I’m quiet on the plane ride over to Marseille with Crouch, Bechkoura and the rest of my “Club and Country” staff. Crouchie tries to lighten the mood a few times but we’re all a bit somber. Jetting off to manage France is an unwelcome distraction at the minute to be honest. With no disrespect to Paraguay or Ireland, we’ll probably finish this break with 2 wins, so I’m not really thinking about or planning for those games. My thoughts are on Auxerre. We’ve got real problems at Stade Abbé-Deschamps. Maybe my critics are right. I shouldn’t be flying off to Marseille, I should be in the Centre de Formation, on the training ground saving my club. Saving my job. Maybe 2 managerial positions in this day and age just isn’t viable. Maybe, as Arsene said, it’s just unsustainable.
The France squad are all already checked into the hotel when we arrive. There’s only 1 new face: Kurt Zouma, who I’ve called up in place of Samuel Umtiti, who’s out with a double hernia. Young forwards Nathan Andre and Noé Guillot have been left out as I don’t think either of them are ready for International Football. Yes Noé’s already played in a World Cup final, but there’s no place in Project: Renaissance for somebody who’s pure pace and not a lot else. Kylian Mbappé, who pulled out of the last squad through injury and Nabil Fekir are back in.
The press have been putting pressure on me to call up Francis Coquelin and drop N’Golo Kanté, but for now I’m holding firm. I like Kanté and so far he’s given me no reason to drop him. His usual midfield partner Tiémoué Bakayoko is carrying a knock but should be OK for the last EIL Group Stage match against Ireland at least.
The first of our 2 games is a friendly against Paraguay at the Stade Orange Vélodrome. I’ll be experimenting a bit with the personnel in Project: Renaissance for this one. Madrid’s Alban Laurent starts in net with Tolisso, Zouma, Lucas and Mendy in front of him. Rabiot and Griezmann will start in central midfield as I’m curious how Antoine will fare running box to box, while Ousmane Dembélé, Thomas Lemar and Jeff Reine-Adelaide line up behind Anthony Martial.
We go close a few times in the first 20 minutes. I say we but it’s mainly Thomas Lemar that goes close. He forces a good low save from Rolón, then he has another go, latching onto Tolisso’s long ball over the top but shooting over from a tight angle. Lemar then sends a corner in that Benjamin Mendy heads just over the bar as we continue to try and find the opener. It’s apt that our attacking midfielder plays a part when we finally do make the breakthrough. It’s Lemar’s free kick that’s swung into the box and Zouma’s brought down by Giménez as he tries to reach it. The ref points to the spot and Griezmann sends Rolón the wrong way to make it 1-0. It’s 2-0 shortly after when (Surprise surprise) Thomas Lemar blasts a free kick into the top corner from the edge of the Paraguay box.
The second half promises to keep the goals coming, starting when Ousmane Dembélé’s low cross deflects off Cañete and bounces in to make it 3, but after that it’s one way traffic in the other direction. Walter grazes the top of the bar after a Ríos through ball, then pulls a goal back after the same man pulls the ball across for him from the right byline. As I bring on some substitutes for a run out, Iturbe swings a cross in from the right and Díaz is ready at the near post to tuck in the visitors’ 2nd.
For a few minutes I am quite worried but all’s well with 23 minutes to go when a lovely flowing French move ends with Fekir playing Pogba into space in the box and our captain drills the ball under Rolón for 4-2. A couple of minutes later we have a little game of pinball in Paraguay’s box: Mbappé’s whipped corner is cushioned down by Bakayoko, volleyed by Kanté, blocked by Sosa’s diving header, volleyed again by Mendy, smashed off the bar and eventually stuffed into the net by Pogba for our 5th.
As we enter the final 15 minutes Paraguay get a 3rd when Sosa’s long ball over the top is taken down by Díaz. He shakes off Lucas and slots the ball past Laurent at his near post. Neither player has impressed me today to be honest. We do go close to a 6th goal when Pogba smashes a 30 yard free kick off the bar, then chips another free kick through the middle for Mbappé, who shoots just wide, and then again when Fekir goes close in injury time. In the end though the match ends with just the 8 goals scored.
Let nobody accuse this French side of being boring. I smiled all the way through that match. International Football should be more like this. More goals, more attacking intent, I mean for shits sake you’ve literally got the World’s best players playing for their nations and they often don’t get license to thrill and excite the fans. I get why it is the way it is though. Obviously International Tournaments are that rare that if you leave yourself too open there’s a chance you’ll get your arse handed to you and you won’t get another go for 4 years. Plus it’s very dangerous to throw caution to the wind when National pride is at stake, so it’s all very cagey, very tactical and often fairly disappointing.
I did an unwarranted rant again, didn’t I. Never mind, Paul Pogba’s just set a France record for picking up 4 Player of the Match awards in a single year, beating his own record of 3 in 2016! Nice one, Pog Man™.
Our next match is our final European International League Group Stage match against the Republic of Ireland, held at the Matmut Atlantique in Bordeaux. The other team in our group, the Netherlands, have already played all 4 of their matches and sit at the top of the table on 7 points. We’re on 6 and with a worse goal difference, so anything less than a win today will knock us out of the competition.
Poor Ireland on the other hand have taken just a single point from their 3 matches so far and I’ll be keen not to let them add to their tally. We’re going as close to full strength Project: Renaissance as we can, with Lloris in net, Corchia, Varane, Laporte and Digne across the back, Kanté and Bakayoko in midfield and Coman, Pogba and Mbappé behind Fekir. Let’s get this wrapped up.
Similarly to the Paraguay match, we lay siege to the Ireland goal in the first half hour. Coman comes closest in the opening stages, latching onto Corchia’s through ball and shooting over from a tight angle. We take the lead after 25 minutes though when Fekir passes the ball into space on the left wing, Digne swings an absolute peach of a cross in, Mbappé heads it against the bar and Fekir taps in the rebound. Also similarly to the Paraguay game, it’s 2-0 a few minutes later when Corchia whips a cross in from the right and Coman volleys home from point blank range.
With the game effectively over by half time, it dies down a bit in the 2nd half. The fight seems to have been drained from the Irish and we add a 3rd in the 51st minute when Fekir plays a sneaky reverse pass through to Coman, who places the ball into the bottom corner of the net. He misses out on the chance to bag his hat trick with 15 minutes to play when Pogba cushions down an Mbappé cross from a right wing free kick, which Kingsley volleys just wide. Kanté and Hogan both have half-chances in the dying minutes but we come through unscathed without me having to make a single tactical or personnel change.
Job done. With that win we’ve finished at the top of Group 1 with 9 points out of a possible 12. We go into the European International League Semis along with Italy, Spain and Portugal. It’s interesting to note that Germany have been relegated from Group 4 at the expense of Portugal and Wales, too. I’m glad to get this out of the way to be honest. Our next matches with France are in March so we’ve got plenty of time to get Auxerre firing before we’re distracted again. Get me back on that fucking plane.