I’m very happy. Everyone’s very happy today. Why in the name of Timothy Filiga Cahill and his two storey vertical leap would anyone be anything other than happy today? I won both of my England matches, PSG are unbeaten in 15 league games and Bayern boss Massimiliano Allegri was spotted in the crowd at PSG’s last match watching Ibarra and Orlando. If he wants to make an official approach for either player, I’ll happily tell him to keep jogging on until he falls in the Seine. Happy, happy, happy.
Lille are not as happy as us. Not by a long shot. While we have a close-to-fully-fit squad packed full of World class talent, Lille are in the relegation zone having shipped an average of 2 goals per game. They’re the antithesis of happy. They’re distinctly unhappy and I want them to stay that way beyond their visit to the Parc des Princes today.
As I say though, we do have a few fitness issues at the minute and with one eye on our trip to Sevilla midweek for our third Champions League Group match, I’m fielding a slightly weakened side. Donnarumma, Ibarra and Lucas start in defence and incidentally I’ve been impressed with Lucas this season so far. A few really solid performances have put him right back into my good graces following our falling out when I dropped him from my France squad and I now actually wonder whether Marquinhos deserves to walk back into the side ahead of him. Renan Henrique, Éder and the Dobster start ahead of them, while Kovacic returns to his box-to-box role. Kingsley Coman gets a rare rest and I’m trying young Michal Hutka out on the right wing in his place. With Moise Kean still recovering from his concussion though the last 3 spots are as we’ve come to expect: Coutinho in the hole behind Bueno with Orlando out on the left.
We try to come flying out of the traps but our attacks don’t click in the first few minutes. Credit to Lucas for getting stuck in, winning us the ball and launching those attacks, but he’s also at fault when Teixeira breaks past him in the 3rd minute and lashes a shot just wide of Donnarumma’s near post. I will admit that it very nearly wipes the smile from my face 15 minutes in when Benhalib breaks following a cleared Kovacic free kick, dribbles through our half unchallenged and sticks the opening goal in the bottom corner, but due to my unnaturally high current happiness levels, I manage to hold onto a slight smirk.
We go on the attack after the half hour as we’ve really struggled to break the visitors down so far, but our next patient passing move through the middle of the park is brought to an abrupt end when Kovacic’s pass is cut out on the edge of Lille’s box by Kapustka, who lumps it upfield. Teixeira takes possession on the halfway line and slices our defence open like a hot scalpel with a pass ahead of Benhalib, who runs through on goal but scuffs his shot wide. A minute later we manage to breathe a sigh of relief when Kovacic has a more successful pass find Manuel Bueno on the edge of the box and the big Spaniard blasts past Pattinama to equalise.
We’re nearly instantly behind again though as Benhalib passes into the box for Teixeira pretty much straight from kick off and Ibarra is nowhere near covering the striker’s run. Teixeira shoots, but hits Gigi’s right post to spare our blushes. If these could shoot, this match would be over.
After a calm half time exchange of ideas though, we manage to turn the tables on Lille just 2 minutes into the second half from a well worked right sided throw in. Renan throws to Hutka, who plays it into the box for Dobby, who lays it off for Coutinho and the Brazilian smashes one ruthlessly into the top corner for 2-1. After the hour we ease off a bit as Lille seem a broken team, with 10 minutes to go I decide to bring off Ibarra and Orlando and replace them with Marquinhos and Kean to get them 10 minutes fitter and with 3 minutes to go we drop back entirely into a defensive 4-1-4-1. This, as it turns out, is my mistake. In the 91st minute we’re so far back that Lille have got the run of our half and Sarabia surges down the left wing unchallenged, looking for options. He spies one in that nuisance Benhalib and lofts a cross towards him at the far post. Benhalib chests it down but Lucas charges courageously in and swings his boot at the ball in an attempt to clear our lines, but in doing so he smacks it against the striker and the ball ricochets back across our box in torturous slow motion. Sarabia arrives quite unmarked and prods Lille level from point blank range with barely a few seconds left to play.
There’s certainly nothing like a late goal against you to dampen spirits, but in all fairness I think Lille deserved a point. We had the lion’s share of the chances, but they had the best ones. Also I refuse to get overly down over that result because of the fact that I’m still getting to know this squad! This was a side missing Marquinhos, Bologna, Lato, Neves, Coman and Kean, who I would say from my early impressions are some of our most important players. Today I’ve learned that I probably shouldn’t leave so many of them out of the squad at once, so lesson learned. The upside of that decision though is that we’ve now got the majority of them fighting fit for our Champions League trip to Spain.
Sevilla actually shocked the World last time out by losing to FC København, who are seen as the weakest side in Group C by many including myself. They’ve also drawn against Roma, a result that gave both sides their only point so far. This bodes extremely well for us.
I’m bringing a lot of the big guns back in for this one, although I’m also rotating a few players out because of ineligibility and fitness. Renan Henrique, Dobby, Kovacic, Hutka, Coutinho, Orlando and Bueno are all out as Triponez, Bologna, Neves, Coman, Veiga, Cvitanovic and Kean come in. Lucas gets a run out at left sided inverted wing back due to Dobby’s ineligibility and Lato’s injury and Éder pushes forward as a ball winning midfielder in front of Neves, who returns to his favourite role at the base of midfield.
The game does not get off to a terrific start. It takes less than 2 minutes for Youri Tielemans, star of Belgium’s Euro 24 side, to poke the ball down the left for winger Fran García, who surges down the flank purposefully. He gets to the byline and squares the ball into the 6 yard box, where Triponez slides in but completely misses his interception, leaving attacking midfielder Óliver free to prod the ball into the net from point blank range. In the 19th minute, we’re playing some fairly nice football but Sevilla are pressing us mercilessly. We string together a particularly nice move through the middle of the park but eventually run out of steam under the hosts’ defensive pressure and they break forwards. This time Óliver turns Rúben Neves 25 yards from goal and flicks the ball past Triponez for Abba, who hits a sweetly struck volley beyond Donnarumma’s reach for 2-0. We go on the attack for the last 10 minutes of the half, but go in for the break 2 goals down.
As the half time whistle blows, a strange thing happens: It’s as if the sound shakes loose some old memories that I’d long since forgotten about. They flash across my mind’s eye in a brilliant montage and I grab Bechkoura’s arm as he makes to stand up and head for the tunnel. “Hang on.” I mutter. “We’ve done this before.” My assistant eyes me cautiously. “We’ve played this match before.” I insist.
“Are you alright, Boss?” He asks, wearing a look of genuine concern.
“I’m fucking fine, but I mean it, we’ve played this match before!” The memories start to swim back away into the back of my mind but I lock my eyes shut and try to force them back to the foreground. “Come on, come on… Coman crosses it…” I mutter.
“Kean heads it in! We’re winning!”
“I’m going to get the doc.” I tighten my grip on his tracksuit sleeve.
“And then time stands still.” I open my eyes and notice that I’m breathing slightly heavily. “Everything froze. Right as that half time whistle went. But don’t you see? We were winning!”
“Well lucky us.” Bechkoura replies, trying to shake his arm free of my grasp. “But in the real World we’re 2-0 down, so shall we…”
“It was real! It was here! We were winning! It was as if it was a… A different timeline, where we came into the half time break with a 1 goal lead.” He finally frees his arm and half-laughs.
“Wish we were in that timeline now.” He mutters. “A 1 goal lead away at Sevilla at half time. Wow. That would really be something.”
“It would, wouldn’t it, Bechkoura. A 1 goal lead away at Sevilla at half time would really be something that would give me confidence of bouncing back after our disappointing draw against Lille at the weekend. But here we are. Half time in our match away at Sevilla and we’re 2-0 down.”
“Almost feels like we’ve been cheated out of a result, the fact that we’re now here in this decidedly worse timeline, doesn’t it?” He asks, seriously.
“Almost.” We stare at each other. There’s a long, heavy silence between us that the jubilant noises coming from the majority of the stadium fail to penetrate.
“Shall we head in?”
I make a couple of changes at the break: Marquinhos comes on not only for extra leadership to sure us up, but also because I want him fully fit as soon as possible and every minute of football I can give him will hasten his recovery. Winger Darcílio also comes onto the left wing in place of Silvio Cvitanovic, who’s had another off day.
The last of my hope for this match doesn’t quite trickle away entirely until the 57th minute, when Moise Kean drives in from the left wing with the ball at his feet and slides it across the Sevilla box to Coman, who’s in acres of space. Coman shoots from the right hand side of the 6 yard box but Zoet parries it away as far as Darcílio, who turns the rebound against the outside of the left post. It just isn’t going to happen. Coutinho replaces Veiga, just in case the little Brazilian can work his magic.
With 10 minutes of the match to play, we go balls to the wall and hurl everything we have at the home side, but with 2 to play we’re punished for it when Sevilla break up our attack and break on us again. García drifts a cross in from the left, Óliver loops a header over Gigi into the far corner and my good mood of a few days ago is officially fucking ruined. 0-3.
“It’s a real shame we weren’t in your other timeline, eh?” Grins Bechkoura as we step onto the team bus. “That Kean couldn’t put us ahead and give us a platform at half time.”
“It is a shame,” I concur, “But it’s not Kean’s fault that he couldn’t match his feat from the ‘other timeline’. He’s blameless.”
“Obviously Moise Kean is completely blameless.” Agrees Bechkoura.
“Obviously. To say otherwise would make you a stupid fucking ignorant dick, wouldn’t it. What a stupid fucking ignorant dick thing to say.”