“Welcome back, Isaac.” I grin as the young Cameroonian steps off Nîmes’ team bus.
“Hi, Boss.” Says Sohna, taking off his colourful over-ear headphones.
“I’ve had Crouchie watching your matches, he says you’re doing well.”
“Yeah I’m doing alright”, he shrugs. “The strikers are a lot better than they were in South Africa though.” He let’s out a chuckle. “I won’t be taking it easy on Hicham today though.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to, mate” I smile. “Good luck.” I shake his hand and he falls into line with his teammates, putting his headphones back on as he walks into Stade Abbé-Deschamps.
Just like Brahim Ferhat in our last match, Isaac Sohna is absolutely eligible to play against us today as I want to have the opportunity to see him play against us and judge how he’s getting on for myself. We’ll be starting with Project: Meatloaf Mk II today and after the success we had in our last match with 2 inside forwards and 2 overlapping full backs, we’ll be trying the same thing again. Phil Foden comes in replacing Zoun after getting off the mark as a half time sub against USBCO, but otherwise we stay unchanged. Mike Kakuba’s fit enough for a spot on the bench though after his recent injury.
We start the match playing some beautiful football and take the lead after only 20 minutes, when a fantastic passing move finishes with a chipped cross from Faouzi Hikem and a calm but precise volley into the bottom corner from Hicham Aidir. Sohna’s hands go straight over his face but mine shoot into the air. Brilliant start.
The rest of the half is pretty quiet and my team talk is just quiet encouragement to keep doing what we’re doing. The reaction is better than I expected though as within 30 seconds of the restart, Adama Ba cuts in from the left wing and lets rip from 25 yards, straight into the top corner. It’s a great hit to put us 2-0 up.
With 20 minutes to go I bring Zoun on for Foden. He played a part in the first goal but otherwise he’s had another quiet game. 5 minutes later we push through the centre and Joël passes to Aidir on the edge of the box, who seems to be double marked by Sohna and defensive midfielder Dimitri Capelle. They both stand off him though, which gives Hicham plenty of time to trap the ball, pick his spot and smash it into the far top corner. Sohna’s had a pretty poor game but we’ve looked absolutely unstoppable at some points. Mike Kakuba gets 10 minutes as a holding man at the end as I look to build his match fitness and the game ends at 3-0.
Not only am I buoyed by the overall team performance, but I think that’s the first time I’ve seen the hype about Faouzi Hikem. Given more freedom as an overlapping fullback instead of a defensive one, he was excellent. Getting himself in good positions, dribbling well, passing well. So much so actually that he’s earned himself a place in the Ligue 2 Team of the Week alongside Loïc Goujon and Joël Soumahoro. Hicham Aidir’s omitted, which I find odd until I see that US Orléans’ striker Yoane Wissa also scored twice in his team’s 4-0 demolition of Valenciennes, so it’s probably a coin toss.
Our next match pits us against ESTAC Troyes, who were my first opponents as Auxerre manager. The rivalry between the 2 clubs is known as the Derby de la N77, referring to Route Nationale 77, a road that connects Auxerre and Troyes. Our rivals are managed by none other than Benoît Cheyrou, a former Auxerre defensive midfielder of 3 years, although he’s most well known for his subsequent spells at Marseille and Toronto. His side are only 2 points behind us in the league so they can climb above us with a win, but off the back of that last performance I’m feeling good about this one.
I’m keeping the same lineup that beat Nîmes so handily. Mike Kakuba’s fit again but after keeping 2 consecutive clean sheets I’m in no rush to interrupt the developing partnership between Captiste and Doucouré.
My confidence in that centre back partnership starts to unravel after just 7 minutes when a hoofed ball forwards is nodded on by MBeumo and Adama Niané nips in front of Captiste to control the ball and blast it into the top corner of Lenogue’s net. We equalise just 5 minutes later though before the sense of dread really starts to kick in, when Phil Foden’s low cross deflects into the Troyes net off the foot of midfielder Bilal Brahimi. I don’t care how they go in, so I’ll take the own goal with open arms.
ESTAC Troyes come straight back at us after the kick off. The ball’s worked around until it reaches the goalscorer Niané and he dribbles past Doucouré before shooting at Lenogue, but our keeper catches it comfortably. Ruben Aguilar twists his ankle after 20 minutes, which worries me, but he’ll play on for as long as he can because I don’t have a right back on the bench.
On the half hour mark, we win a free kick on the right wing, level with the Troyes box. Foden executes a nice little chip into the area and Goujon flicks the ball on, but when Adama Ba meets it just outside the 6 yard box he gets underneath the ball and sends it looping over the bar. The game continues at a million miles an hour, with both teams quite open and quite eager to get forwards. Phil Foden tries his luck from 25 yards a few minutes after Ba’s chance, but he skews the ball wide.
With 5 minutes to go before the break, ESTAC Troyes win a corner on the left. Domingues swings it in towards Brahimi, but just as he jumps for the ball Aidir pushes him in the back. Mr Brisard, the referee, gives a penalty and it seems like the right decision. As good as Aidir is in front of the opposition’s goal, his defending could do with some work. I take some small comfort in the fact that the referee decides to just give the big Moroccan a telling off and doesn’t show him a card. Niané, the Malian International goalscorer, steps up to take the penalty as Xavier Lenogue jumps up and down on his line, waving his arms to try and put him off. Niané runs up… Shoots right… AND LENOGUE SAVES IT! The Martiniquais International dives the right way and parries the ball away as Hikem sprints in to boot it out for a throw. I feel even more vindicated for putting my faith in Xavier now, after watching our other keeper Kamara not save a single penalty against GFC Ajaccio the other week.
At half time I bring on Mike Kakuba in place of Aguilar, who’s really struggling with his twisted ankle. It isn’t ideal but Mike’s at least decently comfortable as a right sided full back so he’ll have to do. 10 minutes into the second half a patient Auxerre passing move culminates with Ba passing the ball inside for Joël, who turns, makes himself some space on the edge of the box with a little burst of pace and fires the ball into the right hand side of the net. We’ve had some luck on our side but in a match we’ve largely dominated up to this point, we’ve finally taken the lead over our rivals.
With half an hour to go Benoît Cheyrou throws me a curved ball, changing from his simple 4-2-3-1 to a flat 3-4-3 as he tries to find an equaliser. We respond by bringing out Project: Burnie Mk III. Kakuba, Captiste and Doucouré will form a back 3, Goujon will awkwardly slot in at right wing back and Hikem will be left wing back. I also bring Abdoulaye Sissako on for Phil Foden as a ball winner alongside Fomba in our central midfield 2 and Joël will be the number 10 behind a front 2 of Hicham Aidir and Adama Ba, who I instruct just to use his physicality to be a defensive forward, chasing down the back 3 and trying to create chances for Aidir. Both wing backs are also instructed to tightly man mark the opposing wingers.
The tactical change does the trick and we nullify ESTAC Troyes’ search for a second goal. The match ends 2-1 after a very satisfying comeback. The win also moves us up to 2nd in the league, which I’m incredibly happy with. To say that we’ve been predicted to finish 7th, apart from a couple of blips we’ve started this season in scintillating form. I’m feeling good about this year.