“NOT – FOR – SALE.” I growl down the phone. “No… No, listen… Listen… Please listen…” I take the phone away from my ear and cover my face with my hands. “Bechkoura, how do you say ‘Leave me alone’ in Turkish?” I groan.
“I’ve no idea, Boss.” Replies my smirking assistant from the other side or something the desk, sounding far too amused.
“Worth a try.” I sigh, holding the phone back up to my ear. “LENOGUE – NO – GO.” I shout, as Bechkoura breaks into a fit of silent laughter. I throw him a dirty look. An agent representing Kasimpasa has been waffling on at me in Turkish for about 10 minutes and I’m absolutely sure he hasn’t heard or much less understood a single word I’ve said. I’ve gathered from his ramblings that Kasimpasa want Xavier Lenogue, but that’s about it and I’m in no mood to sell.
Speaking of goalkeepers, new signing Vladimir is back in full training and is ready to play some U23 matches to get himself match fit. As much as I like Lenogue I think there are some glaring weaknesses in his game (Dealing with crosses springs to mind), so it would be nice if Vlad could provide some competition for him.
I’ve got to be careful because I don’t want to jinx it, but after all of my worrying and second guessing at the weekend against Metz, I’m relieved to welcome Nantes to the Stade l’Abbé Deschamps for a midweek game. This is the sort of match you long for early in the season – A decent but not too threatening mid table club that you’ve got every chance of beating on your own turf to build up some momentum.
Having said that, Nantes started their campaign with a 4-3 home win over Sochaux, who were quite good last season. Debutant striker Isaac Success scored twice on his Nantes debut and will need to be watched, as will central midfielder Amine Harit, who set up 2 of the goals. They do look shaky at the back though and I reckon we can outscore them, so we’ll be going Meatloaf. The lineup doesn’t change as I want to see this eleven playing a more expansive game, but I am tweaking the system slightly by asking my defence to play the offside trap to counteract the considerable pace that our opposition have up front. Loïc Goujon is also given specific instructions to bully Harit and keep him as quiet as possible.
The match gets off to a flier before the 15 minute mark when McCarthy’s lofted ball forwards is nodded on by Brahim Ferhat for the overlapping Faouzi Hikem. Hikem sends a dangerous flat cross into the box, Gaaloul goes for but misses his header and who should pop up right behind him but Phil Foden to volley in his 2nd goal in as many matches. Excellent stuff.
We’re pegged back with just over 20 minutes on the clock though when Isaac Success chips a pass through for Belloni on the edge of the area. He shrugs off Hikem’s challenge with ease and fires the ball under Lenogue with such power that our keeper doesn’t even react.
On the half hour we’re playing some beautiful football. One particular piece of build up play culminates with Aidir spreading the ball out onto the left for Hikem, who returns the favour by drilling a cross in to the Moroccan at the near post. Hicham shoots but centre back Diallo’s on hand to deflect the ball behind.
We keep piling the pressure on as we push for the lead again. A few minutes later, Hikem’s long ball reaches McCarthy, who rises impressively above 2 defenders to flick it on to Aidir. Aidir releases Ferhat behind the defence as he powers inside from the left, but his shot is kept out by the fingertips of Poiana. Foden goes for the follow up but his effort cannons out off the legs of Dorian Bailly as Nantes cling on for dear life.
Another few minutes pass and we win a free kick. This time it should be 2-1. Foden executes a cheeky little chip from the 30 yard set piece and finds Ferhat with all the time in the World just inside the box. He tries to volley the ball but catches it all wrong, skewing it high and wide.
Eventually though our persistence pays off. Another brilliant chipped ball from McCarthy releases Hikem, who’s one of a number of our team that are playing out of their skin. Hikem dinks a cross towards the far post and of course Phil Foden’s there to cushion the ball over the line for 2-1.
I’m happy at half time. In fact I’m more than happy. This is exactly what I wanted from this match: Dominance, good football, goals and a lead. As happy as I was with the result of our season opener, the performance wasn’t fantastic and I’m glad we’ve been able to step it up so far. I give the lads a pat on their collective back and send them back out to keep it going.
Not even 3 minutes after the restart, Foden swings another free kick into the box towards Ferhat, but our young inside forward is shoved by Bailly as he goes for the header. The home crowd cry out in unison, followed by a cheer as the referee points to the spot. Penalty. I smirk as Foden runs over to pick up the ball, eager to complete his hat trick, but Captiste calmly takes it from him and places it on the spot, before dishing out some swift Jedi justice by burying our 3rd goal beyond the keeper’s outstretched left glove.
On the hour, Captiste’s involved again but this time not for the right reason. Our skipper comes charging out to try and reach a loose ball before Isaac Success, forgetting that Isaac is about 3 times faster than him. The winger nonchalantly taps the ball round Captiste and sets off in a sprint down the left wing, leaving the centre back for dead. He reaches the box and cuts inside, but smashes his shot high over the bar.
With 17 minutes of the match to go, Goujon’s shown a 2nd yellow and a red for a professional foul on Ardaiz. I go over and give Loïc a pat on the back as he trudges towards the tunnel. He’s done well today, keeping Harit in check and stifling Nantes’ attacking threat. I won’t begrudge him this. As long as we win.
In response we change to a 10 man variant of Project: ‘Sword’ in an attempt to shut up shop. Fomba and Gaizka Basauri come on to replace Ferhat and Aidir in the reshuffle, with Sissako and Basauri playing as holding men behind a central midfield of Fomba and McCarthy. Foden leads the line as a false 9.
The next goal comes quite out of the blue, considering our changes – Patient build up in the centre of the pitch, then Fomba pokes a cheeky pass through and Foden strokes the ball into the bottom corner from 12 yards. Nantes goalkeeper Poiana punches the ground as Foden runs into the corner of the pitch to be mobbed by his team mates. Not happy just being the hero at the weekend, today he’s the bloody hat trick hero.
The final whistle is immediately drowned out by a huge cheer from the Auxerre fans. 4-1, 2 wins from 2 and we’re top of the league. Not bad.
A thought crosses my mind as I sit at my desk the following day: What if I just resigned? Think about it. How’s that going to look on the CV? Taking a team from near the bottom of Ligue 2 to the top of Ligue 1 in just over 2 years. It probably wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny or questioning though. Especially if the questions were along the lines of “Why on Earth did you resign 2 games into the season?”
Ender Tras, manager of Kasimpasa, was in the stands for that one. Apparently he really likes the way we play football and just wanted to come down to watch, which is nice. I can’t imagine he’d have been here for any other reason considering my stance on Xavier Lenogue’s future.
In other transfer news, Faouzi Hikem wants to take all the good grace he’s just built up with me from that performance, put it in a little pile and set it on fire by requesting a move to a bigger club. Luckily Captiste’s on hand to put out the fire with his fucking mind. By which I mean he convinced him to stay. Wasn’t sure that was clear.
Memphis Depay is taken off the transfer list after a good start to the season, so that’s that. It’s a shame as he would’ve brought a lot of quality to our team, but then again where would he have played? A left footed winger? Would he take Foden’s place after the start he’s made? Not likely. I’m probably more annoyed by the fact that by time our next match rolls around, Lyon have knocked us off the top spot.
Our next match, now that you mention it, will be a tricky one: Marseille away. I still have nightmares about their 4-2-3-1 and the bollocking they gave us in the same fixture last year, so I’m shutting up shop. Project: Sword will be utilised from the start. It’s annoying that Goujon will miss this one through suspension as he’s our best defence-orientated midfielder, but we power through. Basauri and Fomba come in to replace Goujon and Ferhat, with Basauri and Sissako again playing the deeper roles in midfield while Foden plays off Aidir as a free roaming trequartista.
The first half hour is tense. Hicham Aidir has a couple of half-chances, powering towards the box and forcing a couple of decent saves from Werner, but then McCarthy needs to receive treatment for a back strain, which definitely isn’t ideal. He stays on. We’ll need creativity and I don’t want to speak too soon, but Fabian has certainly given us that so far this season.
With 6 minutes to go before the break, Basauri slips the ball through for Hikem, who’s bombing down the left. Hikem squares it from the byline just as Lamine Fomba comes hurtling through the box to tap the ball in at the near post.
We look decent value to take the lead in at half time, but with only injury time between us and the chance to regroup, Marseille strike. Matheusinho is the subject of some extremely suspect marking from Faouzi Hikem and jinks past him easily. He sends in a low cross for Germain, who is similarly poorly marked by Doucouré in the middle and turns in the equaliser. It’s a poor goal to concede.
12 minutes into the second period, Aidir, who’s done OK today pressing from the front, wins the ball and slips it in front of Foden, who has space to run into. Foden charges towards the box and shoots, but is denied by a good save. Not long after, I tweak Foden’s role slightly by making him a false 9 alongside Aidir.
With 25 minutes to go though, Carrasco switches the play beautifully, arcing the ball over to Sabaly on the right wing. Sabaly whips a cross into the box and Carrasco makes the run to get on the end of it, sending a looping header beyond Lenogue and in off the post. To be fair that’s a much better goal, but it’s disappointing to have the match turned on us after such a promising start.
5 minutes later we’re searching for the equaliser. A patient move focussing down the middle ends when Fomba passes inside to Aidir’s feet on the edge of the box. Out of nowhere the big striker smacks the ball with his heel, sending it fizzing into the box towards Foden. Phil takes a touch and shoots, but is denied by another good save. From the resulting corner, Basauri swings a dangerous cross into the 6 yard box and out of a mess of bodies, Captiste rises highest and heads the ball goalwards over the stranded goalkeeper, but Augustinsson hooks it clear off the line, conceding a throw in.
I take the opportunity to make a double change: Phil Foden’s been OK today but he’s not been as comfortable in his role and has wasted a couple of opportunities, so Nathan Andre jogs on to join Hicham up front. McCarthy’s clearly affected by his earlier injury, so he’s replaced by 16 year old Mathis Roux. We finally get the opportunity to take the throw in and Samba takes it, handing a first touch of the ball to Nathan Andre. Andre spins on the edge of the box and lays it back for Aidir, who guides a lovely through ball towards the back post where Roux’s arriving! Roux gets there – AND MATHIS ROUX STABS IT HOME! HIS FIRST TOUCH OF… Offside. Oh come on.
A few minutes later, Roux receives the ball on the halfway line. He really looks up for this match despite the chalked off goal as he looks up and picks out Aidir’s run into the left channel. The big Moroccan latches onto the ball and fires low and hard at goal – And squeezes it in at the near post! 2-2! I allow myself a fist pump as Aidir peels away with one arm raised in triumph. He’s off the mark for the season and thankfully it’s not taken quite as long as last year.
We’re put under the cosh almost immediately after the equaliser. First Augustinsson shoots straight at Lenogue from 6 yards, then our corner breaks down and Geraldes hits us on the counter, sprinting through on goal and forcing a good save from our keeper. With 2 minutes to go and the Auxerre lads firmly encouraged to waste time at every opportunity, they’re battering us. This time Sabaly does really well to escape Hikem with a burst of pace down the right and he crosses from the byline. Enes Ünal meets it 6 yards out – Heads it – Off the post and cleared by Samba. Blow the whistle please.
I waste a bit more time by bringing Ferhat on for a cameo up front, but then eventually the referee brings the game to a close and I beam from ear to ear. Yes we’ve got some work to do on our marking, but a point away at Marseille will do very nicely indeed. Aidir’s off the mark, Roux is unlucky not to be but did register an assist, Fomba was every bit as good as he was last season, running the show from midfield and Basauri was solid and steady, going some way to justifying my decision not to send him back out on loan. I’ll sleep well tonight, swaddled comfortably in my vindication blanket.
True, we have to settle for 2nd place in Ligue 1, but I’ll take it.