I feel powerful since our victory over Monaco. It’s an odd feeling for me to be honest. I’ve made my career for the most part by improving relegation scrappers or lower-midtable teams and trying to secure their futures. Even until now as Paris Saint-Germain manager, I’ve seen us as the underdogs in the title race. It’s Monaco who are the reigning Champions. It’s Monaco who have had a stranglehold on Ligue 1 for the last few years. But suddenly it’s as if a switch has flipped. We’re 6 points clear at the top, we’ve defeated our rivals and the title is now clearly ours to lose. We’re the favourites to win the bloody thing.
I’ve won two domestic league titles in my career: When Sport Clube Angrense romped to the Portuguese Championship undefeated and when Auxerre fought off Bourg-en-Bresse to win Ligue 2. In many ways though this is a completely different proposition to both. Nobody expected Angrense or Auxerre to even be in the conversation for promotion and we certainly didn’t have a team of international all-stars on our books. Everyone knows that Ligue 1 is a two horse race though. Paris Saint-Germain are no surprise package and there’ll be no pity if we lose the advantage we’ve earned so far. This is Paris Saint-Germain and we expect titles. We have 23 matches left to play and we have to keep this form going throughout every single one. We can’t let it slip.
With that in mind, we need to keep our feet on the ground when we travel to Nice today. Although we’ve been picking up wins, our away performances have been far from convincing lately and underperforming Nice are due a win. With that being said though, I’m making alterations to the team sheet. Yes, we need to keep our league form going but in a few days we have an absolutely crucial Champions League tie against Roma and I want us in top knick for it. A loss in that one would drop us into second place in our group and most likely hand us a tough First Knockout Round and so should be avoided at all costs.
Only Gigi Donnarumma and Philipe Coutinho keep their places from the Monaco game as we make sweeping changes: Lucas and Triponez are in for Marquinhos and Ibarra in defence, Renan and Dobby replace Bologna and Lato as wingbacks and Kovacic and Veiga replace Neves and Éder in central midfield. Young forward Christian Osséré makes his full league debut as Coman’s rested from the right wing, Orlando comes back from injury to replace Cvitanovic on the left and Moise Kean is in for Manuel Bueno. Yes, it’s a second string, but… What a bloody second string, eh?
We fly out of the traps, winning ourselves a second minute corner that Kovacic takes. The ball’s cleared but given back to the Croatian, who swings another cross in towards the far post. Osséré’s there but the angle’s tight, so he heads it back across goal for Kean, who volleys us ahead. 5 minutes later we have another decent chance when Coutinho plays a nice reverse ball to Orlando, who cuts across the box but miscues his right footed shot, sending the ball trickling wide of the far post.
The action dies down for the majority of the quiet half, but does build momentarily when Nice come forward threateningly with a few minutes to play before the break. Ivanovic squares the ball to Testolini 25 yards out, who dribbles to the edge of the box but lashes his shot over Donnarumma’s goal.
On the hour I make a couple of changes to keep a couple of key players fresh: Coutinho and Kovacic are replaced by Hutka and Éder. Just 6 minutes later we have a good chance when Osséré passes it short to Hutka and the substitute launches a great pass into the left channel for Kean. With almost effortless quality, the Italian takes a single touch to take him free of the pair of chasing defenders into the box and then slots the ball beyond Cardinale into the far bottom corner. A couple of minutes after our second goal, Hutka plays another nice chipped ball towards the left wing and this time Orlando chests it down as he cuts inside. Kean cleverly draws both centre backs to the left side of the area, leaving Orlando with a clear pass to Osséré on the far side. The youngster has a free shot from 8 yards out but can only slam the ball against the post.
With just under 20 minutes to play we’re putting on a show with some nice zipped passes around the edge of the final third. Éder passes to Renan, who spots an opportunity and plays the ball around the Nice left back for Osséré, who puts a low first time cross into the 6 yard box for Kean, who sidefoots it home for his second hat trick in three games. I allow him his own ovation from the fans and give Manuel Bueno a 15 minute run out in which he really should score our fourth: Just minutes later, Orlando wriggles down the left and chips a cross in to the big man 4 yards out, but he heads it clean over. 3-0 it finishes.
We get a couple of bits of pleasant news over the next couple of days. We draw either Rouais or Fleury, both of whom are lower league teams, at home in the 9th round of the French Cup and then we have a few players in the Team of the Week: Lucas, Silvio Cvitanovic, Moise Kean and pleasingly, Christian Osséré. It’s a shame the lad couldn’t bag a goal but he had a good game nonetheless.
I’ve been looking forward to this match ever since the draw was made. I’m returning to Rome, the site of my last match as France manager. I’ve got some demons to exercise at the Stadio Olympico and defeating Roma to secure the top spot in Group C would, I think, be a fitting way to return.
I’ve got a full strength squad to select from, so once again I’m picking a full strength line up. Donnarumma and Coutinho keep their places again and after his last few matches, I think it’d be silly to drop Moise Kean. Aside from those 3 though, it’s all change again. Marquinhos, Ibarra, Bologna, Neves, Lato, Éder, Coman and Cvitanovic all come back in. As he did against Monaco, Éder will take up a slightly more defensive role than usual, but apart from that it’s the classic Project: InSeine formula.
Again, we start like a blue and red thunderbolt. 13 seconds into the game, Moise Kean chips the ball down the left, Coutinho crosses from the byline and Coman pops up 6 yards out to head us in front. What a start. Before the first 10 minutes are up, the same trio links again too when Kean draws Coly out of his centre back position and slips Coutinho through. Coly’s centre back partner Babic comes across to cover, but the Brazilian magician plays the ball into the space for Coman, who bursts in on goal and wellies it low, but Alisson pulls off a fantastic save to deny us a second. From the resulting corner the ball comes out to Coutinho 20 yards out and he passes to Neves, who lays it off for Kean. I’d back him to score from anywhere given his recent form but his 18 yard strike flashes just wide of the far post.
Then it’s finally Roma’s turn to attack in the 11th minute when Embolo finds Nnam in space just outside our box. He wriggles into a shooting position and drills a shot inches wide. 3 minutes later the end to end action continues. Cvitanovic passes to Kean just inside Roma’s half and the striker jinks through into the final third, but again shoots wide from 25 yards. 2 minutes after that, Salah turns superbly on the left wing, taking Neves and Bologna instantly out of the equation. He whips a cross in, Embolo cushions it down with his head for Muñoz 10 yards out, who places his shot against the foot of the post. It should be 1-1.
We get about 10 minutes to relax after an action packed first quarter of an hour, but then when Cvitanovic curls a cross into a messy penalty area from our corner, Salah unsubtly bats it clear with his hand. The referee points straight to the spot. The unflappable Rúben Neves steps up and places the ball perfectly into the top left corner from 12 yards, giving Alisson absolutely no chance. 2-0 and we’re looking good value to win the group.
Before the half hour a long ball from Ibarra is helped on by Cvitanovic for Kean, who touches it straight through into the box where Coutinho’s waiting in space. He should make it 3 but can only poke his effort against the near post. Straight from the goal kick Roma come back at us through Muñoz, who breaks quickly through our half leaving Neves for dead. He plays it inside for Nnam, who passes it on for Rajkovic but the midfielder is forced out wide by Marquinhos. He does manage to get a cross in from the left byline and Embolo rises at the far post with the goal at his mercy, but whether it’s a pass or a really poor shot, his header goes straight back to Rajkovic, who’s offside. That’s another let off to be fair.
Roma push us again a minute later but we win the ball and break with Cvitanovic. The German playmaker passes to Kean 35 yards from Roma’s goal and he spins past Coly with ease before bearing down on the penalty area, but again he fizzes a shot just wide. I’d really appreciate it if he could remember how to shoot at least until we’ve put this game to bed.
Half time has never been so welcome and I’m glad to put a nervy first half behind us. We hold a 2 goal lead but it’s been anything but convincing. It could be 4-4 if both sides were a bit more clinical. I’m tempted to drop back and try to kill the game, but decide against it. We go back out for the second half unchanged.
Within seconds of the restart, Roma waltz straight through us. Nnam gets the ball out onto the right wing, squares it for Muñoz inside the area and the striker shoots low but is denied by Éder’s outstretched leg. Call it knee-jerk, but fuck this. We immediately drop back to a counter attacking 4-2-3-1, featuring Éder and Neves as a deeper defensive midfield duo. The full backs will actually play as full backs instead of inverted wing backs and we’ll have our front 4 waiting to break down the flanks when possible.
By the 54th minute, we’re under siege. Instead of making us more solid, all my changes seem to have done is invite Roma onto us. Pérez plays the ball out to Karsdorp on the right wing and the full back fizzes a vicious low cross diagonally into the box. Rajkovic, kept marginally onside by Toni Lato, arrives to blast the ball past our stranded goalkeeper. 5 minutes later, a Muñoz corner is flicked on by Nnam, left in acres of space by his marker Marquinhos at the near post. It drifts across the goalmouth and falls to Embolo, who nods his side level.
Bollocks. I may have made a mistake. We go hastily back to Project: InSeine and the fresh and pacy Darcílio comes on replacing Cvitanovic, with Coutinho moving to the number 10 position. I also bring on Manuel Bueno for the uncharacteristically wasteful Moise Kean and we’ll try and play a bit more direct up to him.
With 25 minutes to go, Haksabanovic plays a one-two with Rajkovic and then squares the ball to Muñoz, who has all the space in the world thanks to Ibarra’s lax marking. In torturous slow motion, he draws back his boot on the edge of the box and places a shot into the far bottom corner. Roma 3 – 2 PSG.
A few minutes later we finally come up for air after seemingly being trapped in our own half for over 20 minutes. Éder plays the ball over the top for Darcílio to run onto on the left and he tears to the byline before sliding a pass into the 6 yard box. Bueno arrives… BUENO SURELY… Blasts it against the underside of the bar and away. I think I see where this is going. For the last 17 minutes I bring off Lato, who’s had a disastrous match thanks to Roma’s ruthless attacking movement down the flanks. Lucas comes on to replace him and we go on the attack. We need at least a point because as it stands we’re finishing behind Roma.
In the final few minutes, Lucas is on the attack in the final third but is dispossessed by Karsdorp, who plays it straight down the line for Muñoz, who’s waiting on the halfway line. He sprints through our half, dodges Ibarra’s slide tackle, ghosts past Neves and reaches the right byline, where he plants a superb cross straight on Embolo’s forehead. We all know where the ball’s going. Sure enough, right into the top corner. After an even first half, we have been pulverised 2-4.
Did you ever see The Truman Show? You know, the one where Jim Carrey is living in an artificial World, unknowingly the star of a Worldwide phenomenon television show based on his everyday life? At moments like this I wonder momentarily whether I’m the unwitting star of The Franjo Show. My players are all actors who have this week been given the brief of “Get a couple of goals, then crumble, so he gets all annoyed and goes one of those rants. Really crush his dreams, that’ll boost our ratings.” It’s a silly thought really because a day like today doesn’t need to be manufactured for a television show. It doesn’t need to be carefully crafted by Ed Harris as he broods himself silly in a studio somewhere wearing a stupid little beret, because sometimes, for no reason at all, life will just shit on you. Sometimes you can stem the tide. As powerful as I felt beforehand as much as it seemed like everything was falling into place for our season, my game management was poor today. By falling back too far too soon I allowed Roma the freedom of the pitch and let them build up a head of steam. I failed to stem the tide and that’s on me, but overall I still very much feel shat on.
So we’ve finished 2nd in our Champions League Group and we’ll take our medicine. We’ll almost certainly face a much stronger opponent in the next round than we would have as Champions, but we’ll pick ourselves up out of this shit, brush ourselves off… Probably hose ourselves down and give it everything. Good morning, Champions League Knockout Stage. And in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and goodnight.
Oh and seriously, fuck Rome.