After spending the last couple of weeks thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that Metz away is in fact one of the worst first matches we could’ve been given and let me tell you why. It all comes down to what each team is bringing over from last season in terms of momentum: Auxerre finished relatively strongly playing fairly adventurous attacking football, while Metz had a strong season in general and will be feeling as optimistic as any team in the league after winning Ligue 2, just as we were 12 months ago.
I’ve not forgotten my pledge to play more expansive football this season but an opening day away trip against one of the in-form teams doesn’t strike me as the ideal time for it, which gives me another problem: How do we keep our own momentum going if we can’t play the way we were playing to build the momentum in the first place out of fear of a momentum flatline? If we attack and lose, the fans and media will say “You should’ve shown them more respect! They’ve just won a league!” But if we defend and lose they’ll cry “Where’s your ambition and where’s the attacking football that got us those results late last season?”
See? Metz away is a nightmare tie. Whatever we do in terms of our strategy against Metz will double up conveniently as a rod for my own bloody back if things don’t go our way. But perhaps I’ve had slightly too much time to overthink this.
In the end I decide to go conservative. I’ve always maintained that avoiding defeat on the first day of the season is the most important thing, so we’ll play Project: Meatloaf Mk II to stop Metz in their tracks, before hitting them with quick, clinical counter attacks. We’re without Celsiney and Billy, who both finished last season as starters and picked up suspensions, so our lineup is actually pretty similar to the last time we played this fixture in the 2021/22 season: Lenogue in net, Samba, Captiste, Doucouré and Hikem across the back, Goujon, Sissako and McCarthy in central midfield, with Foden and Ferhat cutting in to support Aidir. Incidentally, we lost that match 0-2.
Auxerre fire the first warning shot: Hicham Aidir wriggles into space 20 yards from goal and has a crack, just missing the left post. I wince slightly. Andre could’ve easily started this match but I want Hicham to get himself off the mark nice and early this year to avoid a repeat of last season, so I’m going to give him a few games as our starting striker.
The first half hour offers little in terms of action but I’m slightly concerned to see that we’re being pushed further and further back into our own half. And then Diakité’s corner is cleared and comes back to him on the right wing. He floats a better cross into our box, Betti rises to nod the ball on and big striker Santini rises high above his marker Captiste to power a header against the post. Too close.
We change slightly from a 4-1-2-3 to a 4-2-3-1 to try and move us back up the pitch, but we’ll continue to play on the counter. At half time the scores are still level and I make a change – Loïc Goujon, still a bit short of fitness and showing it, is replaced by last season’s Fans’ Player of the Year Lamine Fomba.
In the 53rd minute and with Auxerre looking like the 2nd best team on the pitch, we set out to control the ball more and maybe put Metz under a bit of pressure. It’s worth noting at this point that neither side has managed a shot on target.
A minute later my heart’s in my mouth as Koffi breaks down the left wing and chips a cross in. Lenogue comes out and flaps at the ball, leaving the aerially dominant Santini with a chance to nod it into the open goal – But he heads wide of the far post.
Perhaps foolishly, I stick stubbornly to the idea of controlling the play as we really do need to create more. With 20 minutes to go, Zoun and Andre come on for Ferhat and Aidir to inject some pace and legs into our attack.
Again, just a minute after I make the change, Metz have a good chance. A nice possession move is ended when Andre’s robbed by Pàlsson, who plays a long ball over the top of our defence for Breton. He gets clear of Doucouré, sprints down the right wing and whips a cross in, the ball ricochets off Captiste’s thigh and falls to Soudani 8 yards out, but he can only drill a volley just wide of the near post.
5 minutes later we’re in possession again with Fabian McCarthy on the half way line. Fabian looks up, spots Nathan Andre’s run through the left channel and chips a superb ball into his path. My pulse quickens as Andre brings it down, gets free of the defence, dribbles to the left byline and pulls the ball back – It goes straight across goal to the far post and bounces once before – FODEN!!!
I leap out of the dugout and punch the air. He’s done it again! The brilliant little bastard has done it again! McCarthy’s pass was sublime, Andre’s assist was perfect and Phil bloody Foden guides the ball past Dejanovic and into the net. There’s echoes of last year’s opener against Lorient and there’s echoes of our 4-2 win over Stade Rennais as Foden slides across the turf in front of the elated away fans, thumping the Auxerre badge on his chest.
With over 10 minutes left to play, we retreat to our counter attacking 4-1-2-3 and protect our lead to the final whistle without much trouble. I’ve already forgotten what it was that gave me such a headache before kick off. We may have struggled and we may not entirely deserve it, but we’ve made the perfect start to our 2023/24 campaign.