“If you like Claude Makélélé”, I sing, to the tune of Rupert Holmes’ Escape, “And playing Saint-Étienne…” I signal to Bechkoura to continue the melody but he just shrugs.
“I’ve got nothing.” He says apologetically.
“Me neither after that bit.” I admit. “It’s got the makings of a good Saint-Étienne song though, hasn’t it. There’s potential there.” Bechkoura nods.
“Is that the song where the lyrics are about a man trying to cheat on his wife?” He asks.
“Yeah. It’s one of those things that people think are ‘fun facts’ but are actually just common knowledge at this point. He meets up with a woman from the advert and it turns out to be his wife, doesn’t it.” Bechkoura looks puzzled.
“Rupert Holmes; The bloke who wrote the song. Or probably not his wife, but you know… The person whose point of view the lyrics were written from.”
“Well no, it’s not originally about Claude bloody Makélélé, is it?” I laugh. “I don’t even know if he’s married.”
“So how did he cheat with Rupert Holmes’ wife?”
“He didn’t!” I stare exasperatedly at my assistant. “Are you alright? Did you fall asleep midway through this conversation or something?” Bechkoura opens his mouth to speak, but closes it again without a sound. He looks like he’s struggling. “Forget it.” I sigh.
Makélélé’s men pay us a visit today and it’s fair to say I’ve had a sketchy record against him and his infuriatingly defensive formations during my time in France. We’ve been knocked off our perch and down to 3rd by Monaco and Bordeaux but I’m determined to use our game in hand to thump some goals in and get back to the top of the league.
Our recent extremely disappointing draw against Stade de Reims is still ringing in my ears somewhat, but despite the fact that Claude parks the same 1-2-2-3-2-shaped bus as Reims, I’m not going overboard with changes. After my experimental second string played København midweek, I’m bringing back what I still believe to be my first choice XI for this one and it’s the same side that struggled against Reims, except with Lucas and Éder coming in to replace suspended duo Boris Triponez and Rúben Neves. Manuel Bueno and Silvio Cvitanovic both make the bench despite having picked up knocks in training since my Champions League debut.
Any illusions on the part of Saint-Étienne that they’d be able to keep us at bay and erode our confidence for the first hour like Stade de Reims did last week are quickly blown to smithereens in the 12th minute, when a nice right sided, in-swinging corner from Coman connects with Lucas on the right hand side of the 6 yard box. The centre back does his claims to the first team no harm at all by powering a header past Posavec and giving us a 1-0 lead. Another Coman corner from the other side causes problems 10 minutes later too, this time when Toni Lato jumps to reach the ball but is shoved by Guibert, winning us a penalty. Mateo Kovacic steps up to the spot, gives the keeper the eyes and clips the ball firmly into the bottom left corner for 2-0.
It could be 3-0 just a minute later when we win a free kick just inside Saint-Étienne’s half. Kovacic steps up again and lofts the ball towards the box, Coman flicks it on and Lato’s in the thick of the action once again. The wing back heads the ball goalwards at the near post but this one’s easy for Posavec to catch. Instead, we get our 3rd goal just before the half hour when Éder brings the ball forwards and gives it to Lato, who chips it down the line for Orlando, who picks out who else but Kingsley Coman at the far post with a whipped cross. Coman does what Coman does, tapping us into a three goal cushion with two thirds of the game still to play.
Half time gives me a chance to congratulate the Paris Saint-Germain lads a collective pat on the back for a job well done, as it seems like the second half’s going to be a bit of a formality. Within 5 minutes of the restart though they let me know that we’re not done yet: A patient move around a Saint-Étienne half packed with bodies leads to Coutinho standing with the ball 25 yards out. The Brazilian’s almost instantly surrounded but he coolly squares for Kovacic, who plays a first time pass through the defence for Moise Kean. The Italian continues his fine form with a drilled shot under Posavec to make it 4-0.
“But surely we’ll take our foot off the pedal now”, I naively thought during the 2 minute interval before our next goal. I’ll say this about Saint-Étienne: They don’t seem to learn their lessons. Once again Coutinho’s surrounded, once again he squares for Kovacic, who once again plays the ball through for Kean. This time our striker plays a reverse ball for Orlando on the left, who crosses from the byline and then Philippe Coutinho arrives in the centre to tap in goal number 5.
With 25 minutes to play, Michal Hutka and Silvio Cvitanovic both come on replacing Kovacic and Coutinho, who’ve both had fine games and deserve a break. I’ve not seen that much of Hutka so far and I’ve been underwhelmed by Cvitanovic, so with the pressure well and truly off I want them to impress me. The former goes into the Neves role at the base of our midfield, while Éder steps into Kovacic’s shoes and the latter replaces Coutinho like-for-like.
5 minutes after the change, a bit of complacency might be sneaking in. Toni Lato tries to switch the play but it’s a clumsy attempt and he ends up blasting the ball straight against Éder’s back. The loose ball bobbles towards our box and Saint-Étienne substitute Iturbe takes the opportunity to have a snapshot from the edge of the area, but it’s a simple catch for Donnarumma, who’s had barely anything to do today.
The last action of the game comes from a corner from the visitors though, believe it or not. Initially anyway. Seinaes crosses the ball into our box, Ibarra heads it away and Éder runs it out towards the halfway line. The full Brazilian plays a great ball up the left wing for Kean to chase and he does so, before getting to the byline and floating a cross to the far post. Kingsley Coman arrives but can only hit the post from a narrow angle. That takes me back. 5-0 it finishes.
That’s exactly what we needed after the Reims match: A clear, comfortable and unambiguous victory to clear our heads. Initially it does lift us back up to the top of the table, but by time Wednesday rolls around, Bordeaux have slapped us back down to 2nd in the early kick off. We’ll be looking to retake the top spot as we venture South East to a little old City in Burgundy and a little old stadium called the Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps.
If we’d failed to take anything from the Saint-Étienne match, Auxerre would probably be coming into this one thinking we were here for the taking, but as it is they’ll probably be quaking in their boots. Lucas, Ibarra, Lato, Coman, Kovacic and Orlando are all selected for the Team of the Week and if any of them play like they did on Sunday, I’m in for quite a comfortable return.
I really don’t want to be a backseat manager, but I’m wary of Jocelyn Gourvennec’s start to life in Auxerre. He can’t be blamed whatsoever for the club’s early exit from the Europa League Qualifying round as it was me who lead l’AJA to a goalless draw away at Hibernian before caretaker manager Juninho took over for the home leg and oversaw a 0-1 loss. It’s more Jocelyn’s approach to transfers that’s worrying me and here’s why: I like to think that after 3 years at the helm, I can say with some degree of insight that the club cannot compete in the transfer market. Their finances, while greatly improved from where they were a few years ago, are nowhere near strong enough to be able to bring in the type of quality that’s going to immediately improve their squad and they still aren’t of sufficient standing to bring in important quality players from other clubs. Think of my signings while I was there: The Santos 4, who I knew I could swipe from a club who were cash-strapped themselves, Phil Foden, who was frozen out of Manchester City’s reserves, Arturo Vidal and Mamadou Doucouré, who were released by Bayern and Mönchengladbach respectively and Fabien McCarthy and Amine Reynier, who we plucked from South Africa and Ligue 2. Auxerre are a club that need to be self-sufficient for the most part because in the transfer market, they’re feeding off scraps.
That’s why I very rarely actually made signings during my tenure, preferring to blood academy graduates while keeping a consistent core of the squad together. The first indicators for me that things were going to be different under Jocelyn were when he sold both Xavier Lenogue and Celsiney on deadline day. Xavier moved to Marseille as I previously mentioned and Celsiney left for Toulouse. Although I can absolutely sympathise with the club wanting to bring in potentially £7M for a player we spent no money purchasing (Although personally I wouldn’t have cashed in), I cannot for the life of me work out why Celsiney wanted to drop down into Ligue 2 after cementing himself as a Ligue 1 player last season. Seriously, before I left I was fending off interest from Tottenham and Liverpool for the right back and he’s ended up dropping down a division.
But having said all that, fair enough. Celsiney was unsettled over the Summer and although I don’t agree with his choice of club, that’s nothing to do with Jocelyn. Lenogue’s moved to a bigger club, albeit with not much chance of playing, but fine. Here’s where I get wary: The quality of players that Auxerre ended up bringing in this Summer is just not good. Federico Viviani’s a fine centre midfielder, but he’s 32 and they’ll probably struggle to get 2 good seasons out of him in the position where the club is probably best stocked anyway. Young Iranian winger Hossain Joudaki is pretty much a downgrade on Zoun, Mirko Apollonio is an older definite downgrade on Celsiney, Christopher Jullien is a 31 year old Mike Kakuba and Ajibade Sunday is nowhere near Ligue 1 quality. Youn Czekanowicz, who Auxerre signed from us, is a poor goalkeeper but will be backup to be fair and this is where I have to give Jocelyn his dues. I reckon he’s struck gold with his first choice goalkeeper: 19 year old Iranian international Aziz Mehdizadeh. He might have what it takes to grow into a Ligue 1 player. The rest of them, not so much. Use your academy, Jocelyn.
Anyway, that’s my two cents, but obviously Auxerre are no longer my club and their ridiculously frustrating transfer dealings are no longer my problem. As Paris Saint-Germain manager I’m duty-bound to try and rip through my old club like cheap loo roll.
PSG will go unchanged into this one as I see no reason to tweak the side that just demolished Saint-Étienne. Ruben Neves and Boris Triponez are back from suspension but will have to make do with the bench for now. The side I left only 6 weeks ago are nearly unrecognisable already though, with Isaac Sohna, Mamadou Doucouré, Amine Reynier, Fabien McCarthy, Hicham Aidir and Nathan Andre the only starters from my regime lining up in a 4-4-2. With Captiste on the bench, the home side will be lead out by their big Moroccon centre forward and vice-captain, but Hicham isn’t Auxerre’s main threat. He’s scored just once so far this season while Andre’s bagged 5 goals in 6 appearances. Only Kingsley Coman goes into this match having scored more (6 in 6).
The first action of the match comes a quarter of an hour in when Éder passes to Kovacic, who plays it on to Kean, who picks out Coman cutting in off the right flank. Our winger holds off the challenge of Mamadou Doucouré, takes the ball into the box and casually strokes it into the far top corner beyond Mehdizadeh’s reach. Coman v Doucouré did strike me before kickoff as a bit of a mismatch as I never got the impression that the defender was comfortable out wide. Apparently Jocelyn needs to learn that lesson for himself though and just to hammer the point home, we bag a second goal in the 23rd minute. Kovacic spins away from McCarthy and finds Coutinho in space 30 yards from goal. Coutinho plays it inside for Kean, who lays it off for Coman, who loses Doucouré again and buries his 20 yard shot into the same top left corner.
Before the half hour we get another chance when Toni Lato throws the ball in from the left wing level with the Auxerre penalty area. Orlando controls it, holding off Viviani and plays the ball to Kovacic just outside the box. The Croatian chips a lovely first time cross into the 6 yard box and Moise Kean loses his marker Jullien, earning himself a free header… Which he puts just over from 6 yards. 5 minutes later Hicham Aidir’s clattered firmly but fairly by Éder, who launches another PSG attack. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere if I think about it enough, but there’s no time. Éder finds his compatriot Orlando, who sprints away down the left, leaving Reynier and Apollonio in his dust. The Brazilian winger pulls the ball back from the byline for Kean, who blasts a shot at goal, but Mehdizadeh does well to tip it over the bar.
From the resulting corner, Kovacic swings a good cross in towards Kean. The Italian leaps for the ball but is dragged down by Apollonio, who… I’m sorry to harp on about it, but he just isn’t bloody good enough. If they had to sell Celsiney, fine, but Issa Samba should be in ahead of… Anyway… Apollonio gifts us a penalty and Kingsley Coman steps up to blast the spot kick into the top right corner, sealing a 37 minute hat trick. A couple of minutes on we’re caught short when Kovacic’s floated pass from a deep free kick is cleared and Auxerre counter through Andre and Aidir, who both stayed forward for the set piece. Andre picks the ball up and takes it past Éder to release Aidir, who times his run well to stay onside and then bursts through on goal completely alone. He reaches the edge of our box and is one-on-one with the outrushing Donnarumma, but his low driven shot is turned behind by the Italian goalkeeper.
We go close to a 4th goal before half time when Orlando’s cross deflects off Reynier and bounces to Coutinho 25 yards out, but the playmaker shoots just wide of the top right corner. At half time my team talk really gives itself but we come back out for the second half to the news that Hicham’s been sacrificed for the hosts and Goujon has come on to try and sure up their midfield, which to be fair seems like a good call but a tad late.
Goujon doesn’t exactly scream “Security” 15 minutes later though, winning the ball off Kean but then smashing his clearance against the striker’s legs, causing the ball to trickle over to Orlando on the edge of the box. The Brazilian shoots weakly with his unfavoured right foot however and it’s an easy catch for Mehdizadeh. A minute later Auxerre try and hit back when Reynier chips a good ball over to McCarthy, who’s in space 25 yards out. The South African slides a pass through for Andre but his shot too is weak and Donnarumma catches it comfortably. Rounding off an intense 5 minute spell, Coman gets the ball on the right wing shortly after and crosses for Moise Kean, who spins around on the edge of the box and shoots straight at Mehdizadeh. Not a fantastic half for quality shots, this.
As the half rumbles on, Gourvennec brings on big Phil Foden and Billy in the hopes that they’ll be able to bring about a comeback or more likely a consolation and I then bring off the booked and shattered Éder, replacing him with Rúben Neves. The last chance comes 5 minutes from time when Kean surges through the centre of the pitch and drives a shot low towards the corner of goal, but again Auxerre’s Iranian goalkeeper pulls off a good save to deny the striker a place on the scoresheet. Aside from a late Cvitanovic cameo, that’s our lot.
I’m in high spirits after the match. A 5th win in 6 league games sends us back to the top of Ligue 1 and it’s nice to see the Auxerre players and staff, a few of whom I have a chat with before getting back on the bus to the airport. When I finally do retake my seat next to Bechkoura, I notice that he’s silently looking out of the window. I wonder if he’s still trying to work out who Claude Makélélé cheated on to inspire that fucking song.