I’m growing increasingly frustrated with our stuttering start to 2024. True, you can partially attribute our lack of momentum to the scheduling that’s put us against Monaco and PSG, but now that they’re out of the way I really, really want us to string a couple of wins together so that we can continue our outsider push for the Europa League spots. Bourg-en-Bresse have just touched down at the Auxerre – Branches Aerodome, so let’s see if we can put in a performance that doesn’t make me want to viciously assault all of the water bottles in a ten metre radius like they’ve just taken the lift up to the first floor.
Meatloaf shall be served for this one of course. As I mentioned following the PSG “incident”, Project: “Sword” is now dead, but even if it wasn’t I’d still shun it in favour of wanting to throw everything we’ve got at Bourg via our attacking 4-2-3-1. Laurent Roussey’s men have really struggled this season and are languishing at the arse end of Ligue 1, which isn’t surprising when you consider how much of a shoestring they work on compared to the rest of the league, but combined with our comfortable seat in the top six it does mean that I’ve stopped viewing them so much as rivals. The friendly hatred that fuelled our previous meetings has been all but replaced by feelings of sympathy, but we’ll take no prisoners today even so. We’re going with pretty much the same team that beat Guingamp two weeks ago, with the exceptions of Loïc Goujon and Fabian McCarthy, who start ahead of Basauri and Reynier.
With 25 minutes on the clock it’s already become clear that Bourg aren’t going to let us brute-force our way into their penalty box. They’re defending resiliently and effortlessly thwarting our wide players’ attempts to run the ball in, so I tell Ferhat and Foden to hang back a bit instead and wait for Aidir to break the lines before playing him in. I rub my hands together, await the soft embrace of my vindication blanket and hey presto – Within 4 minutes we very nearly go behind. It’s poor, really: A route one ball from Fabri is flicked on by Zinedine Ferhat, then Fernandez skips past Isaac Sohna and shoots. Lenogue parries the ball but can’t keep hold of it, nearly letting it squirm over the line, but luckily he smothers it at the second attempt. That has done my nerves no good at all, Xavier.
The game trundles lazily towards the break with both teams cancelling out the other in the manner that we’ve become a bit too used to in these meetings. In the 40th minute though, as Bourg commit men forwards in an attempt to attack, we strike. Goujon intercepts a long ball towards our box, heading the ball out to Lamine Fomba, who strides confidently into the visitors’ half. The Bourg defence looks panic-stricken and is suddenly full of gaps that Hicham Aidir is desperate to make use of. He makes a darting run off to the left of Hadzic and Fomba finds him with a great curling pass. Aidir runs though on goal, Fabri comes out to close down the angle but it’s too late: Hicham picks his spot and strokes us into the lead. Credit to Fomba there. I don’t praise him often enough for what he brings to us, but that was an assist of pure class.
We drop back just slightly for the second half, not wanting to go back out guns blazing and get caught on the counter as I’m still very wary of Bourg despite their league position. 10 minutes after the restart they nearly get the equaliser when their Ferhat plays a good ball into the box for Wesley Saïd, who flicks it on skilfully with the heel of his boot, finding Fernandez on the edge of the area. Fernandez drills a shot towards the bottom left corner but Lenogue dives down well to tip the ball behind.
We drop back even more, but the attack turns out to be the last real chance either side create. Reynier and Bassani both get run outs and we switch to a defensive 4-1-4-1 towards the end, but in the end we hold on fairly easily. 1-0 it finishes, but after all we’ve been through together, I do sort of hope that they go on to beat the drop. Best of luck, Bourg.
Speaking of relegation, I get a call from John Williams in the wake of the match. The Chairman, not the composer. He offers me the chance to join West Brom, who after a few good top-half finishes are looking to slip back into old habits and drop like a stone out of the top tier of English football. Former Vancouver Whitecaps boss Craig Dalrymple has been given the old heave-ho with the Baggies occupying 18th place in the Premier League, but as with most of the offers that seem to come my way from England I’d rather staple all of my money to various parts of my body and go for a naked nighttime stroll around Doncaster town centre. Cheers though, John.
Lorient are our next opponents and have put themselves in the difficult position of offering us some of that juicy aforementioned momentum, so I want to win this one at all costs. It won’t be as simple as it sounds though as thanks to the exploits of Neal Maupay and co and the utter disintegration of Olof Mellberg’s stupid Toulouse side, Lorient have well and truly established themselves as Ligue 1’s “best of the rest”. This is also an away match, so I’m uncomfortable with setting up with our usual almost gung-ho attitude, but at least Mike Kakuba’s back from injury, so you know… Huzzah.
After careful deliberation, I opt to have another look at Project: ToWin, albeit a modified 4-4-1-1 version. The only times we’ve used ToWin we so nearly beat Toulouse and then stemmed the substantial bleeding against PSG, so we know that it’s a fairly stable system. Saying that, we lost to Toulouse and PSG added a late fifth goal, but as a wise man once said, “pobody’s nerfect”. Young right back Celsiney has proved that he’s absolutely now one of the lads by getting suspended through an accumulation of yellow cards, so Issa Samba comes back in along with Rogério. I know what I said about there not being much point in playing our Portuguese loanee, but Billy’s been shaky of late so I think he’d benefit from a game or two out of the firing line. Bassani also comes in replacing Ferhat, who doesn’t really fit the 4-4-1-1 system we’re going for.
Squeaky bum time starts early in this one. Before we’ve even reached the 5 minute mark, Novy plays a nice ball through for Khidrian on the right, who effortlessly loses Rogério and gets a shot in from point blank range, forcing a good save from Lenogue.
Unfortunately it isn’t long until they do take the lead though: In all fairness it’s a superb passing move that creates the chance and our team shape is obliterated as we’re dragged around chasing shadows, but eventually Captiste switches off and allows a Cafú pass to find the unmarked man in the box: Naturally it’s Neal Maupay of all people and naturally he slots the ball in for 0-1.
In response I tell Auxerre to stand off to make it trickier for Lorient’s passing to create such openings in the remaining hour of the match. Within 5 minutes of the opening goal though, I get that familiar sinking feeling that occurs when a match slips away from you. Khidrian’s low cross takes a deflection off Lamine Fomba and bounces oh so fortunately to captain Cafú on the edge of our box. He’s got a yard of space and takes full advantage by toe poking in Lorient’s second.
A few minutes later we have a chance of our own from a McCarthy corner that’s swung towards the far post. Fomba cushions the ball down with his head and Phil Foden tries to strike the ball on the volley, but he doesn’t connect well and his weak effort is easily caught by Delestrain. Just before half time another great passing move ends with Coralli sliding a ball through for Novy, who finds the net to make it 0-3. Once again the game’s over before we’ve even reached half time and once again gaining momentum seems about as realistic a prospect as finding Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and the Easter Bunny having a tea party in the Sunken City of Atlantis. Or Everton winning the Premier League.
At half time I shrug my shoulders, bring Reynier on for Bassani and we switch to Meatloaf. I just don’t care any more. Our goal difference has taken such a battering in recent weeks that I’d rather risk losing 0-5 again if it gives us a chance of clawing back a point. Attack, attack, attack, cross our fingers and attack some more. That’s our plan for the second half.
To be fair, we start the second half well. Within a few minutes we go close when Samba swings in a good cross from the right, but Reynier can’t control the ball properly and a scramble breaks out in the Lorient box resulting in Aidir poking a shot at goal that deflects just wide off Barry’s legs. Normalcy is shortly resumed though when Khidrian absolutely leaves Rogério for dead on the right wing, speeds to the byline, pulls a cross back and Maupay slots in his side’s fourth. Enough is quite enough from Rogério. Doucouré comes on in his place while Joël replaces the anonymous McCarthy.
The game quietens down a bit after that but in the last ten minutes we start to really threaten: Aidir holds the ball off and lays it off to Joël, who sees Reynier breaking in from the left wing and plays him in behind the defence. Reynier hits a shot towards the near post but a good reflex save from Delestrain denies him his first Auxerre goal. A minute later Amine redeems himself though when he gets clear down the left wing and pulls the ball back for Hicham Aidir, who tucks in what must surely be a consolation goal from 6 yards.
Or is it? In the 88th minute Samba swings another great cross towards the far post and Reynier leaps to smash a header against the bar. The ball bounces down in front of goal and chaos ensues, with clearances smashing against legs and bodies flying in from everywhere in an attempt to either scramble the ball over the line or scramble it away. Eventually Delestrain manages to tip the ball against the post and Barry comes in to try and hoof it clear, but only succeeds in putting it into his own net. 2-4.
Straight from kick off, we’re cut open by a superb diagonal ball from João Pedro. Di Francesco latches onto it on the left, squares the ball for Maupay and the rampant Frenchman completes his hat trick. 2-5. Well never fucking mind then.
In the dying seconds Reynier chips a pass through to find Aidir, who turns the ball into the net, but the man who took what turns out to be the last kick of the game is adjudged to be offside, so 2-5 it stays.
It’s another one of them. I think we performed pretty well and I definitely think the scoreline flatters Lorient, but they were absolutely ruthless with their chances and we were not. Credit to most of the Auxerre team for not letting their heads drop after we looked completely down and out, but at the end of the day the better team’s won, we’re empty handed again and I’m left paying out of my own pocket for the 7 poor water bottles that were in the wrong ten metre radius at the wrong time. Cocking hell.