“This match,” I begin, “Is going to define our entire season.” I’m pacing back and forth at the front of the changing room, all Auxerrois eyes fixed on me. “What are we doing? Are we just enjoying our luck or are we going for promotion? For the title? Because if we’re just here for the ride and we lose to Bourg-en-Bresse today, we’ll be 6 points behind them by the time that final whistle blows.” I stop pacing and stand, arms crossed, looking and feeling more serious than I’ve been in quite a while. “But if we really want this, if we really want to play at the Parc des Princes and the Stade Louis II next season and test ourselves against the best in the country, we can. We can bloody do it by beating these and going top. We’ve got the goal difference for it, but we need to put down a marker and it needs to be now. Not next week, not next month and not in the bloody run in. Now.”
The lads seem riled after my little speech. They look ready. I’m taking a risk today in keeping the attacking variant of Project: Meatloaf that saw us beat Granville so handily in place. It could backfire, but I’m willing to take the chance. If we can put down a marker today it’ll put us in great stead for the second half of the season. The team today is the exact same one that beat our reserves 5-1 last week: Lenogue in net with my settled back 4 of Samba, Captiste, Doucouré and Hikem in front of him, Sissako and Raf in midfield, with Foden, Joël and Zoun behind Hicham Aidir. To be fair, Florian Ayé is unlucky to be pushed out after his brace in the cup, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Hicham’s still our number 1 striker.
It takes less than 2 minutes for the first Ligue 2 goal of 2022 to be scored. Phil Foden, fresh from pulling the strings in the French Cup 9th round, chests the ball down and turns inside from the right. He slides a pass into the path of Aidir, who turns and places the ball into the far bottom corner. 2 minutes in and we’re top of the bloody league. I’ve turned up to the showdown and drawn my gun first. And my gun’s called Hicham fucking Aidir.
10 minutes later the fans leap to their feet as Aidir drives forwards on the ball. He shrugs off Girod’s challenge and leaps over Kabeya’s slide tackle, dribbling onto the left wing before wrapping his foot around the ball and fizzing in a cross. Foden arrives in the box and shoots – Straight against the legs of centre back Bodin, but the ball takes a deflection and bounces perfectly into the bottom corner. Foden won’t get to claim the goal but frankly I don’t really care. 2-0 to l’AJA.
Miraculously our recklessly attacking mentality has caught Bourg-en-Bresse off guard and they’re crumbling. We win the ball straight from kick off and give it to Zoun, who flies down the left, cuts inside and shoots from 20 yards, but Fabri manages to catch it and keep the scoreline from getting embarrassing… For 10 minutes at least, because when Samba’s long ball forwards is nodded on by Joël, Hicham touches the ball past Bodin masterfully, leaving him free to poke it past Fabri and into the bottom corner for 3-0.
It’s clear to everyone in the stadium that Hicham smells blood in the water. Just 25 minutes in he’s on a hat trick and wants to complete it, but he mishits his next effort from 20 yards, skewing it well wide. After the half hour mark though he’s still trying hard to bag his 3rd. He presses poor Bodin and wins the ball before dribbling onto the left wing once more. Aidir crosses from the byline and Bodin heads clear, but the centre back’s first win of the day is stripped from him as Foden’s shoved to the ground by Lamanje. We have a penalty and there’s no prizes for guessing who’ll take it. Aidir steps up and places the ball right into the bottom left corner, sending Fabri the wrong way, completing his hat trick and putting us 4-0 up against the former league leaders.
A lesser man would probably call it there, happy with his day’s work, but not the big Moroccan. When Zoun cuts in and slips a pass through to him just inside the box, he shoots with venom but can only send the Ball crashing against the post.
My half time team talk is far less prepared than my pre-match one. I wasn’t really prepared for the eventuality of a 4-0 lead at the break to be honest. Nevertheless I tell the lads they’re performing fantastically and not to let their levels drop.
The hour mark brings about our first black mark of the day, when Raf, already on a booking, trips Tasic and receives his marching orders. Eager not to let the match fall apart, I bring off the attack minded Foden and Joël and replace them with Ba and Fomba, who will slot into a more reserved and standard 4-4-1. We’ll retain possession with our 2 banks of 4 and try to kill the match off.
For the next 20 minutes the plan works perfectly. Neither team threatens to change the scoreline until the 80th minute, when Aidir dribbles into the box from the right wing but shoots tamely into the arms of Fabri. 2 minutes later Bourg very sportingly level the playing field and get themselves reduced to 10 men when Lamanje, already on a booking, trips Fomba needlessly. The last chance of the match is ours too. It’s a long Samba ball over the top that Aidir latches onto before running through on goal. This time he hits it with his laces but Fabri does well to tip it around the post. The match finishes 4-0.
The Team of the Week fittingly contains 4 Auxerre players and 0 from Bourg-en-Bresse. Issa Samba, Captiste, Phil Foden and Hicham Aidir all make the cut for their contributions to an excellent football match.
I’m still in a fair amount of shock when Ruben Aguilar comes to me saying that he’s no longer willing to wait for Issa’s form to drop off before he gets his place in the starting lineup back. I don’t really blame him as Issa’s showing no signs of slowing down, but luckily Captiste is on hand to talk Ruben down. He’s very much an unsung hero of our rise to the top this season, Captiste, but he’s a fantastic captain.
With Auxerre and Bourg now level on points, we begin the battle to outdo each other in an attempt to get a bit of a cushion at the top. Our next match is away at Stade de Reims, who are not a side to be taken lightly, while Bourg take on ESTAC Troyes. Stade de Reims share a fantastic defensive record with us with both teams having only conceded 15 goals so far in Ligue 2. We’re second only to Red Star, who’ve let in 13. We do have a better attacking record than our opponents and indeed the entire league though as we lead the scoring charts with 34 goals scored, but Stade de Reims are only 5 goals and 4 points behind us.
Raf won’t make the team today as he’s suspended for that red card. Sissako’s out too after reaching 3 yellow cards in his last 10 games, so we’re without our first choice midfield. That, combined with the fact that Reims have won every home match since August has me slightly concerned. We’ll ditch the attacking Project: Meatloaf and opt instead for a counter attacking Project: Meatloaf Mk II, with the incoming holding man Loïc Goujon adding extra protection while we focus our play up the wings. Lamine Fomba comes in alongside Joël in the middle.
With both teams starting off with variations on 4-1-4-1, the match is predictably slow to get going. We do have a decent chance when Zoun runs the ball into the opposition half 4 minutes in and finds Aidir, but after running for the box and shooting with his weaker foot, our striker can only watch as the ball flies wide.
With half time just a couple of minutes away we give away a free kick 25 yards from goal. Gustavo Hebling steps up for the hosts and fires an absolute rocket towards the top corner. Luckily the ball smacks off the bar and Aidir manages to hoof it clear before Mafuala is able to take advantage of the now open goal.
Neither side changes at half time. The first half was very evenly balanced and I don’t want to rock the boat. I can only imagine my opposite number is thinking the same. A couple of minutes after the restart we go agonisingly close when Zoun, who’s looked impressive in his new role on the left so far, cuts inside and shoots from the edge of the box, but can only hit the post.
With 20 minutes to go a Lopez corner is cushioned down by Weber and headed at goal by Iloki on the penalty spot, but Lenogue saves well. We’re down the other end 10 minutes later with Zoun again, but this time when he cuts in and shoots from 20 yards he sends the ball skimming just wide of the far post. I go the whole match without making a single tactical change and the boat stays un-rocked. 0-0 it ends.
Not that surprising when you think about it, is it? A 0-0 played out between the teams with the joint second best defences in the league. I’ll certainly take it though. Stade de Reims, as I said before, are not to be taken lightly. They’ve been in Ligue 1 for the last 4 years and have some quality players. Going back to good defences actually, Xavier Lenogue, last season’s back up goalie, is on 12 clean sheets for the season. That’s just 1 behind Zacharie Boucher’s record set in 2017/18. Good lad, Xavier. Although that defence does it’s part too. My back 5 pretty much picks itself nowadays, they’re all so solid.
Annoyingly though, our title rivals did win today and so they retake the top spot. This isn’t over though. There’s plenty of football yet to be played and if last week’s any indicator, we’ll be playing far better football than fucking Bourg-en-Bresse.