“… And another thing he did,” I fume, “Is that he booked Billy for no bloody reason! I mean why even bother playing out the entire ninety minutes? Why not give them a 0-3 win straight off the bat?” Bechkoura nods silently, his eyes glazed over and staring past me.
“Maybe it’s time to let it go now.” He mutters, for at least the fifteenth time this week.
“Maybe… He just annoys me though. I mean why even…”
“… Bother playing out the entire ninety minutes…” Bechkoura monotonously finishes my sentence for me. “I know, Boss. He was a shit ref, but we’re going to miss kick off at this rate.”
“Oh shit, you’re right.” I mutter, glancing at the changing room clock. We hurry out into the corridor, make our way through the tunnel and out onto the sideline. Today’s referee, who luckily is not Lionel Jaffredo, gives me an annoyed luck and then has a sharp blast on his whistle to get the game underway.
AC Ajaccio, like Stade Brestois two weeks ago, are another side seriously threatened by relegation. After the debacle against Sochaux though I’m in no mood to throw them a rope as they struggle to beat the quicksand that is the Ligue 1 relegation zone. We’re lining up at the Stade François Coty with the same counter attacking variant of Project: Meatloaf that worked perfectly well in our 0-3 loss last week, with the only change being in midfield, where the suspended Lamine Fomba is replaced by Amine Reynier, who plays behind Nathan Andre while Fabien McCarthy drops back as a deep lying playmaker alongside Abi Sissako. I also tell Billy and Celsiney to be a bit more hesitant to get forward than they would usually be in our more attacking system.
The first chance goes to the hosts after 22 minutes when Conforto cuts in from the right, dribbles across our back line and fires a shot towards the far top corner. Luckily Vlad’s equal to it and pulls off the save, spilling the ball initially but holding on at the second attempt. A few minutes later we win a free kick in a dangerous position; About 30 yards out on the left wing. McCarthy takes it, swinging a cross into the box but our movement is sloppy and the ball goes hurtling towards a crowd of no less than six Ajaccio players. If there’s one player I wouldn’t expect to try and win a header in this situation it’s Billy, but credit to the young Moroccan for leaping into the fray in an attempt to meet the cross and getting shoved to the floor by Diarra. The referee points to the spot and I’m pleased that it’s Billy that wins us the penalty, as it seems like a bit of justice for last week. Nathan Andre steps up confidently and slots the ball into the bottom left corner from 12 yards, sending Riffi Mandanda the wrong way for 1-0.
On the half hour Ajaccio come forwards semi-threateningly, but Celsiney wins the ball and gives it to Phil Foden. Big Phil plays a lovely give and go with Nathan Andre just inside the Ajaccio half and then receives the return pass with a fantastic first touch that takes him clear of Padovano. He runs to the edge of the box, chips the ball across for Brahim Ferhat, who gets goalside of Diarra and volleys in our second goal at the near post. Lovely stuff.
The rest of the half is dominated by the hosts though: First Vasseur plays a good ball past Celsiney to find Ohana in space inside our box. Ohana shoots but Vladimir makes a good low save to maintain our clean sheet. They do get the ball in the back of the net in the 36th minute when Kavcic lumps a free kick into the box from deep on the right wing, Padoan meets it on the far side and heads the ball back across goal for Vasseur to volley in from close range, but he was offside and the goal’s chalked off.
With a few minutes to go the hosts work the ball into our box with a quite brilliant passing move, eventually getting the ball to Diarra in space on the right, who crosses it low and finds Conforto, who finds the top corner of Vlad’s net from 8 yards. 1-2. I do not like the pressure we’ve been under for the last 10 minutes or so. In injury time, a route one pass from Mandanda comes into our half. Doucouré loses out to Ohana in the air, who heads the ball on into space for the goalscorer Conforto. He runs through on goal and shoots, but Vlad makes another good save to send us into half time with a narrow lead.
Taking into account the last quarter of an hour, I make a change at half time: Reynier makes way and Raf comes on as a holding man, which should make us more solid and free up Fabien McCarthy to get forward a bit. I also tell our full backs to sit back and defend to try and make us more difficult to break down.
The changes seem to work as the first 20 minutes of the second half are fairly quiet. Sissako picks up a back strain in the 63rd minute and is brought off as a precaution, with Gaizka Basauri coming on to replace him. A couple of minutes later though we so nearly go 3-1 up. Phil Foden chests down a pass from Andre and dances past two defenders before letting fly for the top corner, but is denied by an absolutely outstanding save from Riffi Mandanda, who acrobatically tips the ball over the bar.
A few minutes later the pressure is all back on Ajaccio. This time it’s Foden who releases Nathan Andre, who dribbles to the edge of the box and drags a shot just wide. A minute later though, Mamadou Doucouré wins the ball off one of their attackers and passes to Ferhat, who plays it inside for Andre. In a moment of pure class, Nathan’s first touch takes him past Padoan, his second takes him past Kumbulla and through on goal and then his third fizzes a shot past Mandanda into the far bottom corner of the goal. Take a bow, Nathan Andre. That was a hell of a goal. 3-1.
Ajaccio’s fight is well and truly knocked out of them by our third goal and the last 20 minutes is quiet, before we deliver the finishing blow in the 90th minute: Celsiney knocks a long ball down the right, Foden crosses it low and Nathan Andre’s shot hits the post, bounces off Mandanda and over the line to complete our striker’s hat trick. Not quite as pretty as his second goal, but he’s had a great game today. Well played, Nathan.
I give the striker the opportunity to have his own ovation from the fans as he’s replaced by Hicham Aidir in the second minute of injury time. 4-1 it finishes.
It’s no surprise that Andre’s included in the Ligue 1 Team of the Week. To be honest what’s more surprising is that the likes of Foden, Ferhat and perhaps even Vladimir aren’t also given the nod. They all had great games there.
Hicham Aidir picks up another injury in the build up to our final match before the international break. It’s a strained neck so he should still be alright for the bench and in all fairness there’s no chance I’d be dropping Nathan Andre for this one even if Aidir was fully fit.
Speaking of the international break, a fair few of our players will be joining their nations for their respective matches. Celsiney is with the France U20’s, Isaac Sohna is in the Cameroon squad, while Raf, Doucouré and McCarthy make the Madagascar, Senegal and South Africa squads respectively. I’m also including 2 of our players in my latest France squad: Abi Sissako is no stranger to international football at this point but the real surprise call up is for Brahim Ferhat. I’ve been really impressed with Brahim last season, this season and especially since Christmas so I want to give him a chance to impress in the last friendly matches before Euro 2024. I am tempted to include the likes of Fomba and Andre as well, but I’ve got other options available that are probably more deserving and as good as Andre was in our last match, it’s been a while since he’s turned in a performance like that.
Before Abdoulaye, Brahim and I go join up with the rest of the France squad though, we’ve got a home meeting with Girondins de Bordeaux, who after a poor start to the season are back near the top of the table where you’d expect them to be. I am slightly annoyed that our schedule seems to alternate between very winnable matches and very tough matches as I think that’s definitely contributed to our inability to build up a run of wins, but there’s nothing we can do but throw everything we’ve got at Ligue 1’s 5th placed club and hope that it pays off as well as it did against Ajaccio. Realistically, we aren’t catching Lyon or Lorient so I reckon our only lingering hope of qualifying for the Europa league hinges on beating Bordeaux and fighting for fifth place ourselves.
So our classic attacking Project: Meatloaf is back, as is Lamine Fomba who replaces Reynier in midfield. It’s the same lineup that lost to Sochaux but as in the last match, Lionel Jaffredo is nowhere to be seen so we should at least have a fighting chance, especially if Nathan Andre, Phil Foden, Brahim Ferhat and co can pick up where they left off last week.
Bloody hell. It takes us only 5 minutes to take the lead. A McCarthy corner comes in towards the near post, Fomba rises to nod the ball on into the centre and Ferhat’s there to celebrate his France call up by tucking the ball past Dimitrievski from 10 yards. 8 minutes later Ferhat’s really vindicating that call up. He plays a great pass over the defence for Andre to chase. The striker latches on, runs to the edge of the 6 yard box, forces a save with his initial effort but then smashes in the rebound for 2-0. The only chance the visitors have in an otherwise quiet first half is when Ben Osborn’s cross is turned against the post by Gnago’s shin, but we take a very healthy and well deserved 2 goal lead into the break.
We start the second half just as brightly as we started the first: Nathan Andre surges through the middle and then chips a lovely ball through for Foden, but the Englishman skews his volley wide. 5 minutes later though Andre finds Billy with a good ball onto the left wing. Billy plays it down the line for Ferhat, who squares it for Fomba on the penalty spot, who coolly slots in our third. Surely that’s game over?
Apparently not. With just under half an hour to play, Léo Santos finds Amath N’Diaye on the edge of our box, who has a disappointing amount of time to stop the ball, turn and toe poke it into the top right corner to pull a goal back. Just as in the last game, Raf comes on and will be the holding man in midfield while McCarthy makes way and we adopt a more standard mentality.
We quickly put any thoughts of a comeback to bed though when a route one ball from Vlad is nodded on by Ferhat on the left. Léo Santos gets a touch but is immediately robbed by Andre, who bursts into the box and slams the ball into the far top corner to put us 4-1 up. With the game now surely over, Basauri and Bassani get 17 minute run outs in place of Sissako and Foden and within 2 minutes the ball’s in the back of the net again. This time Ferhat plays it inside for Fomba, who’s 25 yards out to the left of goal. He plays a low ball across to the far side for Bassani, who tucks the ball in but turns to see the linesman’s raised flag. From what I can see it’s probably just about the correct decision.
A late flurry of activity from Bordeaux gives us a bit of a scare, first when a long range Cervi free kick is met by the head of Vida but Vlad manages to tip the ball against the post, but then with 5 minutes to go Amath plays the ball inside, Gnago holds it up and releases Osborn as the midfielder bursts past him, then Osborn blasts the ball past our keeper to make the final score 4-2.
In our last three wins we’ve scored twelve goals, which is quite absurd and actually makes me quite hopeful of a late charge up the league. We finally, finally have the momentum we’ve craved since the end of the winter break and I already regret choosing not to select the rampant Nathan Andre and the impressive Lamine Fomba in my France squad. It’s been a good couple of weeks really, hasn’t it.