The Nuevo Mestalla Showdown (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep213)

I fear that I may have brought this on myself.

Side note: I’m off on holiday so won’t be posting. See you in a couple of weeks!

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“Franjo?” A reporter near the front raises her hand and I nod for her to continue. “What would you say to the claims that you’re slowly eroding the quality of this England side?” I blink, momentarily taken aback, but quickly put on a composed facade.

“I’ve not really heard those claims.” I reply slowly. “Could you elaborate?”

“Well,” She continues, “Some are pointing towards the fact that you seem to be building around a core of Championship and lower Premier League players, players not proven at the top level and players like Phil Jones whose better days are behind them. You’re also playing an awful lot of them out of their natural positions.” I pause for a moment, parsing the criticism.

“Phil Jones has won 2 Serie A titles in the last 3 seasons.” I say coldly.

“As a centre back.” Another journalist pipes up. “And he’s 32, shouldn’t we be looking towards the future?”

“We are!” I laugh in disbelief. “But they’re apparently too young, so I’m not sure what you want.” I force myself to remain calm, but the dam that holds back the dyke of my 3 decades of international frustration is bulging and straining with the effort of it. “Was Teddy Sheringham too old at 36 when he scored against Greece and got us to the World Cup in 2002? Was Wayne Rooney too young when he broke into the England team at 17? Was he too immature and inexperienced when he was running rings around international defenders in 04 and 06?”

“Probably.” Says the first journalist bluntly. “He stamped on Ricardo Carvalho.”

“Look, there’s no magic formula for this, you know. I’ve been England manager for 3 months and I’m casting a wide net. Yes, that includes some Championship footballers that have impressed me. Yes, that includes some young players who I think can lead us into the future and yes that includes Phil Jones. In Midfield. Any more questions?” The first journalist smiles as she begins scribbling away in her notepad, but nobody speaks. “Right. Cheers.”

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Goalkeepers

Jordan Pickford (Sunderland), Jack Butland (Arsenal), Will Mannion (Norwich City)

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Defenders

John Stones (Liverpool), Michael Keane (Real Madrid), Juddy Lokando (Manchester City), Louis Winterton (Southampton), Harry Winks (West Bromwich Albion), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Real Sociedad on loan from Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Charlie Taylor (Swansea City)

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Midfielders

Eric Dier, Dele Alli (Both Tottenham Hotspur), Reece Oxford (Watford), Jordan O’Halloran (Stoke City), Jack Willis (Arsenal), Stuart Coleman (Manchester United), Phil Jones (AC Milan), Adam Bell (Leicester City)

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Strikers

Oliver Webb (Chelsea), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Marcus Rashford (Real Madrid), Frank Udeh (Middlesborough) 

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I’ve made a few changes for England’s matches against Croatia and Spain and if I’m honest, they’ve been met with some bemusement. The first is in defence, where I’ve chosen to swap out Mason Holgate for his uncapped Southampton teammate Louis Winterton. Holgate’s a fine player and like Winterton he’s in good form, but the way I reason it, there isn’t much difference in ability between the two, Louis has actually been playing at centre back as oppose to Mason, who plays right back for his club and Louis is 7 years younger. It’s really a no brainer. Louis can also play in midfield, which you might think I would utilise given my recent trend of playing centre backs as ball winners, but for me he’s a back liner. He’s not tenacious or aggressive enough to play the midfield role I want.

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My second change is the inclusion of Arsenal’s Jack Willis ahead of Bournemouth’s Ed Salmon in the box-to-box role. I like Ed and I have absolutely no doubt that he’ll be back in the England team in time, but his form’s been sliding in the Championship and Jack deserves a chance to impress having had a decent start to the season. He’ll be celebrating the second anniversary of his first and only cap under Eddie Howe in two days time and although he doesn’t exactly scream “World Class” to me, he’s a good player, a good worker and I reckon he’ll fit in fine.

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The third change really pains me. Over the last year I’ve gawped at Eddie Howe’s ridiculous decision to overlook Jobel in his England squads while the Stoke City man topped all the Premier League goalscoring charts. 3 months into my England reign he’s managed 4 goals in 12 appearances and I just can’t justify his inclusion. His replacement is the uncapped Frank Udeh, who was unlucky to be kept out of my last squad by Jobel’s decent form and Harry Kane’s return from injury, but now I have space to give another striker a look and he’s next in the queue. Frank’s had a decent couple of seasons in the Championship on loan at Millwall and Wolves from Arsenal, in which time he made 93 appearances and scored 41 goals. After his £7M summer switch to Middlesborough though he’s been on fire, scoring 8 in his first 14 games and positioning the Boro in a relatively comfortable 2nd place.

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Just while we’re on strikers, David Crammond is the man who was left out of my last squad to facilitate Harry Kane’s inclusion but he’s nowhere near breaking back in after a horrible few months. The striker somewhat justifiably feels that he’s outgrown West Ham but made the eyerollingly poor decision to throw his toys out of the pram and demand a move that never came. Now he’s found himself in what I like to call “The Berahino Zone”, where he’s unhappy with the club, the club are unhappy with him and his form is reflecting it. 2 goals in 10 is not good enough, Davey boy. Also he’s sprained his ankle, just to pile on the misery. And speaking of players nowhere near this squad, Lewis Cook is still not playing for City. The pair of them are really good players and I wish I had a reason to include them, but between them they’re earning almost £300k per week, so maybe I’m the one making poor life decisions.

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To warm us up for our final EIL match away at Pep’s place, we’re travelling to Zagreb to take on one of Euro 24’s most laughably poor sides, Croatia. After watching them over the Summer I do expect us to win, but we can’t overlook Mateo Kovacic, who’s been excellent for my PSG side. As it’s a friendly I’ll also be experimenting a bit with personnel, giving some of my “first choice” side a bit of a rest before the Spain game.

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Let’s talk about keepers for a second, actually. Jordan Pickford’s starting this match and unless he cocks up monumentally, he’ll start against Spain too as he’s my first choice. To be perfectly honest though, I’m not happy with any of the goalkeepers in my squad. Pickford and Butland are both decent but prone to flappy hand syndrome, while Mannion seems fine but will never grow into an international starter. We need fresh blood but I just don’t know where it’s going to come from. There are a few good young keepers playing in the reserves of Premier League teams but until their clubs give them a chance I’m certainly not going to. We’ll keep an eye on that.

Ahead of Pickford, Louis Winterton makes his debut alongside our experienced vice-captain John Stones, Reece Oxford is ahead of them as the half back, while TAA and Shaw are going to be the wing backs. Jordan O’Halloran starts with Stu Coleman in midfield, with Abel playing just behind Oliver Webb and debutant Frank Udeh.

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We push Croatia back with some nice football in the opening minutes and our first chance comes when Webb spreads the ball out to the left wing, Shaw heads it into the box and Udeh gets a header on goal, but he can’t find enough power and the effort’s caught by Maric.

After quarter of an hour, Croatia have their first go when Damjanovic surges onto the left wing from a central position and drills what I think is a cross against the near post. To be fair, Pickford had it covered anyway. A minute later, Damjanovic cuts in from the right but is dispossessed by a perfect Coleman slide tackle, sending the ball sliding away across the turf towards our box. Krovinovic picks up the loose ball, finds a yard of space ahead of Stones and places a shot into the top left corner to give the Croatians the lead.

10 minutes on, Udeh tees a shot up perfectly for Stuart Coleman, who lashes the ball straight down the middle from the edge of the box, forcing Maric to push it behind for a corner, which comes to nothing. On the half hour, Croatian dangerman Vlasic runs at our defence and shoots low and hard towards the corner, but Pickford, in true Pickford style, pulls off an excellent fingertip save and parries the ball right back into danger in the 6 yard box. Luckily Winterton’s there to clear our lines.

Croatia frustrate us for the remainder of the first half and for the majority of the second. On the hour I bring Rashford on for Webb, in the 75th minute we go all out attack and with just 10 minutes to go, we make a rare formation change to a 4-2-3-1. Jack Willis and Harry Kane come on replacing Coleman and Oxford as we pile more and more players forward in search of the equaliser.

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We enter injury time still thoroughly frustrated and Harry Kane even picks up a gash on his head, which I hope won’t keep him out of the next match. For now, he’s bandaged up and plays on but it takes us until the 93rd minute to create our next good chance. John Stones plays a long ball forward into the right channel, it bounces over the defence, Rashford brings it down and powers it low past Maric to finally get us back onto level pegging.

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I’ll take that. Not exactly a vintage performance but a late goal is always a confidence booster and there were definitely some positives. Winterton for example had a really good debut… Actually no, that’s about it.

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Now this is a very interesting development.

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While we were busy playing out a forgettable draw against Croatia, Austria were doing us a hell of a favour in the European International League, beating Pep’s Spain 2-1. I assumed that Spain would win and would sit on top of our group on 9 points going into the final match and in doing so, I made an ass out of you and me. Weirdly the shock result doesn’t actually change the context of our match at all though. If Spain were on 9 points, we’d have to beat them in more convincing fashion than they beat us to go to the top of the league and qualify for the Semi-Finals in the Summer. Now though, we’re both on 6 points and we… Need to beat them anyway. If it came down to goal difference a draw would do as we’re doing 6 goals better, but it doesn’t, so it wouldn’t. I am hoping though that losing to the group’s whipping boys will put a dent in Spain’s confidence, which we can take advantage of.

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Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece Oxford and Abel are all coming out of the side to make way for Harry Winks, Eric Dier and Dele Alli, who quite frankly I just trust more. I’m also bringing Frank Udeh out and although Harry Kane’s gashed head has healed up quite nicely, I’m going to start Marcus Rashford ahead of him. Rashford’s been one of our better players under my regime and I think he and Webb are probably our best attacking configuration. The final change is at the back, where Louis Winterton is coming out to be hesitantly replaced by Juddy Lokando. Winterton had a good debut and Lokando made a couple of mistakes in the home tie against the Spaniards that really cost us, but I can’t hold it against him. He’s probably our best defensive prospect going forwards so I have to just trust that he’s learned from that match and put it behind him. Tactically I’m making a little tweak in midfield, with Coleman given a more defensive ball winning role so that Spain can’t break on us through the space we often granted them in the middle last time.

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As I step out onto the Nuevo Mestalla touchline, Guardiola appears by my side and claps a hand around my shoulders. “Good luck, my friend and may the best team win.” He smiles. I don’t. It’s time to take your medicine, Josep.

The action begins immediately as Spain barrel through our half and win a corner. Isco swings it in but the ball’s cleared and we counter through Marcus Rashford, who surges dangerously through Spain’s half and lets fly from the edge of the box, sending his shot just wide of the far post. In the 5th minute Isco finds himself in space on the left wing and gets a cross in. Lokando and Pickford both come to claim it but the keeper misjudges the flight of the ball and it’s Lokando that gets to it, rising well to head the it clear. The defender’s header gets as far as the edge of the box however and with Pickford still in no man’s land, Pérez takes the opportunity to smash a volley over his head and put Spain into the lead. The corner of my mouth twitches. That was so poor by our number 1. Change is needed.

In the 13th minute we put a lovely move together. Alli sprays the ball out to Winks on the right wing, who holds it up for a second before playing it around the corner to meet the run of Ollie Webb. Webb takes a touch, fizzes a low cross towards the 6 yard box and Dele Alli Arrives to tuck in the equaliser. This is more like it.

2 minutes later we win a corner and Webb goes across to take it. He swings the ball in, it’s headed back out and Alli nods it back out to Webb, who whips a cross in towards the near post… Where Juddy Lokando glances a header across goal and in. I punch the air fiercely as Juddy wheels away to celebrate his first international goal, but then I have to move quickly to restrain Rui Faria, who’s shouting unwritable things towards the home dugout. 2-1 England.

Just a minute after we take the lead however, Spain put together a good move of their own. Isco squares the ball inside from the right and Ramos has all the time in the World to slide it into the path of Pérez inside the box. Pérez cuts it back for Grimaldo, who also has acres of space to send a shot pinballing through the crowd of bodies and into the net. 2-2. The breathless start to the match continues when Rashford slips Alli through straight from kick off, but De Gea keeps the Spurs man’s shot out at his near post. We round off the first half with another chance when Rashford cuts in from the right wing while we counter a failed Spanish attack. Rashford plays it into the channel for Webb, who blasts it left footed and just misses the near post.

The second half starts in a similar vein to the first, with Ramos speeding down the left wing just 5 minutes in and hanging a cross up at the far post for Isco, who heads against the post from point blank range. It’s probably just as well for the sake of mine and Pep’s health that the match calms down a bit after that chance though. The next big chance doesn’t come until the 68th minute when Stuart Coleman wins possession in our box with another perfect slide tackle and Alli punts the ball forward to start a counter attack. Ollie Webb takes it down near the centre circle and curls a great pass over Spain’s defence for Rashford to run onto. The Madrid man has the beating of the defenders and runs through on goal as De Gea rushes out to meet him. Rashford dinks it low… AND IN AT THE FAR POST.

“Come on!” I scream, as my mind races to think of something slightly more constructive to do. “Charlie, Michael…” I gesture over to Taylor and Keane on the bench and signal for them to warm up. We’ll try to soak up pressure for the remaining 20 minutes, with Taylor coming on as a winger capable of tracking back and Keane coming on as a more defensive alternative to winks on the right of defence. We still have plenty of pace that we can use to hit them on the break, so we shouldn’t invite too much pressure onto ourselves.

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2 minutes later, Alli fires a weak shot at De Gea, who catches the ball and begins a period of immense Spanish pressure in our half. First Pablo lifts the ball over our defence for Villalibre, who lets it bounce and then half-volleys towards Pickford’s top corner, but the keeper uses his black-cat-like reflexes to tip the ball behind at full stretch. From the corner, the ball’s worked around our box and ends up with Pedro Javier, who drives a low shot which Pickford also turns behind with an excellent diving save. Good lad, Jordan.

5 minutes later, Pablo plays a beautiful, flat diagonal ahead of Lirola on the right wing. Lirola crosses it towards the penalty spot and Villalibre executes a perfect volley, rifling the ball into the back of the net before Pickford can even move. I fear that I may have brought this on myself, but not to worry. We hastily backpedal to the original plan of Project: Pride and introduce TAA in place of Luke Shaw. We now have Trent at right wing back, Taylor at left wing back and Michael Keane in central midfield, making him the 4th centre back I’ve subjected to this mad but fairly successful experiment in the space of 3 months.

With 7 minutes to play and with Spain back at the top of the EIL Division A Group 3 table, Isco finds space on the edge of our box and tries his luck from 25 yards, but it’s easy for Jordan Pickford to catch and he launches the ball up field as he so often does. Webb nods the ball on and Rashford brings it down, then fires it back in front of Webb on the right wing as the travelling fans roar encouragement for the striking pair. Red and white bodies are tearing through the Spanish half in equal measure, determined to either halt or help the developing attack, but they’re all ignored as Webb surges down the right, reaches the byline and pulls it back into the box for RASHFORD!

Pandemonium. Absolute fucking pandemonium as Marcus Rashford nearly takes the net off from 6 yards. People are jumping up on their seats, bottles are being thrown, shirts are coming off… And that’s just in our dugout. Not yet ready to join in the celebrations, I glance over to Pep, who’s stood on the touchline with his half on his chin, blankly staring over towards the Spanish goal. We pull back to our defensive 4-1-4-1 and eventually, after each remaining minute drags on for at least half an hour, we see the game out. We’ve bloody done it. We’ve won the pivotal game in a complete reversal of our previous match up.

My winless record against Josep Guardiola has been ended, Saint George’s cross has been flying throughout, the three lions have been thumped and kissed, Lokando has been vindicated, Rashford has been ruthless and Oliver Webb has just earned himself a mention in my fucking will. The inexperienced players, the out-of-position players, the Championship players, the players past their prime; They’ve all played their part in one way or another in this Group Stage.

So for the love of God, somebody hand me my vindication blanket afore I freeze amidst the icy glares of the tabloid press and while you’re it, hand Mr Guardiola a notebook and a pen, for he must be reminded and he must take note: That, sir, is how you win a fucking league.

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F*cks Off, Franjo! (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep212)

It’s taxing on the brain, you know; Being a man of the World.

Sidenote: Friday’s episode will be coming out Saturday instead. I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to write when this series eventually ends so excitedly researching and planning for that has eaten most of my week! Back on schedule next week.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 211

Bechkoura chortles over the morning paper. “You’re in here again. Have you seen the headline Le Monde’s gone with?” He asks, pushing the publication towards me. I glance down.

F*cks Off, Franjo!

“Charming.” I grin. I start to read the article aloud. “Argel F*cks has hit out aggressively at Paris Saint-Germain boss WT Franjo after he urged Brazil’s head coach to… What’s this word? Rec… Reconnaître-”

“Recognise. How long have you been in France now?”

“To recognise Orlando’s recent form and call him up to his latest squad. F*cks reportedly said that Franjo’s hands were full enough already and he should concentrate on picking his own teams. Blimey. Do they really have to censor his na-”

“I’m serious.” Bechkoura cuts in with a smirk. “You’ve been here for over 3 years and you’re not exactly fluent in French, are you?”

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“Well give me a break, will you? I’ve got all sorts rattling around up there nowadays! It gets confusing! Swedish, Portuguese-”

“Oh, learned a lot of Swedish in those 6 weeks did you?” His smirk grows wider.

Portuguese,” I reiterate, “Polish… Even a bit of German from the Liechtenstein days. It’s taxing on the brain, you know; Being a man of the World. You wouldn’t understand. How come you speak such good English?”

“Because I had to learn! You and Crouch were in at Auxerre and I had to learn to keep up. I had to pander to you English like the rest of the World always does.”

“Pander’s a good word. Good vocab.” I give him a thumbs up. He scowls back at me as if I’ve missed his point.

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You know what I’d love today? A bit of bloody payback for the thumping we received from Sevilla a few weeks ago. We’re in decent form now with 2 wins on the bounce and Dobby, Kovacic and Orlando are all deservedly included in Ligue 1’s Team of the Week. Kovacic and Orlando especially have had a magnificent couple of matches and if they recreate that form in the Champions League, we should be laughing.

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In other news, Rodolfo Borrell has finally caught up with me after watching Brahim Ferhat for what gelt like a full 6 months in Auxerre. He was in the crowd for our win over Rennes and is apparently interested in Marquinhos, our club captain who’s only just starting his season. If I have to say this any more the words are going to start lose meaning, so please Rodolfo, take the hint and jog the fuck on.

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We’ve pretty much got a full squad to pick from now. The only man that won’t be fit for this one is Manuel Bueno, who twisted his knee in the dying moments of the Rennes match and is out for about a week. He comes out of the side, as do Renan, Dobby and Coutinho who I want to rest. Bologna, Lato, Cvitanovic and Kean are all in.

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Our 2 in-form midfielders combine to create a chance in the 14th minute when our cleared corner leaves the ball with Orlando on the right hand side of the box. The winger, who we’ll assume will not be winning his first cap over the upcoming break, floats a cross to the back stick and Kovacic has to leap to stop the ball going out for a goal kick, instead sending it looping off his head, back across goal and clipping the top of the bar. 5 minutes later, Moise Kean holds the ball up 25 yards out and spins to slip Orlando through on the left. Orlando looks up from the byline and fizzes a low cross into the 6 yard box, where Dani Bologna of all people arrives to bundle home his first goal of the season.

A few minutes after the opener and with blood in the water, my Parisian sharks are circling. This time Cvitanovic switches the ball expertly to the left wing, where Orlando drives for the byline like he does and crosses for Kean, who turns a header over the bar from inside the 6 yard box. A disappointing end to a good move. In the 26th minute a patient bit of Sevilla play ends with a bit of a whimper as Youri Tielemans chips a pass into our left channel and Bologna easily beats García to it. The goalscorer’s touch takes him into our box though and in a breakdown of communication, fellow Italian Gigi Donnarumma comes charging out to boot the ball clear. Bologna does it first, leaving our keeper in no mans land and when Dani’s poor clearance is volleyed straight back into danger by Pozo, Abba merely has to wriggle free of Ibarra and nod the ball into the empty net to equalise. Excellent.

Just after the half hour, Toni Lato makes the exact same mistake, winning the ball from Pozo and playing a really awful clearance straight to García on the opposite wing, midway into our half. García passes inside to Tielemans, who plays it forward to Óliver and a quick round-the-corner pass later, Abba should put Sevilla ahead but thankfully blazes his shot wide of the near post. What’s happened to my sharks? Why is it suddenly our blood in the water and why are Sevilla so pissing frustrating to play against? I call Marquinhos over to take instructions to the rest of the team: Keep it on the floor, lower the tempo, stop giving them the bloody ball 30 yards out.

1-1 is still the scoreline when we get the second half underway. Orlando shows another little flash of brilliance in the 52nd minute, jinking across the width of Sevilla’s box and doing well to create a pocket of space, but then shooting with his weaker right foot straight into Zoet’s arms. A few minutes later though the action’s back down at our end: Óliver swings a corner to the far side of the box and Kurt Zouma rises above both Ibarra and Marquinhos to head the ball back across, where Abba chests it down and Pozo lashes it in on the volley from 6 yards, completing the Spaniards’ turnaround.

We nearly find the equaliser straight from kick off when Kean latches onto a zipped Kovacic pass, but he drags his effort well wide from inside the box. I’ve seen quite enough of our ineffectiveness for one day so decide to shake things up: Éder comes on for Orlando and we go to a narrow, attacking 2-3-2-1-2. Essentially a midfield diamond with overlapping wingbacks. We’ll focus down the middle, trying to overwhelm the visitors with high tempo, direct football. Coman plays as a second striker, joining Kean, who I think will be glad of a striking partner after a quiet few games on his own.

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So close! 5 minutes after the changes, Toni Lato hooks a cross in from the left wing, Kean brings it down coolly at the near post and squares for Coman just outside the 6 yard box. The winger shoots but is denied by a tremendous last ditch tackle from Popescu that deflects the ball wide. With 13 minutes to go and time running out to even salvage a point from what was meant to be Sevilla’s brutal retribution, I throw massive winger Rodolfo Chao on in place of Moise Kean as a makeshift target man. I already really miss Bueno.

We enter the final 10 minutes playing the ball patiently around Sevilla’s half but don’t look too threatening, that is until Neves plays the ball to Germany captain Silvio Cvitanovic, who spins on the spot 35 yards out and fires a pass out ahead of Bologna, who has space to move into. Bologna brings the ball down and into the box with his first touch and strokes it into the far corner of the net with his second, sending a wave of relief rippling over me. Dani Bologna is just about the unlikeliest hero we could have had today. Well played, you brilliant bastard.

We drop off slightly after equalising as at this point I’m ready to take the draw, but we go oh so close to a winner when Coman releases fellow makeshift striker Chao in the left channel. The Argentinian charges into the box and shoots from a tight angle, but can only hit the near post.

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I’ll be honest, that’s really annoying. What could have been a nice straightforward win very nearly turned into a loss because of a couple of mistakes. Bologna redeemed himself pretty well but there’s no doubt that his poor clearance directly lead to Sevilla’s first goal, while Kurt Zouma beating both of my centre backs in the air from a set piece is downright unforgivable. We’ll be doing extra set piece training this week.

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Our match against Dijon comes just a few days later and if one thing was made perfectly clear during the Sevilla match other than our trouble with individual mistakes, it’s that we need reinforcements up front. In the space of a week we’ve gone from being pretty well stocked to having one striker out of sorts and another injured. The fact that we had to be bailed out by our right back speaks for itself and even Rodolfo Chao can’t play league matches as we have too many foreign players, so he hasn’t been registered. We need another option and although I’ve got my scouts out looking for players to bring in in January, for now we need to look closer to home. Meet Christian Osséré:

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Christian’s caught my eye at exactly the right time. Just as I need an extra striker he’s set the reserves league on fire, racking up an incredible 14 goals and 3 assists in just 9 matches. He signed from Red Star for a nominal fee as a youngster and now at 20 he’s made just 2 league appearances for PSG’s first team, which is exactly the problem with the way this club has been doing our transfer business by the way, but let’s not get into that right now. Christian’s a quick, hardworking and dedicated striker who can also play in the hole or out on the right. He can take on a defender and he definitely knows where the net is. Rúben Neves misses this one with suspension so Éder comes into midfield. Other than that we’re unchanged, but with young Osséré on the bench.

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We get off to a scorcher, which is a welcome relief. 5 minutes in, Marquinhos picks up the loose ball and plays a pinpoint pass out to Orlando on the left and the pacy wideman gets it out of his feet before firing the ball low across the 6 yard box. Cvitanovic arrives to turn the ball under Bartolelli and get us off on the right foot. By the 20th minute we look unstoppable, playing short sharp passes and making tidy runs so quick that Dijon can’t even get close to us. Cvitanovic plays a one-two with Orlando and then dribbles out onto our favourite left flank himself, floats a cross in to the far post but it’s just behind Coman, who barely manages to cushion it down for Kean before ending up tumbling into Dijon’s net himself. Kean shoots from 6 yards but it’s straight at Bartolelli, who parries it. Coman gets on the follow up but his shot ricochets off Calvo. The linesman’s flag is raised against the Frenchman anyway.

And then the gut punch: Just after half an hour’s been played, Surac swings a corner in, Assombalonga heads it on and Esposito’s unmarked at the far post to head the hosts level. So easy.  7 minutes later we have a crack at a similar move ourselves when Cvitanovic whips a free kick in from the left wing, Marquinhos flicks it on and Ibarra’s header goes straight into the arms of the goalkeeper. Just before half time Dijon win another corner. This time Guenouche takes it, floating the ball straight over to the far post, where Esposito is alone again to nod his side in front. At half time the score is 1-2 despite our 12 shots to their… 2.

I don’t conceal my rage at half time. We’re developing a very worrying habit of conceding easy goals. Even my France side didn’t concede from this sort of dross, they just got torn apart by anyone who had the gaul to play a forward pass. I tell Kingsley Coman to come back for set pieces and man mark the hell out of Esposito and kick them all back down the tunnel, their ears still ringing.

With 32 minutes to go we go all-out-attack. With 29 minutes to go we equalise, but it comes from a moment of magic rather than an improvement in our football, which leaves me still feeling uneasy. Cvitanovic curls a 20 yard free kick so far into the top corner that I’m surprised it didn’t get stuck between post and bar, bagging his brace. The goal does however seem to give us a kick up the collective arse and we put together a good move just moments later. The ball winds up with Orlando, who squares it for Kovacic 25 yards out. The Croatian lays it off to Coman, who toe pokes it into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Not the prettiest goal you’ll see, but we have at least turned it around. Moise Kean is rapidly dropping in my estimations though and after another quiet 70 minutes, he’s hauled off to make way for young Osséré

Inside the final 15 minutes, Cvitanovic plays a good ball onto the left wing and Orlando runs onto it, which is fast becoming our bread and butter. Orlando crosses from the byline, Coman cushions the ball down at the far post and Cvitanovic lashes a volley goalwards, but it’s blocked by Esposito, who throws his body in the way. I do wish he’d fuck off. A minute later Cvitanovic lobs another perfect pass over the Dijon defence and Orlando brings it down inside the 6 yard box, before slotting in our 4th from a narrow angle. Finally a bit of breathing room.

Éder makes way for the final 10 minutes and Hutka comes on to replace him as I’m still not too sure about the young playmaker and want to give him a run out. Within a couple of minutes though, the hosts peg us back when Arrieta spins Ibarra and releases Jonathan Leko on the right wing. Leko draws Gigi off his line and then aims a low cross at the far post, where Assombalonga bundles it over the line for 4-3.

We have a few decent chances before full time, with Bologna shooting wildly after a short free kick and Osséré having 2 shots well saved by Bartolelli, but the final score stays at 4-3 and we take the win. Just.

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I was really hoping that these matches would cement in my mind the fact that we’d turned that blip around, but if anything it’s made me even less confident. We have problems at the back, problems with set pieces and a problem named Moise Kean who’s forgotten how to shoot. Some positives though are that Osséré looked busy after coming on, Cvitanovic is finally showing me that he can be the player he promised to be and Orlando just will not stop being fantastic. Oh and we’re top of our Champions League group still and also Ligue 1, albeit having played a match more than Monaco. Swings and roundabouts, eh?

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The Little Hangover (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep211)

As long as we keep our heads we can get straight back to business.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 210

Let’s get back on track here, can we? We’ve had our first real bump of the season, drawing with Lille and getting mullered by Sevilla, but as long as we keep our heads we can get straight back to business. Onward to Nancy!

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AS Nancy Lorraine are still on single points as they’ve lost 4 of their 9 matches so far and as we need a win to cure our little hangover, I’m going as close to full strength as I can today in the hopes that we’ll blast them to smithereens. Marquinhos slides the armband on for his first start since coming back from injury and replaces Boris Triponez, Dobby comes in for Lucas on the left, Kovacic comes back into midfield replacing Neves, while Éder slides back to provide the solidity and Brazilian duo Coutinho and Orlando replace Veiga and Cvitanovic in our attacking line.

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Oh dear. Within 4 minutes of the match, Éder loses track of Vincent, can’t get close enough to block his chipped ball through for Zeneli and the winger gets himself goal-side of Marquinhos and boots the ball past Gigi from 8 yards. We’re behind for the 3rd time in 3 games. The first 20 minutes or so are very scrappy on the whole though and Zeneli resorts to frustrated 35 yard potshots that are closer to the corner flag than the goal, which is fine by me.

Just after the half hour we manage to hit back when Kovacic’s corner is only cleared as far as Coutinho, nods it down for Éder, who completes the Brazilian trifecta by laying it off for Orlando. The winger strokes the ball firmly into the bottom corner from the edge of the box to bring us level.

Before the break, Coutinho spins on the ball inside the centre circle and then sprays a perfect pass onto the right flank for Coman. The French International dribbles down the right wing, whips a cross into the 6 yard box and Orlando arrives again to knock it over the line and complete the turnaround.

We take our lead into the second half and with an hour to go I freshen things up with the introductions of Manuel Bueno and Rúben Neves in place of Kean and Éder. 7 minutes later Coutinho countinhues… Never mind… He continues to impress by bringing a loose ball down with his shoulder and dinking a pass into the central channel for Bueno. The mighty Spaniard barrels into the box and shoots, but Martín does his job well in rushing out and blocking the shot.

Both sides go close in the last 15 minutes, first when a well worked PSG free kick is drifted in from right wing by Coutinho, flicked on by Ibarra and headed over from close range by Coman and then when Zeneli chips the ball through our defence for Torin, who drags a shot just wide of the far post. Thankfully, we manage to scrape through to claim the 3 points.

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It’s a funny thing, momentum in football. Until now, a scraped 2-1 victory over a side like Nancy would be ringing alarm bells, but after our worrying week, the 3 points were all that mattered there. Now with that admittedly small monkey off our backs, hopefully we can get back to expecting more dominance in our wins. I’m very thankful to Orlando for his brace and I’m more than happy to see almost £5M shipped off to Santos (Brazil) after he reached 10 league goals for us. He also makes it into the Ligue 1 Team of the Week and rightly so.

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PSG are the top club in France for producing Ligue 1 footballers as 22 of our graduates are currently plying their trade in France’s top tier. Auxerre are in 2nd with 17, which obviously makes me smug as fuck.

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And speaking of our youth graduates, we’ve just announced an affiliation with FC Utrecht which could see some talented young Dutch players emerge from our academy in years to come.

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Struggling Stade Rennais are in the unfortunate position of being the team that we face at home right after we’ve gotten back to winning ways. I want us to prove how over the Sevilla result we are by hammering the poor bastards into the ground like a big red and black tent peg.

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I also want captain Marquinhos to show how over his injury he is by leading us to victory from the back. He plays his 350th league match for PSG today and is rapidly closing in on the club record. Toni Lato’s back from injury now too and will be on the bench. Meanwhile, Neves, Renan, Cvitanovic and Bueno all come in as Éder, Bologna, Coutinho and Kean are rested.

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Again we start shakily much to my annoyance. To make matters worse it’s Marquinhos that brings instant pressure to our door, giving away a free kick almost straight from kick off. Diallo smashes the free kick over the bar. Before even 5 minutes have passed, they come at us again and again it’s Diallo leading the charge. He sprints down the left wing, sends a low cross spinning away off Bologna’s outstretched leg and Rennais work the ball around the edge of our box. It ends up at the feet of Joel Campbell, who lays it off for Alexis Blin to fire low past Gigi. Behind again. For fucks sake.

Our fortunes change again around the half hour and it’s Kovacic that’s the catalyst. Coman drives down the right and drills in a cross that Jovanovic swipes clear as far as the Croatian, who plays Orlando through on the left wing. Orlando squares it to Bueno on the penalty spot and the target man slides the ball into the bottom corner. A minute later Kovacic plays a beautiful flat lofted ball through the centre that takes 4 Rennais players out of the game and leaves Bueno with a clear run at goal. He shoots from the edge of the box but Chandarov bats it wide for our corner.

That one comes to nothing but we win another corner in the 33rd minute. Cvitanovic crosses it in, Mukiele nods it away but Kovacic is there again, cushioning the ball down for Rúben Neves, who brings it down on the penalty spot and drills into the bottom corner for 2-1. We see the half out with relative comfort and finally open up a cushion in the 53rd minute when Kovacic lays the ball off for Dobby, who slams it to the keeper’s right from the edge of the box. The box to box midfielder then dribbles into the Rennais area just before the hour and squares for Bueno, but his shot deflects off Mukiele’s legs and falls to Orlando, who slots in our 4th goal from 10 yards.

I’m pretty content now that the game’s won, so off come Neves, Kovacic and Coman for half an hour of rest. Seeing as we’re hosting Sevilla midweek I want them fresh for the utter bollocking we’ll be dishing out. Éder, Veiga and Coutinho all come on. With a few minutes to play, Bueno comes off injured and we go down to 10 men, but it’s not going to affect us now. In fact we get another chance in the dying minutes when Coutinho finds a pocket of space on the right and floats a cross in to the far post. Cvitanovic heads at goal from close range but Chandarov manages to hold onto it. 4-1 it finishes.

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While I’m a bit annoyed that we need to keep coming back from a goal down, I wanted a couple of decent wins to wash away the taste of that Sevilla loss and we’ve got them. What would be really handy is if we can give Sevilla a hiding at the Parc des Princes to well and truly put that demon to bed. For now, at least until Monaco play their game in hand, we’re back on top of the league and feeling good.

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Episode 212 >

Happy (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep210)

I feel like a room without a fucking roof, boys.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 209

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.

As Bayern are no longer interested in Yûsuke Abe, he’s now happy to stay. Renan Henrique wants a new contract and I’m happy to offer it, while he’s even happier to sign it. I feel like a room without a fucking roof, boys.

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Moise Kean picked up a concussion in Italy’s match against Romania, but he’ll be fit enough to feature in some capacity in our next match and guess who else is back? Mateo Kovacic and Marquinhos! Both are fit enough for our next match day squad. You couldn’t remove my smile with a picture of Liverpool lifting the Premier League trophy, stood on a podium made of severed puppy heads, lads. Toni Lato’s picked up a groin strain in training over the break even though he was left out of the latest Spain squad, but we won’t dwell on that for fear of bringing the mood down. We’re all just so fucking happy.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

“Boss?”

“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?”

“Yep.”

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.

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“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.”

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Episode 211 >

Too Faria (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep209)

Jesus, you’re really Mourinho’s man through and through, aren’t you.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 208

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“Alright Rui?” I smile as I run up alongside my England assistant in St George’s car park. “I caught a bit of United’s 4-0 win against Benfica the other-”

“I have a plan, Mr Franjo.” Growls Rui Faria.

“A plan?” I frown. “A plan for what?”

“A plan to take down Josep Guardiola once and for all.” He spits on the floor. “We cannot tolerate the ins-”

“We aren’t playing Spain this break, Rui.” My brow furrows further still. “How do you intend to take him down if we aren’t playing his side?”

“I know a man.” His voice lowers to a whisper and he turns to regard me seriously. “A problem solver of sorts.” I stare back at him silently. “A problem solver”, he continues, “in the sense that if you give him a name of a problem, for example Josep Guardiola…” He pauses to spit on the car park floor once again. “…He will solve the problem for you.” I continue to stare back at him silently. “By which I mean he and his associates will go around to-”

“I get it.” I cut him off, worried that by hearing more of this madness I’ll be somehow implicated in a serious crime by the end of the international break. “No, Rui, that’s fine. Let’s just… Focus on the matter at hand, shall we? Mexico and Austria for now, then next month we’ll get Pep – Stop spitting, you dirty bastard – We’ll get Pep back for beating us. Through our football. I can’t emphasise that enough.” Rui rolls his eyes.

“Suit yourself.” He mutters.

“Jesus, you’re really Mourinho’s man through and through, aren’t you.”

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Having sufficiently cooled off since my first match at Wembley and the heartbreaking 4th Spanish goal that beat us, I’m pretty pleased with what I’ve seen so far from England. If nothing else, we’re really excellent going forwards, but I’m hesitant to count on attacking ability alone after how that attitude fared for France. We do need to be more solid at the back, particularly against the top sides, but as much as I absolutely don’t want to throw young centre back Juddy Lokando under the bus, he made a couple of glaring individual errors in the Spain match that lead to goals. I do wonder how much better we’ll be defensively after we’ve played a few matches with Project: Pride and have gotten our mistakes out of the way. Here’s the latest squad for our 2 home games against Mexico and Austria.

Goalkeepers

Jack Butland (Arsenal), Jordan Pickford (Sunderland AFC), Will Mannion (Norwich City)

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Defenders

John Stones (Liverpool), Mason Holgate (Southampton), Juddy Lokando (Manchester City), Michael Keane (Real Madrid), Harry Winks (West Bromwich Albion), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Real Sociedad on loan from Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Charlie Taylor (Swansea City)

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Midfielders

Eric Dier, Dele Alli (Both Tottenham hotspur), Reece Oxford (Watford), Jordan O’Halloran (Stoke City), Ed Salmon (AFC Bournemouth), Stuart Coleman (Manchester United), Phil Jones (AC Milan), Adam Bell (Leicester City)

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Strikers

Oliver Webb (Chelsea), Marcus Rashford (Real Madrid), Joe Bell (Stoke City), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)

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I want to walk a bit of a tightrope here, as I’m still trying to gage which players can cut it for England and which can’t, while simultaneously trying to build a team atmosphere. I do want to give more players a look and our Mexico friendly is a perfect opportunity to experiment, but I don’t want to make wholesale changes. In the end there are 3 differences in personnel in my second squad: Burnley’s Taylor Moore misses out after making his debut against Austria last time as he looked shaky in his first England appearance, understandably so. I’m not ruling him out of future squads though as he’s clearly a top quality defender. He’s even on my shortlist for Paris Saint-Germain as a possibility in case I’m forced to buy a centre back in January, as not only is he a good player but as a Lens youth footballer he’d also count towards our homegrown quota. For now though, Southampton’s Mason Holgate comes into the squad in his place.

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Another player to miss out is a surprising one, considering the impact he had against Spain. It really pains me to leave out Lewis Cook, but the midfielder’s decision to leave Bournemouth following their relegation and join Manchester City may stall his international career. Lewis has made a single start and 3 substitute appearances since joining the Citizens and has failed to impress whatsoever during his very limited playing time. In his place I’ve called up the in-form, uncapped Leicester playmaker Adam Bell, who’s already scored 2 goals and set up 6 more for the Foxes in his 9 appearances. As this might cause a bit of confusion, he’ll henceforth be referred to as Abel, while Stoke striker Joe Bell shall be Jobel.

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The final player to be dropped from the England squad is West Ham striker David Crammond, who has recently thrown his toys firmly out of the pram and demanded a move to a bigger side. Barcelona are circling so the move could well materialise, but as a result his club form is woeful this season. He’s scored a single goal in 7 starts for the Hammers and it’s an easy decision to leave him out and bring back England’s fit-again captain Harry Kane.

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When I said this match would be a prime opportunity to experiment I wasn’t kidding. Mexico are a good side and Javier Torrente has only lost 1 match since taking over in August 2023; A home friendly against Slovakia. Mind you, the majority of the matches his side have played and won have been North American World Cup Qualifiers against the likes of Panama, Costa Rica and Barbados, so they’ve not been given too stern a test.

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All of that being said however, I’m going to be dishing out quite a few rare international starts today as I continue to get to know my players. Norwich goalkeeper Will Mannion makes his debut in net and although he’s a championship player, the England no.1 shirt could be up for grabs after Jack Butland’s abhorrent display against Spain so I want him to impress me. Former Everton duo Mason Holgate and Michael Keane start in defence with Reece Oxford making his full debut just ahead of them in the holding man role, while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Charlie Taylor take the wingback spots. Another player making his first England start is Bournemouth’s Ed Salmon, who’ll doubtless have to move quickly across the pitch to avoid the daggers his former teammate Lewis Cook will be staring at him through his TV and Ed’s companion in midfield will be Phil Jones, whose defensive skillset and experience should compliment him quite nicely. Abel’s thrown straight in at the deep end in the number 10 role and plays behind a striking partnership of Marcus Rashford and captain Harry Kane. Although our front 2 are very experienced, I haven’t seen them very much in an England shirt as of yet and I’m hoping they’ll be able impress me, especially as they’re lining up against PSG centre back Ricardo Ibarra.

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Our first good move of the day is 20 minutes in and ends with Abel teeing up Marcus Rashford, who hits a looping volley towards the top corner but is denied at full stretch by Augusto Batalla, who tips the ball onto the bar. A few minutes later Rashford turns creator, holding the ball up 30 yards out and then playing a really clever through ball for Adam Bell, who surges into the right hand side of the box from a central position. The debutant has a pop from a tight angle and beats Batalla, but his effort hits the near post and rolls across the line, leaving Harry Kane with an almost insultingly easy finish to put us into the lead.

We’re pegged back in the 27th minute when Mexico pose their first real threat of the match and win a corner. Pineda takes it, swinging a cross into the 6 yard box and Zaraté gets above Reece Oxford to send a thumping header into the far corner. Unfortunately Abel takes a knock just before half time but I leave him on as he seems willing and… Erm… Able.

It’s worth noting that I’ve been very impressed by Ed Salmon so far, who’s not been as all-action as I expected but has been getting into excellent positions to receive the ball and pulling the strings well from the edge of the final third. 10 minutes after the break, he lays the ball to Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right wing and the Sociedad man swings a superb cross into the “corridor of uncertainty” behind the Mexican defence. Marcus Rashford pops up in between the two centre backs to volley us back into the lead from 6 yards.

A couple of minutes later, TAA gets away down the right again and sends another good cross in, this time right onto the head of Harry Kane, who turns it against the Mexican bar. A quick counter attack later, Mexico are threatening to cancel out our goal even quicker than they did the first time and a Figueroa cross pinballs through the box and reaches Alvarado on the far side. Alvarado shoots towards the near post but Mannion does well to tip it behind for a corner. The pressure stays on us and Pineda again delivers well from the corner. He swings it in, Calero beats Phil Jones at the near post to flick the ball on and Jordan Silva loses his marker Reece Oxford to poke in the equaliser. Oh dear, Reece.

I make a few changes on the hour, with Stones, O’Halloran, Coleman and Alli replacing Holgate, Salmon, Jones and Abel, but they fail to make an immediate impact. It takes us to find the 92nd minute to find the winner, which I’d like to say was a strategic decision so that the Mexicans wouldn’t have any time to instantly hit back for the third pissing time, but I can’t take any credit. Alli can though, as he plays a lovely ball straight through the defence and into the box, where Rashford latches on and leathers a shot in off the underside of the crossbar.

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It’s a difficult one, this. Again I’m in the situation where I’m not exactly happy about conceding 2 goals, but again the source of the goals was a couple of individual errors from one player, namely Oxford. I should stress as well that other than the 2 mistakes, Reece had a pretty decent game. Maybe we just need to work more on corners. Anyway, there were definite positives to take from this one: Real Madrid striker Marcus Rashford is fantastic, although that’s not exactly a revelation, Abel played very well and set up a goal on his debut, inadvertent as it may have been and Trent Alexander-Arnold really, really impressed me, particularly with those 2 crosses in the second half. After he left me quite sceptical of his ability in the Spain match, that’s great news.

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Some pretty disappointing news out of the England camp however is that the Under 21s have been knocked out of their European Championship Qualifying Group and that Aidy Boothroyd has been sacked as a result. To be fair to them, they lost out in their group to Portugal, whose senior side just won the competition months ago, so there’s clearly a really high level of quality running throughout the Portuguese set-up, but it’s still sad to see Aidy go after he’s spent 10 years working his way through the English youth levels.

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The final match of the senior team’s international break is against Austria, who we thumped 6-2 at their place in my first match as England manager and who are now making the return journey to Wembley. They’ve just lost to Spain too, so Pep’s side are at the top of Division A Group 3 with maximum points and we really need another win here if we’re to have any hope of keeping up.

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So leaving nothing to chance, I’m playing what I currently consider to be my maximum strength team… And Jordan Pickford, who has not played for me so far, but like Mannion is now fighting for the no.1 shirt. Stones and Lokando are in defence, Harry Winks and Luke Shaw are our bombing wingbacks, Dier reaches his century of caps as the holding man, O’Halloran and Coleman are in midfield and Alli plays behind Webb and Jobel.

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If there’s one man who’s impressed me more than anyone else since I accepted the FA’s offer… In fact, he actually started impressing me a few months earlier in the first match of Euro 24, it’s Chelsea’s Ollie Webb. He never stops running, never gives up and is a team player in the truest sense of the word. Coming into this match he’d scored 2 goals and set up another 4 in the 2 appearances he’d made for me and it takes him just 69 seconds here to make it 3 goals in 3. Stood 20 yards out, he runs up and curls a free kick over the Austrian defensive wall and into the top corner of the net. This lad can do fucking everything. When I joined PSG I promised myself that I wouldn’t splash the cash for the sake of it and would only sign a player if a position needed strengthening. I’m happy with my striking options back in Paris, but if Webb keeps playing like this he’s going to seriously test my resolve.

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Early goals often promise an oncoming glut that never materialises and indeed the next half hour is quite disappointingly quiet. 10 minutes from the break however we do get another good chance when Jordan O’Halloran plays a lovely backheel pass to Winks on the right wing. Winks drills a low cross in for Webb, whose first shot is saved by Stankovic’s fingertips, but whose second is drilled into the back of the net. I force myself to think of all the goals that Moise Kean and Manuel Bueno have scored so far this season.

Half time comes and goes and we’re soon threatening again. 5 minutes into the second half, O’Halloran lays the ball off for Dele Alli, who drives a first time shot low into the far corner from the edge of the Austrian box. Austria do not have any kind of response as of yet. On the hour I bring on Harry Kane for Jobel, who’s had a quiet match. Despite his goal in the Mexico game, Kane has yet to show me that he deserves a place in our strongest XI, so this is his chance.

In the 83rd minute, Juddy Lokando lofts a cross into the box from the right wing and Webb rises at the near post to head it across goal for Alli, but the Spurs midfielder can only turn it against the post from close range. It’s disappointing from a player of his calibre, but he soon makes amends. As we enter the final 5 minutes and as we continue to hammer on the door for our 4th goal, Captain Kane slips a pass into the box for his Tottenham Teammate, who blasts in his second goal of the day.

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Well that was… Thorough. To be fair, Austria were always going to be the “whipping boy” of the group but I doubt we’ll have a match that easy for quite some time. Still, you can only beat what’s put in front of you and what was put in front of us today was really fucking poor, but it does move us up to 6 points and level with Spain. We stay 2nd in the group because the first thing used to differentiate in the EIL after points is results between teams and they do have a game in hand over us, but in the next break we get to play them again and challenge for the top spot. Let’s just hope we’re ready. And that Rui Faria doesn’t put whatever heinous plan he has into action before I can get my revenge on Pep the old fashioned way.

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209 3 1 league

Episode 210 >

Franjo’s Heroes (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep208)

Bechkoura’s Bottle Boys are taking a thumping!

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 207

“The ball rolls to a stop in front of Kevin on the left wing. What does Kevin do…?” My heart thumps against my ribcage. “He puts in a low cross and the ball falls for Aidir! Aidir surely!” I draw back my trusty forefinger and flick it forwards against the little plastic player, who lurches forward and knocks the ball into the net. “AIDIR SCORES! Franjo’s Heroes FC make it 3-0 and Bechkoura’s Bottle Boys are taking a thumping! Hicham Ai-“

“Can we do it without the commentary?” Asks Bechkoura flatly, picking up his footballers and placing them back into position ready for kick off.

“Yeah absolutely.” I scowl. “And then we can have bacon butties without brown sauce. You idiot.”

“I’m more of a ketchup man.”

“Well then you’re wrong.” I pick up the tiny representation of Hicham Aidir and admire the figure, which is decked out in the PSG 2024/25 home kit. “Did I ever tell you that one of my first ever football shirts was a PSG one?”

“No?” Bechkoura replies. “Which one?”

“95/96 I think. The Opel one with the white collar and the shitty holograms all over it. It might even have been the very first… That or the 95 Everton home shirt.” He nods thoughtfully.

“90’s kits were very… Hit and miss.”

I nod in agreement. “But you could power your house for a year with the static.”

Bechkoura chuckles. “I always liked France’s 97/98 home shirt.” He says wistfully.

“Well I wonder why.” I grin. “I’d like the entire Liverpool catalogue if England won the World Cup wearing it. I’m making a sub by the way: Bart’s coming on for Big Phil. He’s going to slot in between Hurley and Sinbad and add a bit more bite to-“

“They’re all identical.” Growls Bechkoura, struggling to keep the annoyance out of his voice as he cuts me off.

“Oh where’s your fucking sense of whimsey? Come on, it’s your kick off. Again.”

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Subbuteo aside, I do have a bit of real football to oversee this week. As we’re welcoming Roma for a midweek Champions League Group Stage game in a few days, I’m resting pretty much my entire first team for today’s visit from Bastia. Only Kingsley Coman, the man on fire, plays today having also started in our last match. Abe comes in between the sticks, Triponez is in defence with Damir Mijatovic, who’s making his first appearance for me and the pair have Neves just ahead of them. Our wingbacks are Renan and Dobby, Veiga’s in central midfield and Coman, Hutka and Cvitanovic play behind Manuel Bueno.

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Our first chance follows some calm Bastian build up play as Renan Henrique wins the ball from Mehmedi deep in our half. He goes direct to Bueno on the half way line, who in turn releases Coman into the space on the right wing. Coman sprints to the byline as bodies get up in support and whip a cross onto the boot of Cvitanovic, who volleys us into the lead.

A few minutes later we win a left sided throw in level with Bastia’s penalty box. Dobby gives it to Cvitanovic, who cushions the ball down for Michal Hutka. Hutka chips it across to Renan, who’s got himself central and into space just outside the box. The ball bounces just once before our Brazilian international puts his laces through it, sending a vicious half volley screaming into the bottom corner for 2-0.

Not content with our 13 minute cushion, we keep pushing for a third over the next few minutes. First we play the ball out from the back and Cvitanovic chips a pass into the left channel for Bueno, who brings it into the box and forces a good near post save from Michaelsen and then another well worked move sees Bueno play a one-two with Cvitanovic to get behind the defence and then toe poke the ball powerfully beyond the Danish keeper to make it 3-0. 17 minutes in, the game’s as good as over and to say this is practically a second string side, I’m pretty bloody impressed.

Coman gets a rest for the second half and I bring on Coutinho in his place, but it’s Miguel Veiga who bags the next goal. 10 minutes after the break, he picks up the ball in our half and surges purposefully across the half way line and towards Bastia’s box. Veiga passes to Bueno, who has his back to goal 20 yards out and he then lays it off for Cvitanovic, who squares for Veiga, who slides a delicate shot into the bottom corner. Éder gets half an hour in place of Neves, but at the end of 90 minutes it’s PSG 4-0 Bastia.

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It’s nice to know that our whole squad is of sufficient quality that I can play the fringe players in situations like this and be confident that they’ll pick up all 3 points. Silvio Cvitanovic, who I’ve been pretty openly unimpressed with thus far, was absolutely excellent but then so was the entire team. I’m completely, utterly, totally pleased with that performance. Donnarumma is the only player that makes the Team of the Week and didn’t feature, while Renan, Mijatovic, Triponez, Coman, Veiga, Cvitanovic and Burno are also included.

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Kingsley Coman also receives his 2nd Player of the Month award in his 2nd month back at PSG after a quite staggering run of performances. Don’t get me wrong, I’d always rated him for France, but bloody hell he’s gone up to a whole new level this season. Renan Henrique wins Goal of the Month for his scorcher in the Bastia game.

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We have a bit of potentially bad news in the run up to the Roma match: Mateo Kovacic picks up an ab strain and will miss a couple of weeks. On the upside though, captain Marquinhos should be back at some point this month.

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The new stats on the French National team are out and PSG are joint 2nd with Metz on the list of leading producers of France players with 10. The two of us are just behind Lyon, who’ve produced 12 of Denis Renaud’s current crop. Auxerre are still well represented and are joint 5th with 6 players produced, which is more than Monaco. This makes me happy.

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Roma’s arrival in Paris sparks fierce excitement among myself and the players. The thing about managing Paris Saint-Germain that I’ve found so far is that it’s difficult to gage exactly how good you are, as the overall quality of the league isn’t all that good. Of course we’ve already lost against Monaco, but I don’t really count that as I didn’t know the players and we didn’t have a proper system. We will meet them again in what will certainly be difficult encounters, but apart from that we’re not going to meet much stern opposition in the league. The Champions League gives us an opportunity to test ourselves against Europe’s elite and I’m eager to find out how we stack up.

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I’m making 9 changes from the side that thumped Bastia: Donnarumma is back in net, as are Ibarra and Lucas in defence. Neves keeps his place at the base of midfield, but Bologna, Lato and Éder are brought in around him. Coman also keeps his place on the right wing, while Coutinho, Orlando and Kean are restored to the forward line.

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The first shots are fired by Roma and there’s a particularly heart-stopping moment 8 minutes in, when Mo Salah swings a nasty cross in from the left. Lucas manages to head it clear but only as far as Embolo, who heads the ball down for Muñoz. The striker turns, places a shot against the base of the post and we can breathe easy. A few minutes later, we have a chance of our own when Orlando crosses from a corner. Again Lucas is there and the Frenchman flicks the ball on at the near post for Ibarra, who nips in between Legrand and Embolo to volley… Straight at Alisson from 6 yards and the keeper parries it clear.

With a quarter of an hour gone we come forward again. This time our Brazilian contingent link when Éder lays the ball off for Coutinho, who slides a wonderful pass down the right for Coman to chase. The winger leaves Legrand for dead and crosses it first time into the 6 yard box, where Kean arrives and smacks a header against the bar.

Before the half hour we go close yet again. Neves wins the ball from Haksabanovic on the edge of our box and gives it to Éder, who plays a long ball forward to Kean. The Italian striker strides forward on the counter as Roma’s defence back-pedal furiously but he arrives at the edge of their box still in possession and drives a low shot inches wide of the far post. How this match is still goalless is beyond me.

When the breakthrough does come, it’s a lovely goal. In the 2nd minute of first half injury time, we win a free kick 35 yards out. Neves takes it, passing short to Ibarra, who plays it straight on for Éder. Éder hands it off to Lato, who chips it straight past Karsdorp on the left wing and Orlando latches on. Orlando squares it into the centre of Roma’s box, Coutinho touches it on for Kean and Moise Kean places it into the bottom corner from 10 yards. Beautiful football.

We head in for the break having scored at the perfect time. Our confidence is suddenly sky high while the atmosphere in the away dressing room will surely have taken a hit. We come back out for the 2nd half with our chests puffed out and soon capitalise on our newfound momentum. 8 minutes after kick off, Éder has possession in our penalty area and is under pressure, but he coolly makes himself some space and arcs a perfect pass up to Kean on the halfway line. The goalscorer chips the ball down the right and Legrand beats Coman to it for once, but severely underhits his header back towards Alisson. As the ball trickles back towards the Roma box, Coman turns on the thrusters, takes possession, jinks past the outrushing Alisson and passes the ball into the empty net.

A few minutes later, Orlando volleys a chipped pass behind the defence for Kean to run onto in the left channel. Kean takes the ball in his stride and sprints into the box but whiffs his shot, dragging it disappointingly wide of the near post. With just over 20 minutes to play, Manuel Veiga replaces Neves and Éder drops into the deeper position, freeing Veiga up to be the box to box man. I liked the look of Veiga against Bastia and want to give him more chances to show me what he can do.

Only a minute later we have yet another chance when Coutinho plays another nice pass down the right wing. Coman leaves poor Legrand in his dust and dribbles into the box before squaring for Kean, who rifles a shot into the top corner from 10 yards to give the scoreline the gloss it deserves. With respect to København this was our first real challenge in the Champions League and we’ve bloody smashed it.

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But as Cage The Elephant once said, “there ain’t no rest for the wicked”. Although they also said that “money don’t grow on trees” and I recently threw £85M at a 20 year old defensive midfielder, so take those lads’ words with a pinch of salt… Where was I? Oh right, no rest for the wicked. The matches keep coming thick and fast and before we know it the weekend is upon us, as is our trip to Sochaux.

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We’ve now scored 15 goals without reply in our last 4 outings and I want us to carry on both our run of goalscoring and of clean sheets today. My changes for this one aren’t quite as radical as the previous games, with just the 3 personnel changes from the Roma match: Renan, Dobby and young Veiga are all brought in so I can get to know them a little better at the expense of Bologna, Lato and Coutinho.

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The match doesn’t begin like I expected it to, with Sochaux actually having the best of the first 25 minutes. When I finally decide we need to change something we’ve managed exactly 0 shots against Sochaux’s compact 4-1-4-1 while they’ve had 5. We go on the counter to try and lure them out of their defensive positions so they we can use our pace to exploit any gaps that form. At half time, although we have managed a couple of shots, the score remains 0-0 and Im not happy. I decide to make a change: Moise Kean’s been pretty ineffective so I bring on our big Spanish bully in his place. Manuel Bueno will be a target man that we’ll be able to use as a foothold in Sochaux’s half, giving the rest of the team a chance to get up in support while he holds the ball up.

Just under 4 minutes into the 2nd half, a well worked move through the centre of the pitch ends with Veiga threading a pass through to Bueno, who steps away from his marker Bianchi and slams the ball past Leo Gauthier. Somebody bring me my vindication blanket. With 25 minutes to play, Bueno has a potshot from 25 yards sail harmlessly over the bar and the fact that that is “of note” really is a damning inditement of this cagey, frustrating game of football. Neves is replaced by Triponez a few minutes later, Lucas shifts into the hole and then Bueno goes close again with 5 minutes to go, denied a brace only by a last ditch slide tackle from Gnagnon that deflects his shot wide after Éder heads a Coman cross down into a dangerous position.

Bueno’s tally ends at 1 however, as does ours. He improved us in that second half and I’ll take some comfort from that, but otherwise this is a fairly worrying performance and I really need to work out what went wrong. At the end of the day though, 3 points is 3 points and this win both continues our good form and keeps us above Monaco at the top of Ligue 1 on goal difference. That’ll do.

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Episode 209 >

Back to Auxerre (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep207)

We venture South East to a little old City in Burgundy and a little old stadium called the Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 206

“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.

“Whose wife?”

“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.”

“Claude Makélélé’s?”

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

207 3 1 league

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