Group Stage Roundup 1 (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 6)

By Don Collins

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 5

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Welcome, welcome ladies, gentlemen and bairns to the first of my Euro 24 roundups. 12 matches have been played with 29 goals scored and I’m here to bring you up to speed on anything you may have missed. Let’s get stuck in.

Group A

Romania 2 – 0 Northern Ireland

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Romania v Northern Ireland at the San Siro isn’t the kind of mouth watering show stopper worthy of kicking off a prestigious tournament like Euro 24, but on this occasion… Yeah, you’re probably right. It wasn’t a great match. I feel a bit for Northern Ireland as on the face of it, this seems like a routine win for the Romanians, but the Northern Irish actually defended resolutely and admirably, undone only by a heavily deflected Andrei Ivan free kick and then an even more heavily deflected Gabriel Stavarache shot from 20 yards that went down as a Brian Caldwell own goal. Jared Thompson had absolutely no chance with either. All that being said though, there’s no doubt the better team won.

Romania: 2nd

Northern Ireland: 3rd

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The Netherlands 3 – 0 Russia

Bayer striker Thomas Buitink got the Dutch off to a flyer in the Della Vittoria with a brace inside the first 21 minutes of their Euro 24 campaign: First blasting past the underwhelming Yury Lodygin after a classy assist from Tom Watson, then heading home a James Fofana cross from close range. As Russia pushed for a way back in the second half, that man Buitink drove forward on the counter and then selflessly teed up Memphis Depay, who found the bottom corner to give his country a comfortable win. One of four players to bag 2 goals in the opening round of games, it seems Buitink is one to watch.

Netherlands: 1st

Russia: 4th

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Group B

Ukraine 1 – 0 Czech Republic

My thoughts are with you if you sat through this one. Hull full back and Czech captain Ales Mateju became a hero to neutrals everywhere when he broke up the mind numbing monotony that was the first 50 minutes by tripping Andriy Yarmolenko on the edge of his own box and conceded a penalty. Yarmolenko blasted beyond the fingertips of a full stretch Tomas Koubek to give a poor quality game at Florence’s Stadio Artemio Franchi it’s only goal. My “Mateju 15” shirt is in the post as we speak, although I doubt Czech manager Karel Jarolim or Mateju’s club manager Peter Crouch were as impressed.

Ukraine: 2nd

Czech Republic: 3rd

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FYR Macedonia 0 – 2 Portugal

It may be a shade too soon to describe the Portuguese as a force to be reckoned with, but they certainly showed their dominance over a thoroughly outclassed Macedonia side that failed to even register a shot on target at Rome’s Stadio Olympico. Portugal went ahead after 17 minutes when João Mario was able to drive a shot home from 20 yards thanks to a fine assist from Renato Sanches, but despite their dominance they were unable to build on their lead for some time. They did hit the woodwork twice in the first half, but only a full hour of football later did they double their tally when Bernardo Silva swung a delicious 30 yard free kick into the top corner.

FYR Macedonia: 4th

Portugal: 1st

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Group C

Norway 2 – 0 Germany

One of the shocks of the round came at Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris, where an extremely dominant Germany side were undone by the plucky but well drilled Norwegians. Just minutes before half time, a German attack was halted and Norway charged down the other end on the counter attack, ending when Tobias Svendsen cut the ball back from the left byline and Iver Fossum thumped in the opening goal. The second half started more evenly, with the two sides going hammer and tongs to claim the second goal. With 25 minutes to play, one of the passes of the tournament so far was curled perfectly behind the defence by Martin Ødegaard and young striker Vidar Holm was waiting on the shoulder of his marker to lash in his first international goal. He’ll be telling his Grandkids about that one, that’s for sure.

Norway: 1st

Germany: 4th

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Croatia 0 – 2 Turkey

Written off by some less “ITK” pundits as the weakest team in Group C, Turkey laid down a marker in the Stadio San Nicola against a Croatia side lacking discipline, both defensively and just generally. It took almost an hour for the ill tempered affair to see it’s first goal, when Emre Mor launched a free kick box-wards from near the half way line and centre back Mehmet Niyaz, just seconds after coming on as a substitute, rose above Emanuel Glavica to head in his first goal for his country. Another substitute, Oguzhan Özyakup, set up the second goal with 20 minutes to go, ensuring plaudits aplenty for his twice vindicated manager Ersun Yanal. Özyakup chipped a pass into the left channel for Emre Günal, who clipped his shot in off the inside of the near post to give Turkey a well deserved cushion. Croatia need to have a good long look back at their performance, because they should not be proud of how they approached this match.

Croatia: 3rd

Turkey: 2nd

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Group D

Sweden 0 – 2 Belgium

In a match that seemed too close to call beforehand, one side excelled at the Stadio Della Vittoria, while the other disappointed. Sceptics had pointed out in the build up that not only had this Belgium side been beaten to qualification from the group stages in Canada 22 by Paraguay and Iran, but that they were also now without Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, two stalwarts of the national side. However Filip Daems seems to have breathed new life into Belgium and they dominated a meek Swedish team, albeit without the match becoming completely one sided. A goal either side of half time was enough to clinch it, with the first coming from the spot after an admittedly weak penalty decision. The referee judged that Daniel Hansson had jumped unfairly with Corentin Fiore, but replays have since shown otherwise. Nevertheless, Youri Tielemans converted from 12 yards and then within a minute of the second half, a fine Kevin De Bruyne pass released the explosive Divock Origi, who raced clear of poor Hansson and poked his side’s second goal past Jim Lindau.

Sweden: 4th

Belgium: 1st

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Italy 2 – 0 Poland

There were shades of Macedonia v Portugal as Italiano’s intoxicating Italy crushed Banasik’s poor Poland at the Stadio San Filippo. Barcelona’s Yuri Brugger lived up to his billing as potential best player at the tournament with a complete performance, pulling the strings for his side from the number 10 position before bagging a brace of goals either side of the break. The first he curled past Dragowski from the edge of the area after receiving the ball from Cesana and the second he volleyed home after an Italian corner was unconvincingly cleared, with Brugger left completely and criminally unmarked on the edge of the box. Like Buitink of the Netherlands, keep an eye on young Brugger.

Italy: 2nd

Poland: 3rd

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Group E

France 2 – 2 England

One of only two draws in the first round of games played out at a packed San Siro, where Franjo’s experienced and classy France side met with Howe’s dynamic young England. Although France hit the woodwork early on through Thomas Lemar, it was England who raced into the lead with two quickfire goals around the half hour mark. First Oliver Webb capitalised on Raphaël Varane’s laughable attempts to control the ball by stealing it and slotting in the rebound after Gauthier saved his initial strike. Griezmann struck the post as France continued to go close, but when Webb raced past the lead-footed Varane once more and laid off for Harry Kane to double England’s tally with a well struck effort, the game seemed as good as over. Howe will probably rue his decision to replace eventual Player of the Match Webb at half time as he looked to consolidate his side’s position, as in the second half and especially after the introduction of target man Moussa Dembélé, France dragged themselves back into the game. Kylian Mbappé will take the headlines for a couple of excellent pieces of build up play in which he first set up a tap in for Dembélé, who opened his account for the French and then what should have been the equaliser for Rabiot, but his shot cracked off the foot of the post as France hit the woodwork for the third time in the match. Luckily captain Paul Pogba was on hand to tap in the rebound, leaving both sides with a well earned point.

France: 3rd

England: 2nd

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Denmark 3 – 1 Georgia

In an exciting, end to end match at the Stadio San Paolo, Denmark’s extra touch of class (And a dodgy decision or two) helped them to overcome an impressive Georgia side. The first incident occurred after a quarter of an hour, when 6’6″ powerhouse Jannik Vestergaard was forced to the floor by the slight 5’10” frame of Mate Tsintsadze inside the box following a Danish corner. Make of that what you will. The referee pointed to the spot and Christian Eriksen converted to open the scoring. To their credit though, the Danes continued to press and harry their opponents, thoroughly earning the second goal 5 minutes later, when Jacob Bruun Larsen’s strike deflected in off Malkhaz Nemsadze. The Georgians kept on going and gave a good account of themselves but the game was finally put to bed in the 73rd minute, when René Hechmann’s low cross was turned in by substitute Wessam Abou Ali from close range. Georgia did eventually get something to cheer when a good cross by Qazaishvili came into the corridor between defence and goalkeeper and was tucked away by Jano, but the Danish came away with a deserved win.

Denmark: 1st

Georgia: 4th

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Group F

Spain 4 – 1 Switzerland

One of the games of the round played out at the Stadio Artemio Franchi with a scoreline that contains a perhaps deceiving amount of gloss for the Spanish. Switzerland struggled to cope with the pace and movement of Spain in the opening minutes and the Spanish took full advantage when Héctor Bellerín got to the right byline unmarked and pulled the ball across goal for Paco Alcácer, who poked it home from point blank range. It could’ve been 2-0 just moments later when a similarly slick move left more holes in the Swiss defence than their cheese and Morata headed inches over the bar. The Swiss soon found their feet and were back on level terms in the 13th minute when a corner resulting in a quick game of pinball inside the Spanish box before Xherdan Shaqiri clipped in the equaliser. Both sides came close to finding that all important 3rd goal in the first half, with Saúl and Kamber forcing good saves from Burki and De Gea, but it wasn’t until 5 minutes after the break that Spain eventually found it, when Morata sent a good cross the way of Alcácer, who headed home his second of the day. From then on it was one way traffic as Switzerland’s collective head went down. 5 minutes after Spain’s 2nd, Morata rose magnificently to reach Grimaldo’s cross and sent a looping header into the far top corner and then 10 minutes later met another cross from Bellerín with a scorching scissor-kick volley that nearly tore a hole straight through the net, which would’ve left it with more holes than Swiss… I’ve already made that joke, haven’t I. I feel conflicted by the final scoreline: Spain have obvious quality but on another day Switzerland could have nicked some kind of result and 4-1 seems a harsh scoreline. That being said, there’s no excuse for capitulating like they did.

Spain: 1st

Switzerland: 4th

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Serbia 0 – 0 Scotland

O my luve’s like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June,

O my luve’s like the melodie that’s sweetly play’d in tune.

Aye right, thae Serbians can get tae fuck. Strachan’s michty tartan army towered like a colossus oot there in the Juventus Stadium. Kieran Tierney wis the Tyne and Callum Paterson wis the Solway Firth and the guid laddies in between stood firm as Hadrian’s wall. Aw the Serbs cud muster wis a wee effort from Lukic, but the jessie saw the steel in Gunn’s een and wis up tae high doh, man. Aff is heid. Wisnae even close. But whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye. The baw’s on the slates fae noo, but thon baw wull drap.

Serbia: 3rd

Scotland: 2nd

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Thanks for reading the first of my Euro 24 roundups. I’ll be back after the next round of games. Stay up to date by following me on twitter @doncollins42069

I actually did set Don up a twitter account after writing this (Not yet with that tag) and was planning to do some fun stuff with that, but it was banned within minutes, presumably because I set his banner to a Scottish flag? I didn’t really have time to do anything else. I can’t see why that’d go against twitter rules, but… Anyway I’m giving up on it as a bad job for now, so let’s just pretend. Get yersels tae fuck, twitter.

Euro 24 Part 7 >


France v England (GS1)(Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 5)

Let’s get started.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 4

My Short Stories WordPress

It’s time. It’s been almost 2 years since the 2022 World Cup Final in Ottawa, when the 3 dejected lions of England were slammed down to Earth by France’s mighty coq. I step onto the San Siro pitch to see a fluid battle all around the terraces; the crosses of St George jostling with the Tricolores for dominance. Aside from the local Italians, who stay true to form by remaining largely neutral, half of this stadium wants revenge, while the other half wants to show that the result of our last meeting was no fluke. I feel like a fresh faced private, stepping into the front lines of a war that predates me.

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I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve given serious thought in the build up to this match to the idea of dropping Project: Renaissance. England are quick, aggressive and exactly the kind of team built to hit an expansive, attacking team like us on the counter attack to devastating effect. The thing that’s stopped me from doing so is the principle: I can’t just drop the system I’ve been stubbornly sticking to for the last 2 years the first time I come against an actual threat. One of the first France matches I’ve overseen that really, truly means something is not an occasion where I consider abandoning my principles an option. Nous sommes la France, the World Champions and we will attack these tea sipping Anglaises with everything we have. If they hit us on the break and score, we’ll go up the other end and bag 2. We will not abandon Renaissance today.

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Against Howe’s Bassett-esque 4-4-2, I name an entirely predictable XI: Gauthier in net, Sidibé, Varane, Laporte and Digne across the back, Rabiot and Bakayoko in midfield, Lemar, Pogba and Mbappé ahead of them and Griezmann up front. We’ll go in hard on England’s brilliant but volatile central midfield partnership of Alli and Cook in the hopes of provoking a reaction. The sides line up and the National Anthems are belted out passionately to a man. Let’s get started.

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The referee’s whistle blows and France are immediately on the front foot, asserting ourselves on our opponents with fluid possession football and laying siege to their half. Quarter of an hour in Rabiot creates our first chance when he lays the ball off for Lemar and then darts towards the right wing, drawing Cook out of position to give the City winger a clear sight of goal. Lemar takes a step and smashes a shot towards the far top corner – But it smacks back off the angle between post and bar and is headed clear by Juddy Lokando. England try to hit us on the counter but the momentary threat is ended by a superb sliding tackle by Varane on Kane in our third.

10 minutes later we’re being funnelled down the wings and forced to cross the ball in, but Jack Butland’s proving equal to every delivery into the box. The Arsenal man catches 2 in quick succession and then launches another counter attack. This time the ball’s played to young Lynes on the left wing, who hits a hopeful looking ball down the left channel. Luckily Varane has a good 20 yard head start on Webb and gets there first. But then… The next few seconds play out in torturous slow motion: Varane miscontrols the ball as Webb continues to fly towards him. Our defender’s feet seem to turn to stone. He makes 3 attempts to control it but he just can’t. It’s the mother of all howlers. Eventually the loose ball rolls away from him just as Webb arrives to collect it, before baring down on goal, clear of our shellshocked defence. The Chelsea striker gets to the edge of the box and shoots – Straight at Gauthier, who parries it straight back to him. Webb takes a touch, opens his body and places the rebound into the bottom right corner of the goal.

Numbness floods my body as I watch the 11 white shirts sprint away to the corner of the pitch to celebrate with their fans. Varane sinks to the floor inside our box, hands covering his face as Gauthier screams in his direction. What the fuck just happened?

A few minutes later, Jack Butland plucks a cross out of the air from a corner and then catches yet another shortly afterwards. Just as a third successive France attack is beginning with Pogba though, our captain’s robbed by Dele Alli and the English fans roar their encouragement as another counter attack begins. Alli passes to Kane, who hoofs the ball towards the left channel, where Webb nips in once again with that electric pace, squeezing between Varane and Sidibé before dropping the shoulder and turning inside. Webb squares it across the edge of the penalty area towards Harry Kane – And Kane lashes the ball past Leo Gauthier. 0-2. 5 minutes ago we were on top, but 1 absolute defensive howler and 1 clinical counter attack later, it’s 0-2.

I scream instructions from the touchline, telling my players to play through the middle as Butland looks like he’ll catch any cross we throw at him. I want us running at their young defence, using their lack of experience against them. We can drag them around and pass into the space they leave behind. In the 37th minute we look much, much better. Mbappé dribbles inside from the right wing, runs through the centre and lays the ball off for Griezmann, who wraps his unfavored right boot around the ball from 20 yards – And cracks a shot against the far post. Fucking hell.

Before half time it should be 0-3. Redmond passes inside from the right, finding Kaptain Kane, who cheekily backheels the ball through for Webb. Webb runs in behind Varane yet again and tries a first time shot from 15 yards, but spoons his effort well over the bar. We’re saved by the over-eagerness of youth. I can’t help but think if the roles were reversed and it were Kane who’d had that chance, it’d be game over.

“What the fuck is going on out there?” I scream. The French team line the benches with heads bowed in silence, as if in prayer. Even David Bechkoura, my assistant, doesn’t want to meet my gaze and stares at his feet as he leans against the changing room wall. “Are you lads the world champions or have I got the wrong fucking dressing room? Raphaël are you even listening?!” Varane’s sat nearest to me, staring closely at his water bottle. I snatch the bottle out of his hands and lob it across the dressing room floor, sending it skidding into the far wall. The centre back’s eyes do not move up to meet mine and a surge of cold fury rises through my body. “Look at me!” I bellow. He finally raises his head and glances up, but wearing an almost indignant look. “You more than anyone need to shape up, or I’ll get you back on that plane so fast your head will fucking spin!” He acknowledges me with the smallest of nods. “Much better when we get back out there, all of you.” I walk over and kick Varane’s water bottle one more time for luck, before storming out and heading back to the dugout.

I’ve never been this fucking scared in my managerial career. Before kick off I genuinely didn’t know whether I’d feel worse about winning or losing. I didn’t know what the consequences would be either way. Now I know. I’ve never blown up quite like that before. I suddenly feel like my entire managerial career and everything I’ve built over the last 8 years is hanging by a thread. We can’t lose this. We just can’t lose.

England make a change at the break. I can’t say I’m entirely surprised that Howe’s bringing on Brendan Galloway to play as the holding man in a 4-1-4-1, but it does surprise and slightly relieve me that Oliver Webb is the striker to make way. He and his terrifying pace have been Varane’s worst nightmare. In the first 10 minutes of the second half England remain on top, but their only real chances are pot shots from Cook and Kane, both of which are easily caught by Gauthier.

Although England aren’t too threatening at present, we’re being pushed further and further back into our own half and a change is required. Vice Captain Antoinne Griezmann does not look impressed when he turns to see a red number 7 on the 4th official’s board and gives his replacement Moussa Dembélé a quick pat on the back before storming down the tunnel, without even a glance in my direction. I’ll deal with that later. Right now we need a physical presence up top. We need somebody who can make the ball stick in the final third and give the others time to get forward to support our attacks through the centre. This sort of situation is exactly why I’ve brought Moussa along.

Over the next 10 minutes the change works… To an extent. Having Moussa holding the ball up allows us to push back at England and camp in their half, but we still have nothing to show for our efforts. Both sides then make changes, with Kingsley Coman replacing Thomas Lemar for France while Marcus Rashford and John Stones come on for Nathan Redmond and Stu Coleman for the Limies. All like for like swaps.

Then, just 3 minutes later, a glimmer of hope: Cook has possession in his own half but is quickly dispossessed by a superb Rabiot slide tackle. The midfielder exchanges passes with Bakayoko and Pogba as we work the ball through the centre. Then Captain Pogba chips the ball perfectly into the left channel for Mbappé to run onto. The Monaco man outpaces Lokando and expertly brings the ball under control with his boot. As Lokando and Stones try to surround him, Mbappé manages to clip a square ball across the 6 yard box -And Moussa Dembélé arrives to tuck away his first international goal.

“Come on!” I bellow, slamming my hands together in frantic applause as Dembélé picks the ball out of the net and heads back to the halfway line. We’re still in this. We’re still in with a chance. “Come on!” I repeat, unable to think of anything else to say. My head’s fucking swimming.

4 minutes later, we come forward through a packed England half again with Kingsley Coman. “Come on!” I scream, like a broken record. “Make it stick!” Coman obliges, passing to Dembélé, who’s stood with his back to goal 35 yards out. Dembélé holds it up well and then offloads to the arriving Bakayoko, who chips an almost identical ball to Pogba’s, finding Mbappé in the left channel. Mbappé again wriggles away from Lokando on the edge of the box, Stones again comes across to block any potential shot, but it never comes. Kylian squares it past Stones for Rabiot, who slams a shot towards goal – But it bounces back off the post for the third time and into the 6 yard box – A blue shirt gets there first! Go on! POGBA!!!

“YEEEEEEEEES!” Bechkoura’s high pitched scream feels like it almost shatters my ear drum as he jumps on my back. I shake him off immediately as I sprint towards the corner where the blue shirts are piling on top of our captain. I hear a dull thud from behind me as Bechkoura hits the floor but it’s quickly drowned out by the cheers of tens of thousands of French fans. Paul bloody Pogba’s poked in an equaliser! I reach the players and jump on top of the pile on, which by this point also includes substitutes, staff members and a couple of rogue fans. I can only assume Pogba lies broken and bloodied at the bottom, but we’ve fucking done it. We’re level. We’ve clawed it back. Vive la fucking Franj. We do try to complete the turnaround after the restart, but the final whistle signals the end of a 2-2 draw in Milan.

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I immediately seek out Raphaël Varane and wrap an arm around his shoulders. He was alright in the second half and I’m happy to chalk his first half performance down to a one-off stinker against a very good opponent. As I then make my way among the opposition players, shaking hands, I catch Captain Pogba’s eye and give him a thumbs up.

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Then I make my way towards Moussa Dembélé, undoubtedly the hero of the hour, despite only playing for half of that. I clap him on the back as a mob of cameramen circle the two of us. This lad transformed us today. I’m sure I’ll take some of the plaudits in the press for making the change, but hand on heart, I didn’t think it’d work as well as it did. Moussa got us back into this game. Moussa turned the pressure back onto the opposition. Moussa won us a point.

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I’ll take a point too. The French fans seem in good spirits and the English still seem pretty chipper as well, despite their collapse. I hear the somewhat ironic words of Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds emanating from the white sections of the stadium: “It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming – Football’s coming home”, sing the English in unbroken unison. Somewhere in that white mass I imagine Shorey, Jeffers and Bothroyd sneering down at me as they bellow along with the crowd.

“You’re right, lads.” I think with a grin. “But it’s coming home with me.”

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Euro 24 Part 6 >

Groups D-F (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 3)

We’ve familiarised ourselves with half of the 24 nations participating in Euro 2024. Now let’s meet the rest:

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 2

My Short Stories WordPress

We’ve familiarised ourselves with half of the 24 nations participating in Euro 2024. Now let’s meet the rest:

Group D

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Belgium (13th)

1 nation

Manager: Filip Daems

2 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Romelu Lukaku (Liverpool)

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Qualifying Record: W4 D2 L2

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Main Man: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)

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Left At Home: Romelu Lukaku (Liverpool), Adnan Januzaj (Espanyol), Jason Denayer (West Brom), Michy Batshuayi (Torino)

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Up And Comers: Mohamed Hamoudan (Manchester United), Cas Willems (Anderlecht), Joran Devolder (Barcelona)

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Others To Watch: Nany Dimata (Southampton), Divock Origi (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Youri Tielemans (Real Madrid)

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Franjo’s Analysis

I’m interested to see how Belgium do in this tournament. In World Cup 2022 they underperformed dramatically, failing to qualify from a group that included Paraguay, Iran and host nation Canada. René Weiler was sacked as a result, all time most capped top goalscorer Eden Hazard retired from international football and a new era began under former Eupen boss Daems. He’s made the bold move of dropping Liverpool’s Romelu Lukaku and is trying to put his faith in the next batch of talent as Belgium’s golden generation comes towards it’s end. They’ve got some quality players and I think they’ll do well, but another Canada-esque collapse wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world. Qualifying results such as a draw against Kosovo and a loss against Estonia don’t inspire much confidence.

Group Prediction: 2nd

Overall Prediction: Out at the Second Round

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Italy (9th)

1 nation

Manager: Vincenzo Italiano

2 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Gianluigi Donnarumma (Paris Saint-Germain), Daniele Rugani (AS Monaco)

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Main Man: Andrea Belotti (Bayern Munich)

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Left At Home: Alessandro Florenzi (AC Milan), Marco Verratti (Chelsea), Jorginho (Napoli), Simone Zaza (AC Milan), Alex Telles (FC Porto)

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Up And Comers: Alberto Di Santo (Anderlecht on loan from AS Roma), Luca Cesana (Juventus), Alessandro Sacchi (Manchester City), Yuri Brugger (Barcelona), Alessandro D’Innocenzo (Arsenal), Enrico Botta (Tottenham Hotspur), Gianluigi Cacioppini (Bayer Leverkusen)

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Others To Watch: Federico Chiesa (AS Monaco), Filippo Melegoni (Manchester United), Moise Kean (Paris Saint-Germain), Federico Bernadeschi (Chelsea)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Wow. I tell you what, the age of Italy’s international domination might well be close. Since Massimo Allegri left his post in charge of the national team, his successor Italiano has gone full steam ahead into the next generation. Just look at some of those young players they’ve got coming through! All playing regular football at top European clubs too. I’d say it’s probably a tournament too soon for them, but I would not be surprised at all if Euro 2024’s host nation bags themselves a World Cup in 2 years time or a Euros in 4. For now, it’ll just be exciting to see how this young team does.

Group Prediction: 1st

Overall Prediction: Out at the Semi Finals

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Poland (15th)

1 nation

Manager: Dariusz Banasik

2 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Grzegorz Krychowiak (FC København), Jaroslaw Budzyn (AS Roma)

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Qualifying Record: W5 D2 L3

5 schedule

Main Man: Kamil Padzik (Napoli)

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Left At Home: Sebastian Szymanski (Stade Rennais FC), Kamil Bartkowiak (Girondins de Bordeaux), Ryszard Baran (CS Sedan Ardennes)

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Up And Comers: Rafal Kiepura (Augsburg)

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Others To Watch: Karol Linetty (Sampdoria), Bartlomiej Dragowski (Inter Milan), Arkadiusz Milik (Napoli)

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Franjo’s Analysis

I’ve got to be honest, I’m a little disappointed that none of the lads from Katowice are going to be involved this Summer. Not surprised, but disappointed still. The closest any of them came was Ryszard Baran, who rose through GieKSa’s academy, has followed me to France and has so far won 10 caps for his country, but he’s left out. In terms of the Polish lads that are at the tournament, I’m unconvinced. They seem to have a lot of pretty decent players around the age of 23/24 who are plying their trade at a decent level, but they strike me as fairly flimsy in terms of depth. They rely on Arkadiusz Milik up front, who isn’t nearly as prolific a striker as we all once thought he’d be and apart from Linetty and Padzik, where’s the quality? Where’s the threat? I’m open to being proved wrong, but I can’t see them getting out of what is in fairness one of the strongest groups at the tournament.

Group Prediction: 4th

Overall Prediction: Out at the group stage

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Sweden (12th)

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Manager: Janne Andersen

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Captain and Vice-Captain: Victor Lindelöf (Tottenham Hotspur), Linus Wahlqvist (Arsenal)

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Qualifying Record: W8 D2 L2 (Qualified through playoffs)

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Main Man: Sead Haksabanovic (Manchester City)

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Left At Home: John Guidetti (Stoke City), Karl-Johan Johnsson (Vitesse Arnhem), Christoffer Nyman (Empoli)

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Up And Comers: Robin Holmgren (Zenit St Petersburg), Jim Lindau (Chievo on loan from AC Milan), Daniel Hansson, Jonas Claesson (Both AIK)

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Others To Watch: Alexander Isak (Stuttgart), Jordan Larsson (Genoa), Ludwig Augustinsson (Olympique de Marseille), Simon Tibbling (Ajax)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Sweden are such a tough one to call. On one hand, I don’t see them finishing above either Belgium or Italy. I see them finishing 3rd. On another hand, out of the teams that I think will finish 3rd, I think that they are the best team with the best squad. On a 3rd superfluous hand though, I don’t reckon they’ll go through purely because I think they’ll lose to Belgium and Italy and will be able to get a maximum of 3 points from Poland. It’ll be a shame if I’m right because I really do like the look of Sweden and I think they could be a very exciting team to watch. I’ll be hoping to be proven wrong.

Group Prediction: 3rd

Overall Prediction: Out at the Group Stage

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Group E

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Denmark (19th)

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Manager: Anders Jensen

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Captain and Vice-Captain: Thomas Delaney (Swansea City), Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Napoli)

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Qualifying Record: W5 D1 L2

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Main Man: Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur)

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Left At Home: Simon Kjaer (Swansea City), Yussuf Poulsen (Olympique Lyonnais), Victor Fischer (Real Vallecano)

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Up And Comers: René Hechmann (Sheffield Wednesday), David Michaelsen (SC Bastia)

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Others To Watch: Jacob Bruun Larsen (Borussia Dortmund), Andreas Christensen (Bayern Munich), Andreas Cornelius (Anderlecht), Kasper Dolberg (New York Red Bulls)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Denmark: Our third and final opponents in Group E. The thing about Denmark is that they have a very strong and very predictable spine to their team. A solid goalkeeper in Michaelsen, an effective partnership of speed and strength in the centre of defence with Christensen and Vestergaard, a pair of silky yet steely midfielders in Højbjerg and Delaney, a legendary playmaker in Eriksen and a horrifyingly fast and powerful striker in Poulsen. Except Poulsen misses out with a broken leg. On one hand, I feel for the lad. You never want to see that happen to anyone and at 29 he probably doesn’t have many tournaments left in him. On the other hand though, fucking jackpot. Suddenly Denmark are missing an essential cog in their well oiled machine. They’re most likely to fall back on either Cornelius or Dolberg up front but to be honest neither of them scare me too much. Neither of them have the pace, the strength or the boundless energy that Poulsen would have brought. I reckon we’ll beat the Danes and I reckon England will too. They’ll be in the same boat as Sweden as a 3rd placed team with one of the best squads but I don’t think they’ll come through the Group Stage.

Group Prediction: 3rd

Overall Prediction: Out at the Group Stage

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England (5th)

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Manager: Eddie Howe

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Captain and Vice-Captain: Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)

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Qualifying Record: W7 D2 L1

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Main Man: Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur)

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Left At Home: Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Raheem Sterling (Both Arsenal), Will Hughes (Manchester United), Phil Jones (AC Milan), Joe Bell, Ryan Sessegnon (Both Stoke City)

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Up And Comers: Juddy Lokando (Manchester City), Ed Lynes (Southampton), Oliver Webb (Chelsea), David Crammond (West Ham United), Stuart Coleman (Manchester United)

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Others To Watch: Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Lewis Cook (AFC Bournemouth), Nathan Redmond (Everton), Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur)

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Franjo’s Analysis

I like Eddie Howe, I think he’s a class act, but what on Earth is he thinking leaving Stoke’s Joe Bell out of his squad?! The lad’s scored 57 Premier League goals in the last 3 seasons and is this year’s Premier League Golden Boot winner Eddie, you bloody manic! Madness. Anyway, England will as I may have mentioned be our first opponents in Group E. Just looking at some of the names they’ve left back in Blighty sends shivers down my spine. No room for Sterling, Hughes, the aforementioned Bell or even Phil Jones, who just very nearly won his 3rd Serie A title in a row. England have an extremely good balance of youth and experience with one of the best defences in the world, a midfield packed with creativity and pace and a strike force to rival most. Let us not forget that this is a team that got to the World Cup Final in Canada 2 years ago, only to lose to my predecessor Arsene Wenger. They will get out of the group and they will go far, but hopefully not as far as us.

Group Prediction: 2nd

Overall Prediction: Out in the Quarter Finals

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France (2nd)

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Manager: WT Franjo

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Captain and Vice-Captain: Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)

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Qualifying Record: W8 D0 L0

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Franjo’s Analysis

You know France well enough by now and you’ll probably guess what I expect us to do. I want to try and look at us objectively like I have everyone else though.

What are France’s weaknesses?

Well for one, the age of our squad is absolutely one of if not the highest at the tournament. 22 of my 23 man squad are 25 years old or over with 20 year old Leo Gauthier the exception. 9 of them are 30 or over. This is something that I’ve been actively trying to sort over the last couple of years but the fact remains that the players we have are some of the best in the World and are still undroppable in my opinion. After this tournament though, I’ll be looking to properly ingratiate some of the younger lads like Clauss and Andre into the first team.

Another weakness we have is of my own making: Our defence. I’ve bleated on about this so many times at this point but we are weak at the back because of the almost gung-ho fluid attacking football that I want us to play, seeing as we are one of the best teams in the world and I want us to play as such. I still maintain that at least when we’re at home or in a neutral venue, my team can outscore anyone while playing in this style. So in theory we should be fine unless we meet Italy.

What are France’s strengths?

Our pace, our quality of passing, of dribbling, of shooting, of technique, our physical strength, our physical fitness, our strength in depth. We have so many strengths and that’s why I want us to win this competition.

Group Prediction: 1st

Overall Prediction: Euro 24 Winners

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Georgia (62nd)

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Manager: Giorgi Kipiani

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Captain and Vice-Captain: Levan Sopromadze (Karabükspor), Mate Tsintsadze (Verona)

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Qualifying Record: W5 D0 L3

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Main Man: Giorgi Arabidze (Shakhtar Donetsk)

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Left At Home: Lucas Hufnagel (Banik Ostrava), Otar Kakabadze (Baltika)

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Up And Comers: Malkhaz Nemsadze (Las Palmas), Zurab Samadashvili (Moreirense)

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Others To Watch: Valeri Qazaishvili (AZ Alkmaar), Akaki Gogia (Ipswich Town FC)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Poor Georgia. I honestly don’t want to sound harsh but if they don’t finish stone bottom of this group, at least 1 of the other 3 of us will have royally fucked up. Arabidze is actually quite a good player but I get the feeling that he’ll have to do everything by himself.

Group Prediction: 4th

Overall Prediction: Out at the Group Stage

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Group F

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Scotland (35th)

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Manager: Gordon Strachan

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Captain and Vice-Captain: Andrew Robertson (Hull City), Callum Paterson (Everton)

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Qualifying Record: W7 D0 L3

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Main Man: Mark Brown (Sunderland)

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Left At Home: Jordan Archer (Millwall), Kieran Freeman (Tottenham Hotspur), Barrie McKay (Glasgow Rangers)

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Up And Comers: Chris Henderson (Stoke City), Phil McAllister (Partick Thistle), Grant Wyness (Chelsea)

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Others To Watch: Kieran Tierney (Arsenal), Oliver Burke (Leicester City), Ryan Gauld (Espanyol)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Look, down the years I’ve had some light-hearted, well intentioned pops at the Scottish. But let it never be said that I don’t give credit where credit’s due: This Scotland team, assembled by legendary manager Gordon Strachan, has got some bloody quality. So much so that I think they’ll sneak out of a very strong Group F (Or Group S as it may as well be called) as the final 3rd placed qualifier. Will they get any further than the Second Round? Och aye the no. Still, at least the fans will get to spend a few extra days out of the rain than usual, eh?

Group Prediction: 3rd (But will qualify)

Overall Prediction: Out at the Second Round

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Serbia (20th)

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Manager: Slavisa Jokanovic

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Captain and Vice-Captain: Predrag Rajkovic (AFC Bournemouth), Nikola Maksimovic (AZ Alkmaar)

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Qualifying Record: W5 D2 L1

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Main Man: Sergej Milinkovic Savic (Barcelona)

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Left At Home: Sergej Milinkovic Savic (Barcelona), Nikola Maksimovic (AZ Alkmaar), Nikola Stojilkovic (Olympiakos), Aleksandar Mitrovic (Stade Rennais FC)

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Up And Comers: Milorad Stevanovic (Barcelona), Dragan Rajkovic (Girondins de Bordeaux on loan from Barcelona), Dejan Lukic (AFC Bournemouth)

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Others To Watch: Matija Nastasic, Andrija Zivkovic (Both Manchester United), Marko Grujic (Guangzhou), Lazar Romanic (West Bromwich Albion)

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Franjo’s Analysis

So… This’ll sound a bit weird, but if I were to pick my nationality purely on footballing reasons, I think I’d seriously consider picking Serbia. They are not a glamorous team when it comes to international tournaments and are often overlooked, but they’re always there, always plugging away and always giving a good account of themselves. They’re just like I was as a player, proud to battle away in the background, ignoring the headlines, defensively solid. Yes, Milinkovic Savic is out with a broken leg, yes their vice captain and one of their best strikers have been left at home, but if you take anything away from my analyses, take this: Never write off Serbia to qualify from the Group Stage. They’re resilient bastards.

Group Prediction: 2nd

Overall Prediction: Out at the Second Round

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Spain (7th)

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Manager: Marcelino

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Captain and Vice-Captain: Koke (Atlético Madrid), Isco (Manchester City)

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Qualifying Record: W7 D0 L1

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Main Man: Abraham Pérez (Manchester United)

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Left At Home: Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), Sandro Ramírez (Atlético Madrid)

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Up And Comers: Jon Zabalza (Barcelona), Fran Giráldez (Crystal Palace on loan from Barcelona), Marc Alonso (Sunderland AFC on loan from Barcelona)

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Others To Watch: Germán Ramos (Chelsea), Toni Lato (Paris Saint-Germain), Jesús Vallejo (Manchester City), Asier Villalibre (Atlético Madrid), Pablo Fornals (Real Madrid)

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Franjo’s Analysis

I don’t think Spain are going to get very far in the Euros. Sue me.

Let me explain: The predictions that I’ve been making while describing each nation are not just me saying “I reckon they’ll get about this far”. I thought it’d be far more fun to actually plot who goes through from each group, then pair them off to create the second round and so on in an actual simulation of the tournament ahead. In this simulation, I have Spain winning Group S and facing the runner up of Group E, which is England. I reckon England would beat Spain, so I predict Spain, a team full of international superstars, will be out before the Quarters.

That aside, Spain are good. Very good. Practically the entire squad is made up of top players from the best La Liga, Premier League and Ligue 1 sides and prediction be damned, they might win the bloody thing for all I know. They have quality in abundance, brilliant depth and a very, very good balance of ages throughout the squad. Before I chicken out and change my prediction, let’s just all agree that they’ll at least get out of the group.

Group Prediction: 1st

Overall Prediction: Out at the Second Round

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Switzerland (=16th)

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Manager: Urs Meier

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Captain and Vice-Captain: Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Ricardo Rodríguez (Chelsea)

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Qualifying Record: W5 D2 L1

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Main Man: Arnel Kalac (Chelsea)

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Left At Home: Francisco Rodríguez (Brentford), Haris Seferovic (Getafe), Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Olivier Custodio (AFC Bournemouth)

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Up And Comers: Emiljano Pllumbaj (AFC Bournemouth)

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Others To Watch: Breel Embolo (AS Roma), Denis Zakaria (AC Milan), Noah Okafor (Real Madrid), Xherdan Shakiri (Sporting)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Switzerland have good players, but I don’t think they’ll do very well. It’s very handy that I’m talking about them directly after Spain because it makes it easy to make this comparison: Spain’s squad is largely made up of top players from top teams, while Switzerland’s squad is largely made up of players from top teams. Do you see the distinction? Kalac could well turn out to be a great striker for Chelsea, but at the minute he’s inexperienced and not playing as much football as he’d like. Elvedi is a valued centre back option for Arsenal, but he’s not a starter. Embolo’s mainly a super sub for Roma, Okafor is a squad player at Real and Widmer barely plays for Manchester City. With the exceptions of Zakaria and Shakiri, regulars at Milan and Sporting and arguably Xhaka, who plays a fair bit at Arsenal, Switzerland’s squad feels like a team full of the dregs of the big clubs and I think they’ll finish beneath the might of Spain, the resilience of Serbia and the surprising competence of Scotland at the bottom of their group.

Group Prediction: 4th

Overall Prediction: Out at the Group Stage

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So that’s that. 24 nations have been expertly analysed. 24 predictions have been painstakingly made. After much deliberation, I have reached the jaw-droppingly surprising conclusion that we can win this bloody tournament. All that’s left to do now is actually bring that to fruition.

Any predictions? Potential winners? Dark horses? Potential flops? Golden boot nominees? Let me know, would love to hear them.

Euro 24 Part 4 >

Groups A-C (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 2)

Here are the first three groups:

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 1

My Short Stories WordPress

I think it’s about time we take a closer look at the European nations that we could potentially face throughout this tournament. There are 24 nations split into 6 groups of 4, with the top 2 in each group qualifying for the second round along with the 4 best third placed teams. Here are the first three groups:

Group A

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The Netherlands (8th)

0 nation

Manager: Jurrie Koolhof

1 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Davy Klaassen (AS Roma), Jairo Riedewald (Manchester City)

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Qualifying Record: W9 D1 L0

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Main Man: Tom Watson (Arsenal)

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Left At Home: Stefan de Vrij (Paris Saint-Germain), Rick Karsdorp (AS Roma), Justin Kluivert (Valencia)

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Up And Comers: Paul van de Leuv (Sunderland AFC), Olaf de Vrij (FC København)

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Others To Watch: Virgil van Dijk, Hicham Faddil (Both Chelsea), Memphis Depay (Olympique Lyonnais), Thomas Buitink (Bayer Leverkusen)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Look, we know that the Dutch are a footballing force. Out of every nation in this tournament, I look at them with probably the most consternation as they’re one of only two sides to have bested France under my regime. They can potentially be got at in midfield, but they have a solid defence and a very, very dangerous attack. They should stroll through the group stage and have a good tournament.

Group Prediction: 1st

Overall Prediction: Out at the Semi Finals

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Northern Ireland (69th)

0 nation

Manager: Jim Magilton

1 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Francis McVeigh (Crystal Palace), Jared Thompson (Portland Timbers)

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Qualifying Record: W2 D1 L5 (Qualified through EIL Division D Group 1 win)

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Main Man: Stuart Dallas (Millwall FC)

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Left At Home: Corry Evans (Rostov), Conor McLaughlin (N/A), Lee Hodson (AFC Wimbledon)

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Up And Comers: Brendan Moore (Peterborough United), Keith Adams (Wigan Athletic)

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Others To Watch: Cameron Dummigan (Kilmarnock), Callum Camps (FC Dallas)

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Franjo’s Analysis

I’ll always root for a home nation, except for when they’re in my group and my main threat for qualification. That being said, the Northern Irish squad’s quality just isn’t there. Their best players are over the hill and the youngsters are below the level they need to be. Sorry lads, but I think it’s going to be a really rough tournament.

Group Prediction: 4th

Overall Prediction: Out at the Group Stage

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Romania (=16th)

0 nation

Manager: Ovidiu Stînga

1 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Vlad Chiriches (Espanyol), Florin Andone (Juventus)

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Qualifying Record: W5 D1 L2

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Main Man: Andrei Ivan (AFC Bournemouth)

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Left At Home: Vlad Chiriches (Espanyol), Paul Anton (Vitesse Arnhem), Steliano Filip (Norwich City)

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Up And Comers: Silviu Grozea (Derby County on loan from Manchester City), Marcel Uta (Manchester City), Aurelian Ghita (Liverpool), Cristian Bisorca (Burnley)

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Others To Watch: Dorin Rotariu (AFC Bournemouth), Dragos Nedelcu (Torino), Florin Tanase (Villarreal), Nicolae Stanciu (Anderlecht)

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Franjo’s Analysis

I quite like the look of this Romania side. They’ve got some serious creativity in midfield with the likes of Bournemouth pair Ivan and Rotariu and a ruthless striker in Juve’s Andone. On paper they should have what they need to qualify out of the group stage, although I am a bit baffled that their captain’s going to be watching their matches from his sofa.

Group Prediction: 2nd

Overall Prediction: Out at the Quarter Finals

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Russia (39th)

0 nation

Manager: Alexandre Semenov

1 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Roman Zobnin (Spartak Moscow), Vyacheslav Karavaev (Bayer Leverkusen)

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Qualifying Record: W7 D2 L3 (Qualified through playoffs)

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Main Man: Alexandr Arestov (CSKA Moscow)

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Left At Home: Oleg Shatov (Zenit St Petersburg), Georgy Schennikov (Spartak Moscow), Alexey Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow)

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Up And Comers: Vitaly Obukhov (Grasshoppers on loan from Krasnodar), Andrey Kharin (Krasnodar), Andrey Kalashnikov (Dinamo Moscow), Nikita Ovchinnikov (Zenit St Petersburg)

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Others To Watch: Alexandr Golovin (CSKA Moscow), Igor Demin (Krasnodar), Vitinho, Marat Lelyukhin (Both Spartak Moscow)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Fun fact: In Soviet Russia, Euros qualify for you. I know, shit joke. I could have spent the last half a year managing in St Petersburg getting to know a few of these players as the vast majority ply their trade in the Russian Premier Division, although I am glad I stuck with Auxerre. They look like a decent side and young Arestov in particular looks like a bit of a prodigy up front, but I reckon their overall quality is lacking. Who knows though, maybe that core group of players that know one another well from the Moscow clubs will give Russia an advantage over their opponents. For me they’re getting pipped to second place by Romania but I could see them being one of the third placed teams that goes through as (Sorry again) they should at least record a win against Northern Ireland and could pinch an extra point against Romania.

Group Prediction: 3rd (But will qualify)

Overall Prediction: Out at the Second Round

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Group B

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Czech Republic (40th)

1 nation

Manager: Karel Jarolim

2 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Ales Mateju (Hull City), Jan Baranek (FC København)

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Qualifying Record: W5 D0 L3

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Main Man: Patrik Schick (Inter Milan)

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Left At Home: David Pavelka (AS Saint-Étienne), Pavel Kaderabek (Lazio), Jan Baranek (FC København)

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Up And Comers: Simon Krecek (Stade Brestois 29), Martin Kubala (Benfica on loan from Liverpool), Jan Ptacek (Lokomotiv Moscow)

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Others To Watch: Tomas Latal (Legia Warsaw), Vladimir Bilek (Southampton), Tomas Havlicek (Stoke City), Vlastimil Bartos (Olympique Lyonnais on loan from Arsenal), Vaclav Cerny (Ajax)

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Franjo’s Analysis

I’m not too sure what to make of Czechia. On paper they’ve got some decent players but with the exceptions of perhaps Schick and Latal, nobody in their squad can claim to have had a truly good season for their clubs. Qualifying went well but one glaring defeat against Northern Ireland in particular (I really am so sorry) highlights how much of a hit and miss team they are. I think if that second tier of players like Bilek, Havlicek and Cerny turn up, they could definitely get out of the group. In fact I’ll even go as far as to say that I think they’ll scrape through with Russia as one of the best third placed teams.

Group Prediction: 3rd (But will qualify)

Overall Prediction: Out at the Second Round

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FYR Macedonia (63rd)

1 nation

Manager: Igor Angelovski

2 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Ilija Nestorovski (DC United), Stole Dimitrievski (Girondins de Bordeaux)

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Qualifying Record: W5 D4 L1

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Main Man: Erdal Rakip (Trabzonspor)

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Left At Home: Ezgjan Alioski (FC Lorient), Gjoko Zajkov (Nottingham Forest)

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Up And Comers: Saso Aliji (Slaven Belupo on loan from Vardar), Martin Momitovski (Varazdin), Blagojce Filipovski (Slovan Bratislava)

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Others To Watch: Nikola Gjorgjev (Pescara), Aleksandar Trajkovski (Córdoba), Leonard Zuta (Rijeka)

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Franjo’s Prediction

Bare in mind that I do not say this lightly anymore, but I will eat my fucking hat if Macedonia make it out of Group B. Rakip’s a good little player and Dimitrievski’s thwarted me on a few occasions in the last couple of years for Bordeaux, but other than that I can’t see any danger whatsoever in their team. I think the best Macedonia can hope for is that the Czechs have a horrible tournament so that they can finish 3rd, otherwise…

Group Prediction: 4th

Overall Prediction: Out at the Group Stage

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Portugal (6th)

1 nation

Manager: José Barros

2 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Rúben Dias (Benfica), João Mário (Real Madrid)

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Qualifying Record: W7 D1 L0

5 schedule

Main Man: Renato Sanches (Chelsea)

6 main

Left At Home: Rui Patrício (Sporting), William Carvalho (Juventus), Nélson Semedo (Barcelona), André Gomes (Sevilla on loan from Monaco)

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Up And Comers: António Branco (Liverpool), Paulo Almeida (Red Bull Leipzig)

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Others To Watch: André Silva (Bayern Munich), Bernardo Silva (AS Monaco), Raphaël Guerreiro (Real Madrid), Gonçalo Guedes (Barcelona)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Surely one of the favourites for the tournament, Portugal have some absolutely fantastic talent among their ranks, including a mouth watering front 4 of Martins, Benardo Silva, Guedes and André Silva. They actually could be slightly top-heavy, as their defence is far less well stocked than their midfield and attack, but along with the Netherlands they’ve beaten my France team and I would not relish the opportunity to meet them again. Should go extremely far.

Group Prediction: 1st

Overall Prediction: Out at the Semi Finals

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Ukraine (25th)

1 nation

Manager: Illya Galyuza

2 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Taras Stepanenko (Shakhtar Donetsk), Maxim Tankov (Arsenal)

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Qualifying Record: W8 D2 L0

5 schedule

Main Man: Maxim Tankov (Arsenal)

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Left At Home: Yaroslav Rakitskyi (Shakhtar Donetsk), Sergiy Rybalka (Dynamo Kyiv), Maxym Malyshev (Shakhtar Donetsk)

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Up And Comers: Alexey Ivanov (Zenit St Petersburg), Alexey Sukhov (Hamburg)

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Others To Watch: Alexey Yusupov (Borussia Dortmund), Victor Kovalenko (Shakhtar Donetsk), Olexandr Zinchenko (Olympique Lyonnais)

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Franjo’s Analysis

2 words: Maxim Tankov. The Arsenal striker isn’t Ukraine’s only threat, but my God… It’d be lazy to compare Maxim to Andriy Shevchenko, but I think the 22 year old’s record of 37 goals in 47 international appearances speaks for itself and I expect him to fire his nation out of the group stage single-handedly if need be. Depending on how deep into the tournament Ukraine go, the Golden Boot could well be a possibility for the boy too.

Group Prediction: 2nd

Overall Prediction: Out at the Quarter Finals

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Group C

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Croatia (11th)

1 nation

Manager: Marijan Vlak

2 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Mateo Kovacic (Paris Saint-Germain), Domagoj Vida (Girondins de Bordeaux)

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Qualifying Record: W7 D2 L1

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Main Man: Marcelo Brozovic

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Left At Home: Domagoj Vida (Girondins de Bordeaux), Marko Rog (Borussia Mönchengladbach)

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Up And Comers: Emanuel Glavica, Ivan Damjanovic (Both Everton)

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Others To Watch: Marko Pjaca (Manchester City), Tin Jedvaj (Manchester United), Josip Brekalo (Olympique Lyonnais), Nikola Vlasic (Galatasaray)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Croatia are at the point now where they really need to put up or shut up as their golden-ish generation is in it’s prime. 15 of their 23 man squad are between the ages of 28 and 32 and 8 are 30 or over, so they have plenty of experience. For this reason though they don’t have a great balance in the squad, with Glavica and Damjanovic of Everton the youngest players selected. It’s a risky strategy going for so much experience and might cause problems for the national team further down the line, but I think they should at least get out of the group on this occasion.

Group Prediction: 2nd

Overall Prediction: Out at the Second Round

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Germany (4th)

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Manager: Joachim Löw

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Captain and Vice-Captain: Silvio Cvitanovic (Paris Saint-Germain), Mohamed Acheampong (Red Bull Leipzig)

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Qualifying Record: W7 D3 L0

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Main Man: Christopher Dieckmann (Bayern Munich)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Unfortunately there isn’t too much I can say about Germany. That being said, they are Germany, so they’ll do alright.

Group Prediction: 1st

Overall Prediction: Out at the Quarter Finals

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Norway (21st)

1 nation

Manager: Arne Erlandsen

2 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Birger Meling (Anderlecht), Kristoffer Ajer (Swansea City)

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Qualifying Record: W6 D0 L4 (Qualified through playoffs)

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Main Man: Martin Ødegaard (Chelsea)

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Left At Home: Håvard Nielsen (Derby County), Martin Linnes (Swansea City), Mohammed Elyounoussi (Basel)

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Up And Comers: Oddbjørn Thoresen (Young Boys on loan from Manchester City), Olav Engen, Ronny Rossbach (Both Young Boys)

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Others To Watch: Iver Fossum (Leicester City), Sander Berge (KRC Genk), Tobias Svendsen (Watford)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Norway will… Hmm… You know what, I honestly have no idea how Norway will do. A spotty qualifying campaign, admittedly in a group containing 2 good sides in Belgium and Denmark, was followed up by playoff wins against Cyprus and Austria. A win over Austria is very credible indeed but it just leaves me at a loss as to guess how the Norwegians will do. They have a very talented midfield, but are fairly lacking at both ends of the pitch. I’ll go for a clean sweep for these 3 groups: Norway, along with Russia and Czechia, will finish 3rd but qualify for the Second Round. Along with Russia and Czechia though, that’s probably as far as they can hope to get.

Group Prediction: 3rd (But will qualify)

Overall Prediction: Out at the Second Round

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Turkey (=22nd)

1 nation

Manager: Ersun Yanal

2 manager

Captain and Vice-Captain: Ozan Tufan (Fenerbahçe), Çaglar Söyüncü (Galatasaray)

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Qualifying Record: W6 D1 L1

5 schedule

Main Man: Enes Ünal (Olympique de Marseille)

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Left At Home: Yunus Malli (Fenerbahçe), Alper Potuk (Kayserispor)

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Up And Comers: Hayri Yilmaz (Besiktas), Tayfun Ünsal (Galatasaray)

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Others To Watch: Salih Özcan (Köln), Hakan Çalhanoglu (Lekhwiya Sports Club), Yigithan Güveli (Schalke 04), Emre Mor (Brentford)

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Franjo’s Analysis

Turkey are an odd one. I don’t think they’re that poor a side but I think that out of Group C, they are probably the weakest. They breezed through a qualifying group where the only real threat was Switzerland and both teams took a win each from their encounters. I can’t decide whether I really like the balance of their squad either, with half the players between the ages of 20-23 and the other half between 26-31. In theory this is a good mixture of youth and experience but in my opinion the age gap between the two core groups could result in a lack of chemistry. Çalhanoglu is a good player and is wasted in the Qatari league, while players like Tufan, Özcan and especially Ünal have the potential to cause some upsets, but I can see them finishing at the bottom of the group.

Group Prediction: 4th

Overall Prediction: Out at the Group Stage

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Euro 24 Part 3 >

Euro 24 Squad Announcement (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 1)

France are ready. The rest of Europe had better be ready too.

Side note: Right then, with your help I have figured out how we’re going to do this! Cheers for getting in touch. This week I’ll be releasing 5 episodes and they’re going to be mainly build up with the first match coming on Friday. After that we’ll be going back to 3 episodes per week and matches will be every other ep instead of just 1 a week. Hope you enjoy!

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 200

My Short Stories WordPress

Brahim and Nathan’s faces are difficult to read. I wish they weren’t. I wish they’d be visibly upset or angry. I’m gutted for the pair of them, I really am. If I could take 25 players with me to Italy, they’d both make the squad, but I can’t. So they don’t. Unlike the other players that I’ve cut from the France squad, who just got faux-apologetic phone calls, I wanted to sit my Auxerre boys down and explain to them why they aren’t going. Ferhat isn’t going because his position for Auxerre this season has mainly been cutting in from the left wing and as luck would have it, I already have the best player in the World in that position at my disposal in Kylian Mbappé. If Kylian isn’t available, I’ve got Coman, I’ve got Lemar, I’ve got Griezmann. To choose Brahim over any of them would frankly be wrong and an emotional decision on my part.

euro 6 ferhat

Nathan Andre’s omission on the other hand was a much tougher decision. It was practically a coin flip. I’ve chosen Griezmann obviously, who is my first choice striker although Mbappé could take the role at some point. Behind them I’ve chosen Neal Maupay as he’s a proven goalscorer and has risen in my estimation more than most over the last 2 years thanks to his performances for both club and country. I’ve also chosen Moussa Dembélé, as he’s a different kind of player to the short, silky-skilled Griezmann, the rapid, almost-omni-skilled Mbappé and the right-place-at-the-right-time poacher Maupay. Dembélé can hold the ball up and bring others into play, which we may need at some point should the situation demand it. But the final forward spot was between Nathan Andre and Nabil Fekir. On one hand we’ve got a young lad from my Auxerre team who’s been in the form of his life over the last few months, but on the other we’ve got a seasoned pro who’s been scoring goals for Real Madrid, who’s adept at playing on either wing as well as up top and who I won’t be dropping in at the deep end in terms of his reintroduction to international football. It comes down to the fact that Fekir’s more versatile, playing at the highest level and has more experience, so Nathan misses out by a hair. After the duo leave my office, wishing me luck for the tournament ahead through forced smiles, I drop my head into my hands. Sorry, boys.

euro 7 andre

The other unlucky players to be trimmed away from the final squad are Yannick Clauss, Sebastien Corchia, Theo Hernández, Francis Coquelin and Ousmane Dembélé. If we were any other nation Clauss would probably be one of our core players at centre back, but we’re France and we just have too much quality at the back to give him a spot. He’ll be a nailed on starter in a couple of years. I think Corchia and I both knew that he wouldn’t be joining us in the final squad as his age is against him. Coquelin is out for the same reason. We have younger, better players in their positions. Hernández was a really tricky omission and a decision that I’ve been wrestling with for the last year, but he misses out purely because of how impressed I am with Lucas Digne and Benjamin Mendy. I think any of the 3 would do a job for us, but the pair I’ve selected are my preferred options. Ousmane Dembélé is left out for a similar reason to Ferhat, Andre, Hernández and Clauss: We’re just too strong in his position.

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200.5 5 dembele out

200.5 6 hernandez disappointed

But that’s enough about who’s out. Let’s remind ourselves of who’s in:


1. Leo Gauthier (FC Sochaux)

Our number 1. He’s impressed me when he’s played for France and he’s had a very impressive season for Sochaux. He’s earned this.

squad 1 gauthier

13. Alphonse Areola (Swansea City)

Alphonse has had a fair season for Swansea in the Premier League. He’s consistently put in good performances in South Wales, although he has conceded quite a lot of goals. Mind you, he’s a good keeper but he’s not a miracle worker.

squad 2 areola

23. Alban Lafont (Stoke City)

Alban could argue that his performances for Stoke this season should push him above Areola in the pecking order. It’s a decent point to be fair. He’s conceded far fewer goals per game although he is playing for a better club. I hope that I’m not given reason to drop Leo but if I am, he’ll certainly be considered.

squad 3 lafont


2. Djibril Sidibé (AS Monaco)

Djibril might be my favourite player in the France team, excluding the Auxerre lads of course. He’s consistently excellent at right back and a no brainer to be in my starting XI.

squad 4 sidibe

3. Lucas Digne (Manchester City)

After much deliberation it’s Digne who’ll take us into the Euros as our starting left back. I’ve never had reason to complain about his performances for France and he’s had a great season at City. If we reach the Semi-Finals and he plays every match, Lucas will reach 100 caps.

squad 10 digne

4. Aymeric Laporte (Chelsea)

Chelsea skipper and arguably best centre back in the world, Aymeric is another no brainer. He’s in my starting XI.

squad 8 laporte

5. Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid)

Another contender for best centre back in the world and another absolute certainty for the starting XI. Like Digne, Raphaël can potentially reach 100 caps during the tournament.

squad 6 varane

12. Corentin Tolisso (AS Monaco)

Corentin isn’t one of the players I have earmarked for a starting place against England, but he’ll definitely get plenty of game time. He’s a great player to have and can play in a few different positions. Never lets us down.

squad 5 tolisso

15. Benjamin Mendy (Atlético Madrid)

The most hated man in the Hernández household. Mendy’s had a very good season in Madrid and will no doubt put in a performance if called upon.

squad 11 mendy

19. Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona)

I’ll say the same about Samuel as I did about Clauss: If we were any other nation he’d be a nailed on starter. Unfortunately he’s just one of many world-class French centre backs and will be acting as back up for Varane and Laporte.

squad 9 umtiti

21. Dayot Upamecano (Real Madrid)

No doubt a starter in a few years when our other 3 centre backs most likely start to decline. Still an excellent option to have for the time being.

squad 7 upamecano


6. Tiémoué Bakayoko (AS Monaco)

Surprised the shit out of me when I took over the French national team by being my finest ball winning midfielder. Excellent all over the pitch, including a much appreciated penchant for scoring wonder goals. Nailed on starter.

squad 13 bakayoko

8. Adrien Rabiot (AS Monaco)

The other half of my preferred central midfield duo along with his Monaco team mate Bakayoko. Almost as impressive but with a bit more creativity thrown in too.

squad 12 rabiot

10. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)

The man that our whole system was built around. I had the same headache initially as I’m sure many of Paul’s managers have had: “Where do I play him? He’s good everywhere”. I tried him out as a destroyer/second striker and he took to it like a duck to water. If Pogba has a good tournament, so will we.

squad 17 pogba

11. Thomas Lemar (Manchester City)

Initially I baulked when Man City paid £105M to Monaco in exchange for Thomas, but I get it now. He’s an unstoppable creative force whether charging up the wing, cutting inside, shooting, dribbling or passing. He’s also excellent from dead ball situations. A perhaps understated driving force of this France team.

squad 18 lemar

16. Abdoulaye Sissako (AJ Auxerre)

I’ve said all I possibly can about Abi. It really says all that needs to be said about his character that in the face of adversity and criticism from the media before his international debut, he came off the bench and slammed in a goal from 25 yards. Has refused to stop impressing me for the last 3 years.

squad 14 sissako

17. Lamine Fomba (AJ Auxerre)

Remember when I nearly let Fomba’s contract run out a few weeks into my Auxerre tenure? He’d had a shocking season as we flailed about in Ligue 2 but he’s come on leaps and bounds since then and has now established himself firmly as a Ligue 1 central midfielder. Yet to impress for France as much as Sissako has, but to his credit I am flabbergasted that a player I nearly kicked out 3 years ago is now in my squad for the Euros as backup for Paul Pogba. He’s earned it. Good lad, Lamine.

squad 15 fomba

18. Kingsley Coman (Manchester United)

An excellent player and an excellent creative outlet, although he has hit the woodwork more than any other player I’ve encountered in my career. Kingsley will either be in or extremely close to the starting XI as per usual.

squad 16 coman


7. Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)

I considered ending Antoine’s international career earlier this season amidst poor performances for Atléti, but he responded in a ridiculous manner by having an outstanding season for his club and for me. Deserves to still have a place in the starting XI.

squad 20 griezmann

9. Kylian Mbappé (AS Monaco)

The best footballer in the World. Enough said, really.

squad 19 mbappe

14. Neal Maupay (FC Lorient)

As I’ve mentioned, Neal was always a dead cert in the final squad thanks to 2 extremely impressive seasons for Lorient. I’ll have no worries throwing him into the team to bag us a couple of goals.

squad 21 maupay

20. Nabil Fekir (Real Madrid)

Nabil had better have a good tournament, because I feel fucking awful about dropping Nathan Andre. That said, he won’t be a starter but he will play a part and I’ll be expecting him to continue his good La Liga form when he does.

squad 23 fekir

22. Moussa Dembélé (Espanyol)

This time last year I challenged Moussa… Misguidedly… To join a bigger club and he refused. I challenged him to continue his fantastic goalscoring record over a longer period of time and he has done. I challenged him to add some assists to his game and he has done. Few have earned their place in this squad as much as Moussa Dembélé.

squad 22 dembele

So that’s our squad for Euro 2024. France are ready. The rest of Europe had better be ready too.

200.5 3 squad decided

200.5 4 announced

200.5 15 squad num200.5 15 squad num 2

Euro 24 Part 2 >

Au Revoir (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep200)

Ça a été un privilège.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Meta-sode 199.5

My Short Stories WordPress

I’m not sure why I didn’t think of this before. I’m honestly not. How could I have been so foolish? How could I have been so naive? Until very recently, I had very low hopes for Auxerre’s Europa League push because I had been working under the frankly ridiculously stupid assumption that the domestic cup competitions could be won by a team other than Monaco or PSG. Idiotic of me, I know. But now, with Monaco having won the Coupe de la Ligue and the final of the French cup confirmed to feature both teams, 6th place in Ligue 1 is officially a Europa League place. We have never been closer to European football.

Oh and also, piss off, Rodolfo Borrell. Again.

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Unfortunately for us, we’ve only managed to pick up 1 point from our last 2 matches and so we’ve slid beneath Sochaux into 7th place, albeit with a game in hand. Also unfortunately for us, Brahim Ferhat and Gaizka Basauri pick up a stubbed toe and a concussion respectively during the build up to our game in hand.

Also also unfortunately for us, the game in question is against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Olympique Lyonnais. If there’s one team in the league whose matches against us can go to the absolute extremes in either direction, it’s Lyon.

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Zlatan’s tactics don’t seem to have evolved much since we first met in Valenciennes, although I’m one to talk. He still plays that 4-4-2, we still play Meatloaf. Fomba and Aidir come in for Raf and Andre. Ferhat starts despite not being fully fit and Basauri makes the bench. Let’s get ourselves into the Europa League places.

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After 10 minutes, a warning shot comes quite literally across our bow when Raí pokes a pass through for Blanchard, who gets goal-side of Doucouré and drags his effort just wide of the post. 10 minutes later though he returns the favour, getting to the right byline and drilling in a cross for Raí, who tucks in the opening goal from close range. Bollocks. We go agonisingly close straight from kick off when a good passing move sets Billy off down the left. The Moroccan full back gets a great cross in, Fomba leaps to beat goalkeeper Lopes in the air, but then with the goal at his mercy he heads just wide. We go in for the break at 0-1.

At half time, Reynier comes on replacing Ferhat, who I took a chance on despite his recent injury but has not really offered us anything. Within 7 minutes of the restart we go close again from a McCarthy corner that drops down into the centre of the box. Reynier shoots, but a defender blocks, then Billy has a go – Also blocked. Billy again – A defender throws his body across goal to make yet another block. Bloody hell.

With half an hour to play I send Raf and Andre onto the pitch, replacing Fomba and Aidir and within 5 minutes of the change, we finally claw ourselves level. Another corner from McCarthy is swung in to the edge of the 6 yard box, Doucouré nods it on and substitute Nathan Andre, stood 2 yards out with his back to goal, stoops and flicks the ball into the net with his head.

The match winds down somewhat after that. To be fair, a draw against the league’s 4th placed club is nothing to be sniffed at… We don’t get a draw though. In the 2nd minute of stoppage time, we work the ball down the right wing and Foden gets a cross in. The ball’s headed back to him and Phil tries again, but this time his cross is volleyed half-clear by Bartos. It goes as far as Raf 20 yards out, who takes the ball down on the edge of the box, takes a touch to get it out of his feet and drills it into the bottom corner.

My vindication blanket has never been so comfortable as Zlatan stares daggers at me from down the touchline. I’m not one to boast usually, but if I say so myself, that is a double substitution and a half. Take a bow, Nathan. Take a bow… Erm… Albert. You’ve gone and fired us into a Europa League spot for the first time this season.

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I stifle a laugh as I watch Zlatan being interviewed by JOE. “Very ordinary” are the words that he uses to describe Auxerre. “Very ordinary.” Like how you’d describe the act of combining butter and toast for a breakfast treat. Like a car indicating right and then turning right. Like Zlatan Ibrahimovic not being able to handle defeat. “Very ordinary”. I tell you what though, Zlatan: Buttered toast is tasty and indicators save lives. You petty bastard.

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Man of the match Raf makes the team of the week, despite having only played half an hour. To think that I nearly let him go last Summer. Good laf, Rad. I mean good lad, Raf.

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It’s funny how often parallels and strangely coincidental situations pop up in football. Stade Rennais, you might recall, were our penultimate opponents of the 2022/23 season and it was against them that we secured safety in Ligue 1 thanks to our win and a failure of our rivals to get a result. Stade Rennais are our penultimate opponents once again today and if we win against them while Sochaux fail to secure a win against Metz, Auxerre will be in the Europa League next season. This actually seems like a good opportunity to mention though that even if we do get into Europe, I don’t want to be at Auxerre next season. I’m more than happy with what I’ve achieved here and I want to move on. Last Summer I did look for a new club, but when the moves I wanted didn’t materialise I was happy to stay put. This Summer is different. This time I’m leaving.

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So let’s make sure my last away match as Auxerre manager is a good one, shall we? We’ll use our counter attacking variant of Project: Meatloaf and I’m making a few changes: Our two Moroccans Hicham Aidir and Billy are suspended, so Isaac Sohna and Nathan Andre come in to replace them, with Doucouré shifting over to left back. I could use Nantes-bound Rogerio instead, who incidentally will definitely not be playing European football next season, but frankly what’s the point? Raf comes back in for Fomba of course, because he deserves it after his performance against Lyon. I do make something of a bench malfunction though, as I’ve allowed most of those not in the starting XI to play in the reserves match this morning. My bad. Lamine Fomba, the recently debuted Loïc Maire and newly professional Texan striker Lance Osborn are our only substitutes. Lance is definitely one to keep an eye on and I’m saddened that he’s only just turned 16 and thus become eligible to play in Ligue 1 as my time here comes to an end.

200 1 8 osborn

200 2 5 formations

If there’s one thing that I love about this Auxerre side, it’s that they truly are a bunch of battlers. I may sometimes go overboard after we capitulate and throw away a lead or fail to turn up for a match and get beaten, but when I do it’s because I know how hard a shift they can put in when it really matters. I know how well they can turn up for the big occasions and when they fail to do that it really bloody angers me. With the pressure on, we turn up early for this one.

An early Ferhat shot is deflected into the arms of Jovanovic after 3 minutes, but 2 minutes later we take the lead with what I’m going to shamelessly describe as a perfect counter attack. The ball starts off with Foulquier, who gets a cross into our box from the right wing. Celsiney’s the man to step up and head the ball clear and as it floats over towards Steven N’Zonzi, Raf uses his pace and nips in to steal. Raf strides forwards and plays it to Foden, who then sweeps an excellent ball over to Ferhat on the left hand side of Rennais’ box. Ferhat squares for McCarthy, McCarthy lays the ball off for captain Nathan Andre and Andre slams it in off the underside of the crossbar. And did I mention that Metz are already beating Sochaux? It’s a perfect first 5 minutes.

A few minutes after the opener, Foden charges through the centre of the pitch but blazes a shot over the crossbar as we continue to dominate. It’s not until the 15th minute that we double our lead when Ferhat holds the ball up 25 yards out, plays a clever ball through for Andre and the striker finds the far top corner of the net from inside the box. Shortly afterwards I hear word from Bechkoura that Metz too are 2-0 up over Sochaux. I’m almost suspicious about how perfectly this is going.

Before the half hour, Foden tries to switch the play to Ferhat. The ball’s intercepted on the edge of Rennais’ box by Foulquier but is instantly robbed back by Raf, who then speeds past Jovanovic and buries his second goal in as many games in the bottom right corner. 3-0.

Stade Rennais actually go close a couple of times before half time. Well, once. Puscas has a shot from 30 yards that flies almost comically high and wide, so I wouldn’t describe that as close, but a minute later N’Zonzi smashes a 25 yard free kick against Vladimir’s crossbar, but we hold onto our clean sheet. In the 45th minute, Ferhat picks up a cut across the head and gets to channel his inner Terry Butcher by wearing a huge bandage over it.

200 ferhat bandage

When we get to half time I decide to make a slight change to make us more solid, suspicious as I am. We drop to a 4-1-2-3 with Raf as the holding man, McCarthy acting as the “quarterback” and Sissako the ball winner.

But the hosts don’t appear to have much in the tank aside from poorly executed pot shots. 12 minutes after the restart we actually go close to a 4th goal when the bandaged Ferhat receives the ball off McCarthy and thuds a 20 yard shot against the bar. I then hear that Metz have matched us again by opening up a 3 goal margin against our rivals. Our opponents do pull a goal back with about 20 minutes to go when Szymanski squares to Tulissi 25 yards out. Tulissi has a pop and Vladimir has a shocker. He’s slightly off his line when the shot comes straight over his head and although the Brazilian raises his gloves in an attempt to halt the ball’s trajectory, he let’s it pass straight between them.

That’s that though. I hand a debut to Lance Osborn for the final 15 minutes and Sissako has a late shot deflected wide, but then it’s done. The final whistle blows. Between May 2021 and May 2024, Auxerre have transformed from a side ready to tumble into the third tier to Europa League qualifiers.

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Screen Shot 2018-10-07 at 14.31.28

200 3 1 osborn debut

200 3 2 qualified

I’m on an all time high following the match, I really am. Auxerre are back in Europe. The thought of it. The sheer idea of it has me sporting a cheshire cat grin to rival Sylvania’s. I even briefly wonder whether I really do want to leave, but I’m quickly brought back down to Earth during a meeting with Dennis Sundberg and club director Erik Eggert. To ready the club for Europe and baring in mind the £20-odd million we’ve made in player sales this season, £2.7M will be available for transfers this Summer. Not even enough to buy another Amine Reynier. I honestly can’t believe it and I tell them as much. The fucking gaul of them. Their attitude that seems to say “Well we’ve barely spent any money over the last 3 years, so why start now?” The next manager is going to have a job on his hands.

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But with Auxerre’s league position just about wrapped up, I think I can afford to take my eye off club matters for a moment. It’s time to announce my preliminary France squad for the upcoming Euros.

199.5 1 squad to be announced

199.5 2 decision time

There’s no real surprises in my 30 man squad. I select those who’ve impressed me either for their clubs, for France or for both. Notable inclusions are Yannick Clauss, who’s had a good season for Arsenal and was OK during March’s friendlies, Sébastien Corchia, who’s been out of my squads for a while but provides an option in defence, Ousmane Dembélé, who still has yet to convince me but again is an option, Nabil Fekir, who has finally managed to get some game time under his belt and score some goals in Madrid, so is right back in my thoughts, Moussa Dembélé, who has been in and out of the squad this season but definitely provides a different kind of option up front and Auxerre quartet Abdoulaye Sissako, Lamine Fomba, Nathan Andre and Brahim Ferhat. Each of them have had terrific seasons and although the latter duo have failed to impress on the international stage in their only previous call ups, they’ve earned this chance. Especially Andre. His late season form has been remarkable.

199.5 4 preliminary squad

199.5 5 announced

What will never cease to amaze me though is the media’s obsession with dictating squad selection. Just picking 2 examples out of the air at random, how about the criticism I’m facing from certain outlets for not selecting Chelsea’s Ngolo Kanté or PSG’s Anthony Martial, who’ve started 2 and 4 matches this season respectively.

199.5 6 sissako over kante

199.5 7 kante

199.5 8 martial out

199.5 9 martial

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It’s time to end my time at this wonderful club in style though and now that a top 6 finish is secured, what would really put the cherry on top is if we could climb above Bordeaux into 5th place. It will not be an easy task as Bordeaux are 2 points ahead of us with an 18 goal superior goal difference, which means that realistically, we need to win against FC Metz, who did us a real favour last week and Bordeaux need to lose at home against Stade Rennais, who… We just destroyed. As I say, it will not be an easy task.

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I’m making no personnel changes, because why on Earth would I? Billy and Aidir are back and will sit on our now fully stocked bench, but we do revert to Meatloaf classic. We’ll attack and I’ll try and give these supporters one last great performance as we attempt to climb even higher in Ligue 1.

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As my players and I step onto the pitch inside the Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps for what I assume will be the final time, it hits me. The wall of noise from the Auxerroises feels like it shakes the stadium’s very foundations. A gleeful voice welcomes us over the PA system, announcing the arrival for the final time this season of AJ Auxerre, Europa League qualifiers. The wall of noise grows louder and more jubilant still. The reaction, as well as bringing me closer to tears than I’ve been since that strange night in Stockholm, makes me think. I believe it’s fair to say that my career as a manager is following an upward trajectory and if it keeps going as such, I’m going to reach a point where I’m at a big club. A very big club. A top club even. Can you get a reaction like this from a top club’s fans? Can you overachieve to this extent and make the fans this happy with a top club? I’m genuinely asking. It seems to me as an outsider that the better the club, the more expectation grows and the more your remit becomes “Just don’t fuck it up”. The thought makes me quite sad. I hope at some point that I’ll make that step, but I also really fucking hope that that doesn’t mean leaving this feeling behind.

The referee blows his whistle and the match begins. It quickly becomes apparent that Metz aren’t going to just roll over and help us topple Bordeaux too. They’ve had a good season, Metz and are only a stones throw from the top half of the table, despite having been promoted from Ligue 2 last year. In the 3rd minute Thill’s set through on goal behind Goujon and despite Sohna’s covering run, the Cameroonian can’t catch him. Thill goes for goal but Vlad pulls off an excellent acrobatic save to tip the ball over the bar. 10 minutes later a free kick from Diakité is swung in from deep on the right wing. Monteil rises above his marker Celsiney, who coincidentally I really considered picking for my preliminary France squad but thought better of it as he’s untried on the international stage. Monteil heads the ball back across goal and Felipe Manoel pops up at the far post to tap it into the net. Manoel sprints off to celebrate but quickly stops when he sees the linesman’s flag raised. 0-0 it remains.

A few minutes later we have a chance of our own when McCarthy lays the ball off for our overlapping full back Doucouré. The Senegalese drifts in a surprisingly superb cross for a centre back and Andre tries to latch onto it, but is brought down by Monteil. The referee points to the spot, drawing another roar from the home fans. Captain Andre places the ball on the spot himself and converts excellently, lashing it down the middle to open the scoring.

In the 23rd minute my smiles grows Cheshire-ish once again, because Ferhat drills a cross in from the left, Foden lays it off and Andre sweeps his second goal into the net for 2-0. This really sparks Metz though, which is impressive but certainly inconvenient. Just 2 minutes later, Diakité sprints clear down the right wing, drives a cross into the centre and Manoel directs it at goal, forcing a fine fingertip save from Vladimir.

Before the half hour, Manoel beats Goujon for pace and gets in behind before forcing a double save from Vlad, who’s playing like a man possessed. The resulting corner is headed behind by Sohna, conceding another corner. This time, Diakité’s cross is flicked on by Monteil, headed away by Sohna, headed back in by Monteil and nodded into the net by Manoel to finish an enjoyable but disappointing game of head tennis. 1-2.

We’re lucky to make it in at half time still in possession of the lead, as Metz start to throw everything at us. In the 35th minute Diakité pulls Virgile Roux’s long pass out of the air and smashes a shot against the near post from a tight angle, then in stoppage time Aalillou finds Manoel on the edge of the box, who fizzes an effort against the inside of the same post. The ball rolls across the line but Goujon gets there first and makes the clearance. When the half time whistle is blown, my heart’s pumping furiously. Auxerre have managed 2 shots to Metz’s 10 so far and luckily scored them both.

I make a pretty predictable change at the break, dropping us to a 4-1-2-3 with Raf in the hole and bringing Fomba on to replace McCarthy as a box to box midfielder. We also go on the counter to try and cope with the pressure Metz are putting us under. It works in the early stages of the second half, although I do have to have a rethink when Sissako’s forced off with an arm injury after the hour. Joël Soumahoro comes on to replace him as a deep lying playmaker.

A late flurry from Metz has me pacing my technical area at near-breakneck speeds. A corner in the 86th minute looks like an easy one for our in-form goalkeeper to deal with, but he spills it and my heart leaps into my mouth. The ball falls to Betti, who shoots but Isaac Sohna throws his body in the line of fire to concede another corner. We make it unscathed all the way to the 93rd minute, before Manoel again receives the ball from Aalillou and this time zips a low shot into the bottom corner from 20 yards to equalise for the visitors. We actually get a late chance a minute later following a free kick, when Joël finds Doucouré in space on the edge of our opponents’ box, but he smashes his shot just wide of the far post. 2-2 it ends, but I would say Metz have earned a point at the very least. This, combined with the fact that Bordeaux drew against Stade Rennais anyway, means that I can’t really complain. A 6th place finish is fine by me.

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The lap of honour takes longer than it usually would. I walk slowly, savouring every cheer and shout and occasional lewd gesture from the away fans. My mind keeps trying to wander back to my pre-match worries about stepping up and leaving this kind of appreciation and this kind of achievement behind, but I keep politely bringing it back to focus on the moment. This is after all what it’s all about. These fans. This feeling. This pride. This is the shit I live for.

Cette fois c’est au revoir Auxerre, mais ça a été un privilège.

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200 4 2 league

Euro 24 Part 1 >

The Race For The Europa League (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep199)

It’s been a strange sort of year really, hasn’t it. Well… I probably say that most years, but hear me out.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Mini-sode 198.5

My Short Stories WordPress

Six matches are all that remain before the curtain comes down on the 2023/24 season and my ambition in those six matches is unwavering: I want to get this club back into Europe. It’s been a strange sort of year really, hasn’t it. Well… I probably say that most years, but hear me out: I don’t think that I was overly ambitious in the Summer, hoping only for a safe, mid table finish and a cheeky win against either Monaco or PSG. In fact that probably was a little bit too ambitious especially in the case of Monaco, as they remain unbeaten in the league even at this late stage. They’ve only dropped points in 3 out of 31 matches for fucks sake. Anyway my point is that for the second time during my spell in Auxerre, my pre-season goals were way off. Here we are in the run in, having surpassed last season’s points tally some time ago, mathematically safe from relegation by a long way and fighting for Europe. Our fight has also just been made significantly easier as Monaco have won the Coupe de la Ligue, meaning that the side that finishes in 5th place in the league will enter the Europa League.

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You might think that this type of achievement would raise my stature, thereby increasing the quality of club who come knocking in the hopes of luring me away, but no. Ipswich and Guingamp are my interview opportunities this week. Joy.

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There is some good news though in that after their excellent performances against Bordeaux before the break, Vladimir, Lamine Fomba and Nathan Andre are all selected in the Ligue 1 team of the week, with Andre also coming in third in the Player of the Month award. He really was rampant for a few games, so I’m hoping he’ll pick that form straight back up now that the international break’s over.

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Speaking of which, a quick shout out to those who’ve been off on their travels over the last couple of weeks: A fair few players have played for their nations but the highlights were probably Ferhat’s admittedly quiet France debut and Ibrahima Gaye’s and Isaac Sohna’s solid performances for Ivory Coast’s U20s and Cameroon respectively.

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We get back on it today with a trip to Lille, who are lodged uncomfortably in the middle of a pack of clubs struggling to keep away from the relegation zone. They also have a really, really poor goal difference so I’m hoping for a fourth successive four-goal win.

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Mike Kakuba’s back from his second successive double hernia, but our defence has been decent of late so we shouldn’t need him right away. We’ll play that counter attacking variant of Meatloaf that’s worked well in a couple of recent away matches (And yes I’m still including the 0-3 loss against Sochaux). In terms of personnel, suspended pair Fomba and Sissako miss out and are replaced by Raf and Basauri in midfield, while Reynier comes in replacing McCarthy behind the striker. Aside from a changed midfield triangle though, we’re as we were. 16 year old midfielder Sylvain Laurent makes the bench for the first time due to a lack of options and a fair bit of potential.

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We start brightly and in particular, Amine Reynier really looks like he means business. In the 3rd minute he dribbles from the left hand side of the half way line all the way through the Lille team to the edge of their box, but his shot isn’t the best and is held onto by Girard. Only a few minutes later though he plays a sly little pass onto the right for Celsiney to run onto. The France U20 full back whips a cross to the near post and who else but Nathan Andre arrives to direct the ball off his forehead and into the net.

The rest of the half is fairly standard, although we do dominate the ball. New France international Brahim Ferhat has a couple of shots graze the top of the bar after the half hour and then Reynier’s rewarded for his good start with a broken nose, but after a bit of treatment he’s ready to keep going.

About 10 minutes after the break I bring on Laurent for a debut, replacing Reynier so that he can go and clean the dried blood off his face. It may seem like a bit of a reckless move to throw a 16 year old on when we’re only 1-0 up, but from what I’ve seen in youth matches the boy knows how to defend. We switch to a 4-1-2-3 with Basauri dropping back into the hole and our full backs are told to stay back.

It’s hard to tell whether or not the change works as after that moment Lille offer exactly the same threat as they did before: Sweet FA. Their only notable contribution to a one-sided match is when the frustrated Ristovski goes in very stupidly on Ferhat with 2 feet and receives his marching orders deep into injury time. It’s not the 4-0 win I was looking for, but it’ll do.

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The win takes us temporarily above Bordeaux into 5th place, but we’re quickly dropped back down when they win their late kick off match. It’s worth mentioning though that a 5 point gap has opened up between us, 7th placed Nantes who’ve played one more match and 8th placed Sochaux. Monaco meanwhile have won the league at a canter, completing an early double without losing a single match and shaming Pep’s Paris Saint-Germain, who have played an extra match themselves and still find themselves a whole 13 points behind the champions.

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Reynier’s broken nose should be healed up in time for our next match against Nice but his injury has left me wondering whether that could’ve been the match in which he started justifying his price tag had he remained intact. I feel like he’s still a real player for the future but I’d really like to see him put in a couple of good performances before the season ends.

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But the attention remains for now on Ferhat. After admitting defeat in his chase of the inside forward a few months ago when I convinced him to sign a new long term contract, Real Madrid manager Rodolfo Borrell is back on Brahim’s trail. Rodolfo was in the stands in Lille and is apparently keen once again on bringing him to La Liga.

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But for now he’s our player and he’ll help us to continue our Europa League push. We jet back to Auxerre in time to welcome OGC Nice, who are in an almost identical league position to Lille, trying to stave off a relegation dog fight. In which case, I’ll expect an identical result.

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Meatloaf returns in full force today as we look to attack our guests and turn our winning streak from 3 to 4. Fomba and Sissako come straight back in at the expense of Reynier and Basauri, otherwise we’re unchanged.

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This time, it’s our opposition who come tearing out of the traps. In the 2nd minute, Wylan Cyprien chips the ball to Godefroy on the half way line, who volleys an incredible pinpoint pass to Bosetti on the edge of our box. Bosetti takes the ball down and half volleys it into the bottom corner. To be fair, great goal. A couple of minutes later, Foden’s corner is headed clear by Souquet but only as far as Fomba, who chests it down, dribbles into the box and shoots, but Cardinale catches it.

In the 13th minute we rue missing that chance as Nice press their advantage. A corner at the other end is swung in by Bonaventura, nodded on by Pléa and headed in by Fathi at the near post. It’s their 2nd shot on target and it’s 0-2. Oh dear.

I scream from the touchline to try and wake my team up, but to no response. Just before the half hour, the usually quite sturdy Mamadou Doucouré makes a horrendous mistake when he goes to collect a loose ball on the left, deep in our half. All he has to do is thump it upfield but he takes a bad touch and is robbed by Bosetti. With no other Auxerre defenders around, Bosetti can run the ball straight into our 6 yard box and tries to prod it past Vladimir, but the Brazilian pulls off a crucial save with his feet to keep our deficit at 2.

That does it. That’s what we needed. Spurred on by Vlad’s heroics, we pull a goal back within a minute when Nathan Andre slips a pass through for Phil Foden, who gets behind the defence, turns inside and toe pokes the ball into the far bottom corner of Cardinale’s goal.

At half time that goal feels like it’s made all the difference. If the score was still 0-2 I’d be giving a completely contrasting team talk, but as it stands I just tell my team that we’re still in it and encourage them to keep grafting to get us level. In the 48th minute, Sissako plays a fantastic pass into the left channel for Ferhat, who crosses in from the byline and Andre heads in the equaliser. I fucking love this team.

5 minutes or so later McCarthy comes on replacing Fomba as I look to go for the jugular and inject more creativity into midfield and less than a minute later we go close. Another fantastic ball onto the left, this time by Goujon, finds Ferhat again and this time he goes straight for goal, trying to catch out Cardinale. It might’ve worked but the shot’s just too high and drops onto the roof of the net.

With 20 minutes to play we put together a scintillating move in the final third and Andre gets the ball. He passes to Ferhat, who passes to McCarthy as the defenders are dragged around in a panic chasing the ball. McCarthy looks up and slots the ball into the box. Sissako makes the run… He’s clean through on goal… And he skews a shot wide. Not a dissimilar glaring miss to the one he made for France the other week.

Aidir comes on, but after a couple of extremely hopeful potshots from Nice that both end up nearer the corner flag than the goal, the match ends as a stalemate.

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To be fair, from being on the brink of a 3 goal deficit after 28 minutes, I’ll take that result all day long. Sissako putting that chance away in the 70th minute would’ve been perfection, but at least we came back in the first place. Also, piss off, Rodolfo Borrell.

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The Players’ Goalkeeper of the Season shortlist is announced and soft touch that I am, I vote for Leo Gauthier to win it. After a very, very poor start to the season he and Sochaux have come back to have a solid campaign. I’m in no doubt that Monaco’s Sergio Rico will actually scoop the award though, because he’s kept 24 clean sheets in 34 matches, the fucking psychopath.

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Our draw against Nice has lost us precious ground in the race for the Europa League though, with Sochaux and Bordeaux both winning to move us closer to 7th place than 5th. I’m looking to correct that when we travel to St Etienne, who are just about within reach of us, in our penultimate away match of the season. They’re 11 points behind us with 12 to play for but that’s close enough to make me nervous. Let’s get back to winning ways.

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We bring the counter attacking mentality back and McCarthy comes into the starting lineup to replace Lamine Fomba from the start. Come on, boys.

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It’s a drab match. An extremely drab match. 15 minutes in, Christian Atsu lays the ball off for Tatarkov, who leathers it past our Brazilian goalkeeper to give the hosts the lead. After that… It’s just a really drab match. St Etienne never really come out of second gear, but they don’t need to. We’re still parked. We’re up on bricks. Someone came along during the night, stole our wheels, smashed a window and nicked our cassette deck and tasteful furry dice. I try and freshen things up, bringing on Reynier, then Bassani, then Aidir. I send us on the attack, I bellow instructions, but none of it reaps any kind of reward. In the 93rd minute, a long ball from a deep Peyrot free kick comes into our box and Sissako pushes Pavelka to the floor. The ref points to the spot, Pavelka converts the penalty himself into the top corner and the final whistle blows. It’s a drab, disappointing match.

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It feels worryingly like we’re already on our holidays. That first half hour against Nice was the first clue, then that awful showing at St Etienne. 2 weeks ago I was full of hope as we wrestled with Bordeaux for 5th place, but now they sit 5 whole points above us, while we’re left to tussle with Sochaux instead. I’m disappointed, but when I get back into training it’ll become perfectly clear to everyone who needs clarification: The season is not over yet.

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Meta-sode 199.5 >