“Benoît? How’s everything going?” I hold the phone to my ear, straining to block out the peripheral noise on the other end and hear Cheyrou’s reply.
“WE’LL FUCKING KILL ‘EM!” He screams abruptly, cutting through the noise like a hot knife through… Thin air. I sigh.
“It’s a friendly, Benoît. A friendly. Remember? We don’t need-“
“COME ON!” He screeches, “BRING ME THEIR FUCKING HEADS!” The remark is followed up by the ominous sound of glass smashing.
“Keep me updated, won’t you.” I say, secretly hoping that he won’t. I can tell from the distant yells and Wilhelm screams that Benoît’s already abandoned our conversation and started one of his trademark pre-match team talks, so I hang up. From somewhere in front of me I hear a tut and look up to see my assistant, watching me from my hotel room doorway. “Do you not have your own room?” I ask.
“I told you so.” Bechkoura’s shit eating grin is tinged with false sympathy. He lifts a big red apple to his mouth, breathes on it for some reason and then takes a huge bite, before continuing through a mouthful of it’s flesh. “I told you what’d happen if you left Benoît Cheyrou in charge of pre-season. People will die, Franjo.”
“Benoît’s all talk.” I reply, unconvincingly.
“I’m just saying. I would’ve done a much better job of…”
“You’ve ‘just said’ that a number of times, David,” I make little mocking quotation marks with my fingers. “And I keep ‘just telling’ you that you’re here with me, aren’t you. So how on Earth do you reckon you’d conduct Auxerre’s pre-season from Italy, you fucking waffle?”
Bechkoura opens his mouth ready to speak, but then decides against it.
I’m doing a bit more rotation today for France’s Quarter Final match against Ukraine. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m underestimating them as I’m certainly not, but Antoine Griezmann could do with another rest after bagging a brace against Spain, Rabiot could too and Raphaël Varane’s been our only ever-present outfield player so far and so could definitely benefit from catching his breath. Neal Maupay, Corentin Tolisso and Aymeric Laporte replace the trio.
I tell you what I could do without: An injury to Kylian Mbappé. 8 minutes in he takes a cheeky elbow to the ribs, but after assessment from the physio’s he’s deemed fit to play on. Hang in there, you brilliant and apparently fragile thing.
A few minutes later I’m struck with that familiar sense of dread when Kovalenko sends a pass between Laporte and Umtiti and Maxim Tankov steals in ahead of the latter to gather the ball on the edge of our box. The striker, who I touted as a possible Golden Boot winner before the tournament but who has yet to find the net, looks up and picks his spot. With a swing of his boot, the ball skids away off the turf and nestles with prickling inevitability in the bottom corner of Leo Gauthier’s net.
Why now, Maxim? Why against us? Straight from kick off a French attack breaks down and Ukraine counter, allowing the prick to have another go. Collecting the ball in his own half and surging at our defence, Tankov runs straight past Umtiti, then Laporte, then skips past Sidibé for good measure. He drills another shot towards the bottom corner from 12 yards, but this time Gauthier proves equal to it, parrying the ball behind for a corner. A few seconds later Zinchenko swings the ball in and Kovalenko rises highest to head towards goal, but Gauthier saves well again, allowing us to finally clear our lines.
In the 17th minute, we shake off our early oppression and have a go ourselves, with the bruised but unbroken Kylian Mbappé switching the ball from left to right to Neal Maupay, who sends a cross into the 6 yard box where Mbappé arrives quite unmarked to head us level.
We head towards half time as the dominant team but 20 minutes after our equalising goal, Ukraine strike again: Umtiti spectacularly fails to clear Yarmolenko’s cross and merely boots the ball to Zinchenko 12 yards out. Zinchenko smashes a shot against the far post, but the ball rebounds and hits Gauthier on the back before bobbling into the net. 5 minutes later though we draw level once again and again Neal Maupay plays a major part, this time dribbling through the centre of the pitch and finding Sidibé on the right, who’s charging forwards on the overlap. Sidibé whips a lovely cross into the 6 yard box and Corentin Tolisso of all people gets on the end of it to side foot a volley past Shevchenko from close range.
After a quick pep talk we head out for the second half at 2-2, but the scoreline changes within 2 minutes thanks to Ukraine’s Kovalenko, although not in the way you’d expect. Tolisso’s low cross deflects off the midfielder’s foot and wrong foots Shevchenko before finding the net to put us ahead.
Just minutes later we get a nice little boost when Coman brings the ball out of the air in Ukraine’s box only to be clumsily tripped by Boryachuk. The referee points to the spot and Mbappé, eager to dispel the myth that he’s a bad penalty taker after the one he sneaked in during the Group Stage, hammers the ball into the top right corner to put us 4-2 ahead.
I’m obviously still wary of Ukraine’s threat, despite the quiet 40 minutes or so that Tankov’s had since his goal, but I decide to rest a few more players ahead of the Semi-Final we should now be playing against Germany or Belgium. Lemar replaces the injured-ish Mbappé, Abi Sissako comes on in place of Tiémoué Bakayoko and Paul Pogba hands his captain’s armband over to Aymeric Laporte as he heads to the bench to be replaced by Lamine Fomba, who makes his tournament debut.
Within 12 minutes of kicking off the second half level, the scoreline’s stretched to 5-2 courtesy of a beautiful one-touch move. Sissako to Coman, then on to Lemar. The winger taps the ball straight into the path of Sidibé, who bursts uncharacteristically into the box from the right wing. Sidibé takes a touch to get him into the 6 yard box and slides a shot beyond Shevchenko and into the far bottom corner. It’s a beautiful move and a well deserved goal for a superb footballer.
With 70 minutes on the clock, we’re cruising comfortably and rather satisfyingly past a tough Ukrainian side and I’m happy. I’m even happier 2 minutes later though, when Lucas Digne, one of our main creators in the last couple of matches, drifts a cross into our opposition’s box from the left and Lamine bloody Fomba arrives at the near post to half-volley in his first France goal from 8 yards. What a lad.
2 minutes from the end we put the cherry on top: Another break from Digne down the left wing, another cross this time to the penalty spot and Abi Sissako guides the ball into the far bottom corner on the half volley. Sissako, beaming from ear to ear, sprints over to Lamine Fomba, who picks his team mate up before they’re joined by the rest of the team.
Although I feel for Ukraine and think they’ve had an impressive tournament, I’ll go back to the hotel a happy man tonight having sent them home. A 7-2 French win and a goal each for my Auxerre boys, while Cheyrou’s l’AJA took a 1-0 friendly win over Westerlo. Bloody near perfection.