It’s been a weird few weeks, hasn’t it. We’ve lost Aidir, we’ve lost Andre and yet somehow we’re in probably our best form of the season. Auxerre are sitting pretty on Valentines Day in 17th place, 2 points clear of the relegation play off spot with a game in hand over our rivals. We’re unbeaten in 5 league games now, 3 of which we’ve won.
Xavier “Le God” Lenogue makes the Ligue 2 Team of the Week for his penalty heroics against Bordeaux at the weekend, because bloody obviously. The man is to saving penalties what Maradonna was to beating his man, what Dixie Dean was to finding the net and what Richard Dunne was to securing an early bath. So fucking reliable.
A midweek trip to Nantes beckons, which could very well take our form from ‘very good’ to ‘exceptional’. They too have a game in hand over the relegation pack and sit 2 points and 2 places above us, meaning that a win would take us 15th. A winning margin of 2 goals or more would actually take us above Ajaccio into nosebleed central, or 14th place as it’s more commonly called.
Nantes tend to go with either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-2-4, but regardless I’m not going to change from the counter attacking Project: Burnie Mk V (Fullbacks) as it’s been treating us pretty well. To add to our injury woes however we’re without Issa Samba, Billy and Raf for this one as they’ve all picked up 1 match suspensions. Promising fullback Celsiney comes in on the right side of defence for his league debut and I begrudgingly welcome back Faouzi Hikem on the left for the first time since he committed grievous bodily harm on Chamois Niortais’ Kévin Rocheteau. Abdoulaye Sissako is back in midfield and Zoun comes in on the left wing, which allows Brahim Ferhat to be the spearhead of our attack. I have my doubts about Brahim’s ability to lead the line due to his technical frailties, but we’re rapidly running out of options and Phil Foden’s been hit and miss as a false 9. There is some good news however, as Fabien McCarthy’s finally back to end his 2 month absence from the squad and is fit enough for the bench. He left for AFCON in pretty good form, so I’m hoping he’ll pick up where he left off.
Nantes opt for a 4-2-4 with 2 holding men, so we’ll focus our play down the middle where we should have plenty of space in front of them. It’s Nantes that threaten first after 7 minutes though, when the delightfully named Sunday John lifts the ball into the left channel for pacy Uruguayan Ardaiz to chase. He shoots from a narrow angle but can only find the side netting. I tell Captiste to move the defensive line back a bit to try and prevent more passes over the top.
Unfortunately 10 minutes after the chance we concede the opening goal. Otávio swings a corner into the 6 yard box, Lenogue comes out of his net and flails his hands towards the ball but doesn’t connect, leaving Ardaiz with a simple header into the empty net. By half time we draw level though and it’s a nice move through the middle that creates the goal, culminating with Ferhat holding the ball up and slipping Phil Foden in on behind the defence. He’s dispossessed by a great Gaaloul slide tackle but the ball only rolls on to Zoun, who slots it past the keeper for 1-1.
I encourage the team to kick on in my half time team talk, but within 2 minutes of the restart we’re behind again with an almost carbon copy of the first goal. Otávio swings a corner in once again, Lenogue’s beaten in the air by Basila, who nods it across for Ardaiz to hammer in another infuriatingly easy set piece goal.
For the last half hour, I swap Zoun and Foden onto the opposite flanks so that they can lob more crosses in towards Ferhat, who’ll play as a target man. With 20 to go, I bring on Ayé in place of Zoun and we go to a narrow diamond with Foden behind the front 2 and with 10 minutes to play we start to throw the kitchen sink at the hosts, but none of it’s to any avail. In the closing minutes of the match Belloni finds space on the right, chips a cross in for Pedro at the far post, whose header is flapped at by Lenogue, who just about keeps the ball out. Pedro makes no mistake on the rebound and the match ends 1-3.
Le God has well and truly forsaken me today. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example of a player at the top of their game one match and then falling to pieces the next. Awful. In all fairness the rest of the team didn’t perform that badly. I’d actually place all 3 goals at Lenogue’s feet… Hands… You know what I mean. One of the better performers, Celsiney, is attracting a fair bit of attention from the Premier League. Hull and Leicester are apparently interested but Southampton boss Brian McClair was in the stands for that one with his eyes on our young right back. I’m not too impressed when asked about this in my post match interviews. Celsiney’s got a bright future for Auxerre so I won’t be welcoming bids.
Speaking of Premier League interest, I think I’m becoming known as the natural successor to Ryan Giggs for some reason. The former part-time Wales International left Championship champions Boro in the Summer and I was offered an interview then, but now he’s been sacked by Crystal Palace, who’ve also offered me an interview. I’m equally as uninterested in the Premier League as I was all those months ago.
Before our next match, Fabien McCarthy joins back in with full training. He remained an unused sub in our last match but I remain hopeful that he’ll play a big part in our run-in, so this is pretty pleasing news.
Let’s bounce back to form then with a nice home tie against 14th place Stade Brestois. This is exactly the sort of game we need after such a frustrating loss and I fully expect 3 points.
Brestois play with a 4-4-2 so we’re going to line up pretty similarly to how we did against Guingamp a few weeks back: Project: Burnie Mk 5 (Wingbacks) is on the agenda, with overlapping wingbacks, shorter passing and patient moves into the box. Brahim Ferhat’s dropped off a bit so Bassani comes in on the right wing and Foden moves back to his false 9 position. Our suspended players are all back but I decide to keep Celsiney, Hikem and Sissako in the team as they all had decent games and don’t really deserve to be dropped. Lenogue keeps his place too purely because he had such a good game against Bordeaux and I’m going to put the Nantes game down to a one-off. Please let it be a one-off.
We get off to an absolute flyer. Just 5 minutes in Brestois’ attack breaks down and we counter quickly. Zoun receives the ball on the left wing and cuts inside, playing a neat one-two with Phil Foden before stroking it into the bottom corner of the net. 1-0.
The scores are level 10 minutes later though when Captiste gets turned by Mitrovic, who plays a give and go with D’Amico and then runs onto the winger’s long ball over the top. Mitrovice goes through on goal and drills the ball past Xavier Lenogue.
Pleasingly, we respond instantly, winning a corner within a minute of kickoff. Foden swings the ball in and it’s headed away by D’Amico at the near post, but the clearance only reaches Lamine Fomba on the edge of the box. The box to box midfielder takes a touch, lets the ball bounce and then absolutely leathers it in off the underside of the bar. 2-1.
The game calms down over the next 20 minutes and we look to be heading towards half time with our lead in tact, but in the 37th minute Ndao and Mitrovic dance through our defence with excellent passing and movement and then Ndao slots the ball through for Pelé, who’s escaped the attention of Celsiney and is cutting in from the left unmarked. The winger slots the ball past our helpless keeper to tie the game once more.
At the break I make a couple of changes and it’s a couple of the young lads that are coming off. Celsiney’s struggled and was probably at fault for Brestois’ 2nd, while Bassani has been completely anonymous out on the right. Samba comes into defence while Foden drops back to his favoured inside forward position, with McCarthy coming on to try out as a false 9. He’s technically good enough for the role so I want to see how he does and Foden should be able to help him out more from his favourite position.
The game gets back underway and immediately we’re all over Brestois. The match is being played entirely in their half, but after 8 minutes, Vidal’s tripped by Ndao and the referee to my horror waves play on. We’re over-committed and a slick counter attacking move ends with Pelé pulling the ball back for Ndao, who finishes it coolly.
We build up our attacking mentality more and more as the 2nd half progresses, first looking to control and then looking to go for the jugular. We can’t find a way back even when Ferhat replaces Vidal in an attacking 4-2-4 system though and the closest we go is in the 90th minute, when a good through ball from Fomba is latched onto by Foden, who smashes the ball against the bar. Our umpteenth even loss of the season.
This has not been a good week. We were in such a good position 2 games ago but now, although we’re still sat in 17th, we’re 5 points away from Bourg in 16th. Looks like we’re going to do this the hard way after all.