Six matches are all that remain before the curtain comes down on the 2023/24 season and my ambition in those six matches is unwavering: I want to get this club back into Europe. It’s been a strange sort of year really, hasn’t it. Well… I probably say that most years, but hear me out: I don’t think that I was overly ambitious in the Summer, hoping only for a safe, mid table finish and a cheeky win against either Monaco or PSG. In fact that probably was a little bit too ambitious especially in the case of Monaco, as they remain unbeaten in the league even at this late stage. They’ve only dropped points in 3 out of 31 matches for fucks sake. Anyway my point is that for the second time during my spell in Auxerre, my pre-season goals were way off. Here we are in the run in, having surpassed last season’s points tally some time ago, mathematically safe from relegation by a long way and fighting for Europe. Our fight has also just been made significantly easier as Monaco have won the Coupe de la Ligue, meaning that the side that finishes in 5th place in the league will enter the Europa League.
You might think that this type of achievement would raise my stature, thereby increasing the quality of club who come knocking in the hopes of luring me away, but no. Ipswich and Guingamp are my interview opportunities this week. Joy.
There is some good news though in that after their excellent performances against Bordeaux before the break, Vladimir, Lamine Fomba and Nathan Andre are all selected in the Ligue 1 team of the week, with Andre also coming in third in the Player of the Month award. He really was rampant for a few games, so I’m hoping he’ll pick that form straight back up now that the international break’s over.
Speaking of which, a quick shout out to those who’ve been off on their travels over the last couple of weeks: A fair few players have played for their nations but the highlights were probably Ferhat’s admittedly quiet France debut and Ibrahima Gaye’s and Isaac Sohna’s solid performances for Ivory Coast’s U20s and Cameroon respectively.
We get back on it today with a trip to Lille, who are lodged uncomfortably in the middle of a pack of clubs struggling to keep away from the relegation zone. They also have a really, really poor goal difference so I’m hoping for a fourth successive four-goal win.
Mike Kakuba’s back from his second successive double hernia, but our defence has been decent of late so we shouldn’t need him right away. We’ll play that counter attacking variant of Meatloaf that’s worked well in a couple of recent away matches (And yes I’m still including the 0-3 loss against Sochaux). In terms of personnel, suspended pair Fomba and Sissako miss out and are replaced by Raf and Basauri in midfield, while Reynier comes in replacing McCarthy behind the striker. Aside from a changed midfield triangle though, we’re as we were. 16 year old midfielder Sylvain Laurent makes the bench for the first time due to a lack of options and a fair bit of potential.
We start brightly and in particular, Amine Reynier really looks like he means business. In the 3rd minute he dribbles from the left hand side of the half way line all the way through the Lille team to the edge of their box, but his shot isn’t the best and is held onto by Girard. Only a few minutes later though he plays a sly little pass onto the right for Celsiney to run onto. The France U20 full back whips a cross to the near post and who else but Nathan Andre arrives to direct the ball off his forehead and into the net.
The rest of the half is fairly standard, although we do dominate the ball. New France international Brahim Ferhat has a couple of shots graze the top of the bar after the half hour and then Reynier’s rewarded for his good start with a broken nose, but after a bit of treatment he’s ready to keep going.
About 10 minutes after the break I bring on Laurent for a debut, replacing Reynier so that he can go and clean the dried blood off his face. It may seem like a bit of a reckless move to throw a 16 year old on when we’re only 1-0 up, but from what I’ve seen in youth matches the boy knows how to defend. We switch to a 4-1-2-3 with Basauri dropping back into the hole and our full backs are told to stay back.
It’s hard to tell whether or not the change works as after that moment Lille offer exactly the same threat as they did before: Sweet FA. Their only notable contribution to a one-sided match is when the frustrated Ristovski goes in very stupidly on Ferhat with 2 feet and receives his marching orders deep into injury time. It’s not the 4-0 win I was looking for, but it’ll do.
The win takes us temporarily above Bordeaux into 5th place, but we’re quickly dropped back down when they win their late kick off match. It’s worth mentioning though that a 5 point gap has opened up between us, 7th placed Nantes who’ve played one more match and 8th placed Sochaux. Monaco meanwhile have won the league at a canter, completing an early double without losing a single match and shaming Pep’s Paris Saint-Germain, who have played an extra match themselves and still find themselves a whole 13 points behind the champions.
Reynier’s broken nose should be healed up in time for our next match against Nice but his injury has left me wondering whether that could’ve been the match in which he started justifying his price tag had he remained intact. I feel like he’s still a real player for the future but I’d really like to see him put in a couple of good performances before the season ends.
But the attention remains for now on Ferhat. After admitting defeat in his chase of the inside forward a few months ago when I convinced him to sign a new long term contract, Real Madrid manager Rodolfo Borrell is back on Brahim’s trail. Rodolfo was in the stands in Lille and is apparently keen once again on bringing him to La Liga.
But for now he’s our player and he’ll help us to continue our Europa League push. We jet back to Auxerre in time to welcome OGC Nice, who are in an almost identical league position to Lille, trying to stave off a relegation dog fight. In which case, I’ll expect an identical result.
Meatloaf returns in full force today as we look to attack our guests and turn our winning streak from 3 to 4. Fomba and Sissako come straight back in at the expense of Reynier and Basauri, otherwise we’re unchanged.
This time, it’s our opposition who come tearing out of the traps. In the 2nd minute, Wylan Cyprien chips the ball to Godefroy on the half way line, who volleys an incredible pinpoint pass to Bosetti on the edge of our box. Bosetti takes the ball down and half volleys it into the bottom corner. To be fair, great goal. A couple of minutes later, Foden’s corner is headed clear by Souquet but only as far as Fomba, who chests it down, dribbles into the box and shoots, but Cardinale catches it.
In the 13th minute we rue missing that chance as Nice press their advantage. A corner at the other end is swung in by Bonaventura, nodded on by Pléa and headed in by Fathi at the near post. It’s their 2nd shot on target and it’s 0-2. Oh dear.
I scream from the touchline to try and wake my team up, but to no response. Just before the half hour, the usually quite sturdy Mamadou Doucouré makes a horrendous mistake when he goes to collect a loose ball on the left, deep in our half. All he has to do is thump it upfield but he takes a bad touch and is robbed by Bosetti. With no other Auxerre defenders around, Bosetti can run the ball straight into our 6 yard box and tries to prod it past Vladimir, but the Brazilian pulls off a crucial save with his feet to keep our deficit at 2.
That does it. That’s what we needed. Spurred on by Vlad’s heroics, we pull a goal back within a minute when Nathan Andre slips a pass through for Phil Foden, who gets behind the defence, turns inside and toe pokes the ball into the far bottom corner of Cardinale’s goal.
At half time that goal feels like it’s made all the difference. If the score was still 0-2 I’d be giving a completely contrasting team talk, but as it stands I just tell my team that we’re still in it and encourage them to keep grafting to get us level. In the 48th minute, Sissako plays a fantastic pass into the left channel for Ferhat, who crosses in from the byline and Andre heads in the equaliser. I fucking love this team.
5 minutes or so later McCarthy comes on replacing Fomba as I look to go for the jugular and inject more creativity into midfield and less than a minute later we go close. Another fantastic ball onto the left, this time by Goujon, finds Ferhat again and this time he goes straight for goal, trying to catch out Cardinale. It might’ve worked but the shot’s just too high and drops onto the roof of the net.
With 20 minutes to play we put together a scintillating move in the final third and Andre gets the ball. He passes to Ferhat, who passes to McCarthy as the defenders are dragged around in a panic chasing the ball. McCarthy looks up and slots the ball into the box. Sissako makes the run… He’s clean through on goal… And he skews a shot wide. Not a dissimilar glaring miss to the one he made for France the other week.
Aidir comes on, but after a couple of extremely hopeful potshots from Nice that both end up nearer the corner flag than the goal, the match ends as a stalemate.
To be fair, from being on the brink of a 3 goal deficit after 28 minutes, I’ll take that result all day long. Sissako putting that chance away in the 70th minute would’ve been perfection, but at least we came back in the first place. Also, piss off, Rodolfo Borrell.
The Players’ Goalkeeper of the Season shortlist is announced and soft touch that I am, I vote for Leo Gauthier to win it. After a very, very poor start to the season he and Sochaux have come back to have a solid campaign. I’m in no doubt that Monaco’s Sergio Rico will actually scoop the award though, because he’s kept 24 clean sheets in 34 matches, the fucking psychopath.
Our draw against Nice has lost us precious ground in the race for the Europa League though, with Sochaux and Bordeaux both winning to move us closer to 7th place than 5th. I’m looking to correct that when we travel to St Etienne, who are just about within reach of us, in our penultimate away match of the season. They’re 11 points behind us with 12 to play for but that’s close enough to make me nervous. Let’s get back to winning ways.
We bring the counter attacking mentality back and McCarthy comes into the starting lineup to replace Lamine Fomba from the start. Come on, boys.
It’s a drab match. An extremely drab match. 15 minutes in, Christian Atsu lays the ball off for Tatarkov, who leathers it past our Brazilian goalkeeper to give the hosts the lead. After that… It’s just a really drab match. St Etienne never really come out of second gear, but they don’t need to. We’re still parked. We’re up on bricks. Someone came along during the night, stole our wheels, smashed a window and nicked our cassette deck and tasteful furry dice. I try and freshen things up, bringing on Reynier, then Bassani, then Aidir. I send us on the attack, I bellow instructions, but none of it reaps any kind of reward. In the 93rd minute, a long ball from a deep Peyrot free kick comes into our box and Sissako pushes Pavelka to the floor. The ref points to the spot, Pavelka converts the penalty himself into the top corner and the final whistle blows. It’s a drab, disappointing match.
It feels worryingly like we’re already on our holidays. That first half hour against Nice was the first clue, then that awful showing at St Etienne. 2 weeks ago I was full of hope as we wrestled with Bordeaux for 5th place, but now they sit 5 whole points above us, while we’re left to tussle with Sochaux instead. I’m disappointed, but when I get back into training it’ll become perfectly clear to everyone who needs clarification: The season is not over yet.