the middle. This leaves me with an interesting predicament as against the smaller clubs I generally leave the centre of my midfield fairly open by allowing Hurley and Benjamim to get forward with attacks. So do I play safe and adopt a more disciplined central midfield set up? Maybe even throw a holding man in there? Or do I trust my players to make the right decisions and not leave a massive gap in the midfield that Évora can exploit?
I opt for the former. If it turns out that I’m playing it too safe then we can always change it up. We will stick with Project: Meatloaf but with Antunes dropping out, he’s actually lacking fitness anyway so that’s fine, and Seidi coming back in after his suspension as the holding man. Hurley will play in the number 10 role again. Serginho stays in net so that I can have another look at him, but to be honest I don’t recall either him or Azevedo having to do any actual goalkeeping so far this season, so it’s difficult to choose between them.
We’ll adapt to their set up too. I instruct the players not to be so patient in working the ball into the box, and instead to attack both flanks quickly, with overlapping full backs. Évora are weakest on the wings so we should be able to double up on them there.
I make my way to the dugout, sit down and open my notebook. I’m very interested to see how my team adapts to the changes we’ve made.
We win the toss and Magina kicks off, playing the ball to Kevin on the left. He plays it inside to Hurley, who takes a touch before spreading the ball out onto the right for Amonike. Amonike takes on the opposition full back and sprints down the wing, hugging the touchline. When he’s level with the penalty box he drills in a low cross and Magina gets in front of his marker to stab the ball home. I almost feel like laughing. 16 seconds in and we’re ahead.
10 minute later, Aires plays a one-two with Seidi from a throw in on the left, and then passes the ball inside to Hurley. With one touch, Hurley sends a through ball onto the left wing for Kevin to chase. He keeps it in at the byline and puts in another low cross that reaches Magina at the near post. Magina spins away from his marker and just as the keeper dives to his left, anticipating a shot to the far post, Magina goes near, thumping the ball into the back of the net and putting us 2-0 up.
A few minutes later we’re coming forward again. Hurley cuts inside from the left and lays the ball back for Seidi, who pings it first time down the left wing for Aires to run onto. The full back whips a cross in but Magina can’t reach it this time, and Carmo clears as far as Hurley, who’s waiting on the edge of the area. He keeps his composure, takes a touch and smashes the ball goal-wards, but it takes a massive deflection off of Gouveia and bounces towards the far post where Amonike is arriving. The winger contorts his body impressively in order to reach the awkwardly bouncing ball with a right footed volley and smacks it past poor Mateus in Évora’s net.
3-0 up after quarter of an hour. I close the notebook. I may have over-prepared for this match.
And it isn’t slowing down. Only a few minutes later Évora have their first chance when João Nabor hoofs a free kick from the right side of the half way line towards the far post. Ricardo Quintino finds himself in space and heads the ball back across goal, but nobody is there to get the final touch. Instead, Mauro Aires clears the ball to the left wing and Amonike races Bicho and beats him to it on the half way line. He nips away down the left, sprinting full pelt and only turning inside once he reaches the penalty area. This gives Bicho a chance to catch up and he slides in recklessly, but Amonike skilfully skips over his challenge before his disappointing placed effort rolls harmlessly into the arms of the keeper Mateus. Don’t let that tarnish your opinion of how well Amonike is playing today though, he is making absolutely everything happen so far.
30 seconds later we have a throw in on the right hand side, level with the penalty area. Miranda throws it to Amonike, who gives it straight back. Miranda whips the ball first time towards the near post and Magina executes a superb volley into the far top corner. He’s not exactly Robbie Fowler or Sadio Mané but a 19 minute hat trick is still phenomenal in my book.
The game mercifully goes down a gear in the next 10 minutes, allowing me to catch my breath, but just after the half hour mark Amonike swings a corner to the near post and Olivier rises above Bicho, glancing a header across goal, but it goes narrowly wide of the far post.
At half time I try to keep the team’s spirits high. That was as one-sided a performance as I’ve seen in my career. Well, apart from the games at Höllviken but we always seemed to be on the wrong end of those. I decide that we may as well go for as many goals as we can. Seidi comes off, as it turns out playing him was an unnecessary precaution. Antunes replaces him and moves forward, while Hurley drops back. Hurley will play as a defensive deep lying playmaker though. I want him to stay back but use his range of passing to start attacks from a safe position.
The second half is quiet for the first 25 minutes, and then an Amonike corner is headed away by Bicho and cleared down the left by João Nabor. Macedo gets onto the loose ball and brings it inside, then plays it in to Rapha. Rapha plays it into the area first time for Fernandes but he rushes his shot and the ball flies high and wide.
From the resulting goal kick, Serginho plays the ball out long but an Évora defender heads it back as far as Kevin on the right wing. He skips past Hugo’s slide tackle and bursts down the right wing. Once he gets to the byline he chips a cross in, but it’s headed away by Fonseca as far as Benjamim just outside the area. Benjamim has defenders in front of him, so he fakes the shot and instead squares the ball for the unmarked Antunes, who takes a touch and strokes it into the bottom right corner of the net. The young number 10 is off the mark for us and we now lead Évora by 5 goals to 0.
I instantly bring on Fernando Batista and Renato Sanches for Amonike and Magina, who have both had excellent games.
10 minutes from time, Hurley wins the ball in our half and lays it back to Olivier, who spreads it out to Kevin on the left. He carries the ball over the half way line and puts a great ball over the top for Silva, who’s running through the central channel behind the defence. The 16 year old takes it down but his left footed shot is parried behind by Mateus.
Now we’re talking. Before the season started, every team in this league would’ve looked at our squad, looked at how we finished last season, and they would’ve respected us. They would have probably worried more about us than the other teams. But the time for respect is over. I want every team in the league to fear us. To hate us. And it’s results like this that are going to make them do just that.
3 days later and we’re on the road again. Today we have a mid-week match in Lourosa, North-Western Portugal, where we take on Lusitânia Lourosa in my very first Taça de Portugal cup match. Lourosa are in the 4th tier so even though we are away, we should keep up our excellent form today.
I decide to send out the fringe players and the ones I’ve either not tried out yet or not given any game time to this season. Azevedo starts in net by virtue of having made 1 start to Serginho’s 2, Serpa and Xéxé make their full debuts at full back, with the old partnership of Miguel Oliveira and Ivan Santos between them. Santos no longer wants to leave and instead wants to fight for his place in the team, but that ship may have already sailed. Our defence has been great so far without him. I’m tweaking Project: Meatloaf, pushing the midfield double pivot backwards because I’ve had the bright idea of playing captain Valadão as an anchor man next to Rúby, which should give us a nice mix of brains and legs in the middle of the park. Batista and debutant Bruce Ávila will start as orthodox wingers, but will periodically swap sides and play as inside forwards, with Arruda between them as a shadow striker. Renato Silva plays alone up top. The only fringe player I can’t accomodate with this system is our now 4th choice striker Wilson Dias, who didn’t impress me at all in pre-season, but I’ll bring him on at some point.
Just over 10 minutes into the match, Xéxé throws the ball down the left wing to Arruda, who lays it inside for Ávila. He shifts it onto his left and then drills in a great through ball for Silva. Silva hits it left footed on the turn but his shot goes narrowly over.
10 minutes later Valadão loops a free kick into the centre from the left wing. Oliveira gets his head to it on the penalty spot but his sideways header is completely non-threatening and looks to be heading out onto the wing. However in a moment of madness, Vasco makes the decision to head the ball back across his own goal into an incredibly dangerous area. The Lourosa defenders are stunned, they’re frozen in place. This makes it very easy for Bruce Ávila to find space at the far post and slot the ball past the keeper, bagging himself a debut goal.
The match from that point on is a scrappy affair. It’s very much what you’d expect from a match between a lower league side and a team full of reserves.
In fact, nothing of note actually happens until the 68th minute, when Serpa throws the ball to Valadão just inside our own half and he plays a long pass down the right wing. Silva runs onto it and chips it across to the far post, where Batista is lurking to hit it on the half volley, doubling our lead and opening his professional goalscoring account.
That goal sparks something in us. 5 minutes later Silva lays the ball back for Serpa, who uses his pace to charge down the right wing and then squares the ball to Rúby just outside the area. Rúby takes a touch and hammers a shot against the angle between bar and upright, and the ball is headed clear. Wilson Dias comes on to replace Hélder Arruda in the attacking midfield role. They’re about as comfortable there as each other, which is to say sort of.
With 10 minutes to play, Rúby surges forward into the final third and plays a neat one-two with Batista to his left. He then feeds Silva, who’s stood on the edge of the area with his back to goal. Silva turns and spots the run of Dias to his right, and he chips the ball through for him, leaving Dias with a sitter. Dias’ half volley though is straight at the keeper Emanuel, who parries it behind.
With 2 minutes to go we’re still pushing for a 3rd. Emanuel’s short goal kick is sloppy and Silva gets to the ball before the daydreaming centre back Ferreira. He dribbles forward to the edge of the area but Ferreira, keen to save face, closes him down fiercely, making Silva panic and skew his shot wide.
A minute later a good give and go between Batista and Xéxé forces Lourosa to give away a corner. Ávila swings it into the centre and Xéxé powers a header towards the top left corner, but Emanuel saves well before Martyr clears.
We still aren’t done though, into injury time we go and Valadão brings the ball forward into space, before playing it to Ávila, who’s cutting in from the right. He shoots towards the far top corner but Emanuel saves well again to keep the score respectable.
I can’t say I was particularly pleased with the first 68 minutes, apart from the goal, but in the end our reserves pulled their fingers out and played some nice football. Some of them have given me a lot to think about. Silva, who initially seemed so composed in front of goal on his debut, needs to work on making the most of his chances. He’s easily rattled and I think the last time he shot with his preferred right foot he scored, but he’s done nothing since except snatch at chances with his left. I’ve far from given up on him, but I know now what he can improve on. I might have a word with Magina, to see if he can help him with his game.
Ávila gave a very good account of himself, as did the 2 full backs, and I was also impressed with Rúby and Valadão, although I think those 2 would struggle to hold the midfield against a better opposition that would ask them more questions.
But all in all, I’m happy: we’re top of the league, we’ve won our cup match, and we’ve still not conceded a bloody goal. And that’ll do for me.
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