Side note – Just to annoy me, the Winter break has fallen after a Thursday episode, which is just horrible. Even so though I’m going to take a week out as per to get things sorted ahead of a busy second half of the season. Just the 1 week though as it’s a pretty short break. I’ll be back next Friday, which feels all sorts of wrong, but hey ho. See you then!
Videos of Auxerre’s shootout win over Nancy Lorraine go viral over the next few days, popping up on news sites and in football podcasts all over the world. Everyone’s talking about Xavier “4 saves” Lenogue. Even the bloody Ramble give him a mench, with Marcus Speller calling our Coupe de la Ligue progression “A lovely old job”. Speaking of which, the draw for the quarter final has pitted us against in-form FC Sochaux-Montbé, who’ve already beaten us in the league, so it’d be good to get our own back by dumping them out of the Cup.
Today though we’re back to league football and looking to build off our 2 consecutive wins. Beating Lille, who are 2 places above us on goal difference, at Stade Abbé-Deschamps to make it 3 victories on the bounce would be extremely welcome and with this being the penultimate match before the winter break, I’m setting us a target of being out of the drop zone over the Christmas period.
We’re practically unchanged from the team that’s won the last 2, with only Nathan Andre dropped as he’s been a bit of a weak link lately. I don’t think Aidir would benefit from a start right now so I’m giving Florian Ayé his first start of the season alongside Brahim Ferhat.
We get off to a rocky start when Billal Slimani gives Hikem the slip on the right wing and chips a cross into the centre for Walter Herrera to volley in the opening goal. He has another chance half an hour later when he brings down a hoofed ball expertly, leaving Captiste for dead. The striker speeds through on goal but this time his shot’s straight at Lenogue, who catches it gratefully. We’re struggling going forward to I get the word out from the touchline to go more direct to the 2 big lads, to float crosses in for them and dribble less. I just want us to start moving the ball and hitting it up to the strikers.
At half time we’re still trailing by a single goal but I decide to take a bit of a gamble. Phil Foden’s not featured much of late and perhaps that could work to our advantage. He’ll surely be keen to impress. Phil comes on replacing Captiste and will work as a trequartista, dropping into space wherever he can find it and linking midfield to attack. I also tell the lads to abandon my instructions from 10 minutes ago. They don’t look impressed.
Keen to impress he certainly is. Phil whips quite a flat corner into the box 8 minutes after the restart and Lamine Fomba’s on hand to volley the ball into the roof of the net. With the scores level once again, I bring on Hicham for the last half hour, replacing the fairly anonymous Ferhat. A few minutes later, we win a free kick 35 yards from goal. Foden swings it into the box once again and this one’s cleared, but only as far as Doucouré, but his header at goal’s too weak and is comfortably caught by Luca Zidane. A minute later, Herrera’s down the other end, testing Lenogue with a snatched shot from the edge of the box. Our keeper’s equal to it though.
15 minutes before full time I send Sissako on in place for McCarthy to get some fresh legs into midfield. The last chance of the game falls for Lille though when they win a corner a few minutes from time. Pereira floats the ball into the box, Djuric nods it down, Trébel lays it off and Guillaume calmly places the ball into the far bottom corner. It’s cruel, but we should have defended better. After a dominant second half, we’ve blown it right at the death.
Luckily, I don’t get to dwell on that result for too long, as today’s the day that the Qualifying Groups are drawn for Euro 2024 in Italy. Now I know International football’s largely fallen down the pecking order, at least in my home nation, because of the amount of money being pumped into club sides (And the fact that until Summer 2022 England’s national side had been fucking awful for 2 decades), but for me it’s still the pinnacle. I can’t help but get excited by the prospect of an actual International Summer tournament that I’ll be competing in. Let’s see who we’ll be up against.
Albania (Ranked 51st)
France are obviously the top seed for the group with the next highest ranked side being Albania. I’ll be honest, I don’t know too much about them apart from the fact that they have a few decent players, including Napoli’s 28 year old right back Elseid Hysaj.
Bosnia & Herzegovina (Ranked 59th)
Not too far behind in the World rankings are Bosnia, who I know a little bit more about, having seen them in a few International tournaments. They too have some decent players, the pick of whom are Miralem Pjanic of Juve and Sead Kolasinac of Mönchengladbach.
Georgia (Ranked 62nd)
Georgia too are in a similar league to the previous 2 nations. I remember playing them way back in the Summer of 2020 when my Liechtenstein got thrashed back to back by Georgia, Estonia and Avram Grant’s Wales. 2 and a half years on, I’m looking forward to the opportunity of exacting a bit of revenge.
Liechtenstein (Ranked 166th)
Of course. Just… Of course. You couldn’t make this shit up, could you? On one hand, I’ll enjoy seeing some of the old faces and some of the people who gave me my start in International football, plus on paper we should absolutely obliterate the Liechtensteiner squad and there would be a certain satisfaction in finally being on the other end of that result. But on the other hand… This may be the biggest potential banana skin I’ve ever seen.
So there it is. On paper, we do have a pretty easy group and banana skins aside, I’m honestly delighted to have drawn Liechtenstein. I can’t wait to get started.
Let’s get back to our last match of 2022 though: An away tie against Stade Rennais, who are sitting comfortably in 10th place in the league.
I’m trying something a bit different for this one. I feel like having a sweeper and regista is a bit redundant and the 2 could be consolidated into 1, which would free us up to have more options in attack, so say hello to Project: Burnie Mk V. Captiste’s sweeper role is gone and I’m going to have Arturo Vidal play as a half back; A sort of auxiliary holding man/ 3rd centre back. I have noticed in the last few matches that he’s been caught too high up the pitch on occasion thanks to his regista role so this should tie him down more to a position in front of or in between the centre backs, where his lack of pace won’t be as much of an issue. Kakuba’s the man to make way so that Captiste can move back into central defence, while we’re also going back to having just 1 up front. The 2 spare men will be inside forwards, who’ll give us more width and numbers in attack, but will also give more support to the wingbacks when we’re attacking up the flanks. It’s reminiscent of a Conte-esque 3-4-3 and it’s interesting to note that we’ve come pretty much full circle back to Project: Meatloaf Mk II, only with a few tweaks. In terms of our personnel, Phil Foden and Alessandro Bassani back in the wide positions and Nathan Andre takes the lone striker role that he’s played very effectively at times, while Kakuba, Ferhat and Ayé make way.
It’s a promising start too. Within the first half hour we go agonisingly close twice. First after 25 minutes when Lenogue’s long hoof up field is flicked on by the head of Fomba and collected by Andre. he dances past his marker and shoots, but Diallo manages to tip the ball around the post. That corner comes to nothing but a couple of minutes later we win another one… Which is cleared, but only as far as Vidal. Vidal lays the ball off for Issa Samba, who trots forwards 30 yards out and looks for a pass. Unable to find one, he absolutely hammers the ball towards the top corner, but again Diallo makes a fantastic save to keep the scores deadlocked.
It’s disappointing therefore that we go in for half time at 0-0, but it’s just as disappointing when less than 10 minutes after the restart, the hosts put together a good move that ends with Puscas laying the ball off for Tulissi on the right wing, who cuts inside and floats a shot across goal and into the far corner to give his side the lead. 2 minutes later we’re in danger of capitulating when Dovedan shakes off Samba and whips a cross in from the left byline. Puscas gets his head to the ball in the 6 yard box but Lenogue makes an excellent reflex save.
Zoun comes on replacing the disappointing Phil Foden with half an hour to play and moves over to the left, with Bassani coming over to the right. Both teams go close in the following minutes, with Hrosovsky trying his luck but ultimately shooting over from 20 yards. Our chance comes after a fine possession-based move with 20 minutes to go though. Bassani receives the ball in quite a central area and cleverly disguises a flick out to Samba, who’s overlapping down the right. Samba tries a cross but it’s charged down and blocked. The ball comes back to Bassani and instinctively he curls a cross with his weaker right foot towards the far post, where Zoun arrives to rifle the ball into the net. Those 2 touches from Bassani were absolutely magical.
Sensing blood, I bring Sissako and Aidir on for the last 15 minutes and hook Fomba and Andre. 7 minutes later we’re on the attack again and it’s another fine move. This one comes to Bassani again, who’s in a central position once again 30 yards out. He looks up, spots the run of Aidir into the box and slides the ball through to him. Aidir busts a gut to get goal-side of the defender and gets his reward – He’s bundled over in the box and the referee points straight to the spot.
I consider encouraging Hicham to take it, but after the last 2 penalties he’s taken, I think better of it. Arturo Vidal places the ball on the spot. He scored a penalty in the Nancy Lorraine shoot out. If he does it again, we’ll have an extra 2 points under the tree on Christmas morning. Vidal steps up, shoots low to the keeper’s left… And it’s saved. Well, Merry fucking Christmas.
It’s gutting not to win that one. I thought Bassani was excellent in the last half hour, McCarthy put in a fine performance and overall we were by far the better side, but once again it just wasn’t to be. We’re now officially half way through our Ligue 1 season and we go into the Winter break on 15 points from 19 games, which leaves us 19th in the table. Here’s to a far better haul from the next 19.