The Franjo Show (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep216)

I’ve got some demons to exercise.

My Experience With Game Development (So Far)

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 215

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Episode 217 >

Franjo v Enrique: Round 2 (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep215)

Surely we won’t get a better chance to beat them all season.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 214

“Hey Boss,” Says Paris Saint-Germain captain and Brazilian international centre back Marquinhos, striding into my office with a cheeky grin, “How many AS Monaco footballers does it take to change a lightbulb?” I look up from my desk and eye him cautiously.

“Go on.”

“Five. Do you know why?”

“No.” I admit.

“Because AS Monaco footballers are idiots.” With that, Paris Saint-Germain captain and Brazilian international centre back Marquinhos throws his head back and howls with laughter. I watch him do so stoney-faced, simultaneously parsing his words in a desperate attempt to find some missed deeper meaning and wondering if I’d ever been this far away from wanting to laugh. After a moment, I come to the conclusions that A) there isn’t one and B) Maybe when I lost Meatloaf and Burnie, although it’s close.

“Right.” I say, as he wipes a tear from his eye.

“It’s good, yes? I have decided that I want to be the joker of the pack!” He stammers, still laughing.

“The…?”

“The joker of the pack.” He repeats, straightening up. “I want to make the team laugh with my funny jokes. For example, have you ever heard the one about the successful AS Monaco footballer?” He’s giggling before he even finishes the question.

“No?”

“Me neither!” He roars, literally doubling up with a fresh wave of laughter.

“It’s better.” I begrudgingly concede. “Still not great though, is it? I mean Monaco have won Ligue 1 three years in-”

“Or here’s one! Here’s one!” Marquinhos steamrolls ahead with gusto. “Tell me knock knock.”

“You want… Ok. Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?” He grins.

“Well I don’t bloody know, do I?”

“Say ‘An AS Monaco footballer’.” He whispers.

“Ok. An AS Monac-”

“Eww go away, AS Monaco Footballer! I don’t want to see you!” He shouts, dramatically recoiling and plugging his nose before yet another baffling laughing fit.

“Good stuff,” I humour him with a kind smile. “And you’re going to be doing… This… A lot going forwards, are you?”

“Yes, I will be dropping by regularly with more funny jokes, I imagine.” He beams.

“Excellent.” I nod. “Unless I sell you first, eh?”

“Ah Boss, you would never sell me!” He heads for the door. “I just convinced Silvio Cvitanovic not to move to Chelsea! He and I and my funny, funny jokes are here to stay.” And with that, Paris Saint-Germain captain and Brazilian international centre back Marquinhos steps out of my office, letting the door swing shut behind him. Fantastic.

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Marquinhos does pop up a couple of times in the build up to our trip to Guingamp with more jokes, although I’ll spare you the details. All I’ll say is that his dislike of AS Monaco is intensifying as we get closer to what will be a crucial match in the title race. As I say though, before that match we’ve got one against Guingamp to think about.

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Marquinhos doesn’t travel for the Sunday tie, partially because he could do with a rest before the big game on Wednesday and partially because by this point I just need a fucking break, but the good news is that his compatriot Orlando has overcome his pesky calf strain and is fit enough for the bench. Guingamp are a poor side and are currently sat precariously above the relegation zone, but we can’t afford to rest too many players. As excellent a start to the season as we’ve had, I’m still not entirely convinced by our ability to kick down a door that’s been shut in our face. Guingamp, with their deep, compact 4-2-3-1, are a closed door. Éder is suspended, so the more attack-minded Kovacic replaces him, while Bologna returns to the starting line up ahead of Renan. Otherwise we’re unchanged.

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The closed door draws first blood just 4 minutes in when Serban crosses low from the left for Pavlovic, who isn’t marked tightly enough by Triponez and makes us pay for it by stroking the ball into the far corner of the net. Much of the half is played on the home side’s tight and scrappy terms, but we eventually draw level 5 minutes before the break when Bueno fires a pass down the left ahead of Coutinho, who keeps the ball from going out of play and floats a cross to the far post, where Coman volleys it in.

Our celebrations last under a minute however, because we switch off and are punished from kick off. Djuricic chips a quick pass into the right channel for Pavlovic, who bring the ball down well and half-volleys into the bottom corner to put Guingamp back in front. But still hellbent on not being behind at half time, PSG reply under 2 minutes later. This time Coman sprints down the right wing and curls cross from a deep position. It’s perfectly aimed towards Manuel Bueno on the edge of the 6 yard box and the big Spaniard tucks in another equaliser.

Rúben Neves comes off at the break because of his tired legs and the booking he’s picked up in the first half. Kovacic will drop back into the deep lying playmaker role while Cvitanovic comes on to play as a central midfield roamer. The Germany captain vindicates his inclusion within 5 minutes of the second half too, curling a 20 yard free kick into the top corner to put us into the league for the first time.

The rest of the match is a bit quiet, with Guingamp reluctant to leave their defensive shape and chase the lead. I bring Orlando on for Veiga for the last half hour to attempt to stretch their defence, but to no avail. They actually nearly level the scores in the 91st minute, but when Himeno chips a cross in from the right wing, Lefeuvre can only head the ball against the foot of the near post. It’s an uncomfortable 3 points, but it’s 3 points that really piles the pressure onto our next opponents and that’ll do for me.

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Before our midweek showdown though, we do get a bit of distracting news. After beating Spain and qualifying from our EIL group, England have drawn European Champions Portugal in the Semi-Finals in June. It’ll be a tough ask to take on Gelson and co, but I have to fancy our chances of an upset.

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But there’ll be time for that. For now it’s Paris Saint-Germain v AS Monaco. 1st v 2nd. Franjo v Enrique: Round 2. Monaco can move level on points with us if they win and they can move top if they win by 5 goals or more. Obviously I’d really rather that doesn’t happen. If we win, we can go 6 entire points clear at the top. I know it’s still early days as far as the title’s concerned, but that’d be a hell of a boost to our chances.

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I’m going full strength for obvious reasons. Out comes Kovacic for the more defensive Éder, out comes Veiga for the more influential Cvitanovic and out come Triponez and Lucas for Ibarra and Marquinhos, who got shouted down by his teammates mid-doctor-doctor-joke during training this morning. Ibarra’s given strict instructions to stay tight to Vinícius Júnior as the lone striker is one of Monaco’s main threats. Bernardo Silva will also need to be watched but the good news is that again, Kylian Mbappé misses out through injury. Surely we won’t get a better chance to beat them all season.

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10 minutes in, we break down the right hand side, creating the first good chance of the match. Coman races down the line from our third to Monaco’s byline leaving Chiesa and Theo Hernández choking on dust in his wake. He chips a cross in, Fabinho heads it clear to the edge of the box where Cvitanovic lurks. He catches it perfectly with his laces on the half volley and bloody leathers it into the top corner of Audero’s net. It’s definitely too early to celebrate, but fuck it. I allow myself a fistpump. Before my hand even returns to my side though, we win possession from kick off, Bologna plays the ball out to Coman, the superb Frenchman swings a cross to the far post and Bueno heads the ball back across goal and in. I half-laugh as my players sprint to congratulate the target man in the corner of the pitch. Ever since I joined PSG, my every other thought has been of Monaco. That we’d need to play them, beat them in matches and over the course of the campaign. I’ve had one eye on this match for nearly 4 months and within 11 minutes we’re 2-0 up and cruising.

5 minutes later it should be 3. Cvitanovic this time chips the ball over the top of the defence, commencing a race between Bueno and Fabinho which the former wins at a canter. Bueno takes a touch inside the box and shoots from a narrow angle, but Audero stretches out a hand to claw the ball behind. Just before the break we’re pegged back when Tolisso chips the ball forwards for Silva, who chests it down and shoots low. Gigi beats it back into danger and Marquinhos gets to the loose ball first, but his clearance is mishit and only goes as far as Chiesa, who slots it into the bottom corner.

The second half is low quality, but I’m fine with that. Orlando comes on for Coutinho to give us more pace on the break and Bernardo has a 35 yard potshot caught by Gigi on the hour, but as the half goes on we grow more and more comfortable. With 20 minutes to play I decide to shut up shop. We drop to a defensive 4-1-4-1 with the energetic Moise Kean replacing the tiring Manuel Bueno.

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Kean has a potshot of his own in the dying moments of the match, but as I say, the half is really poor quality. Neither side has a clear cut chance or even a decent one. We see the match out at 2-1 and open up a 6 point lead at the top of Ligue 1. I said after our last encounter with Enrique’s men that the league is my priority and I stand right by that. We’ve not lost a league match yet and if we can beat the reigning champions, why on Earth should we lose one all season? Hand me my trusty grey coat and get a message to the boys in Hero Creek: Fuck Monaco and Fuck the title. Old Franjo’s going for a second invincible season.

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Episode 216 >

Allez Paris! (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep214)

It’s hypnotic, it’s mesmerising, it’s beautiful and fucking hell it might be my favourite goal ever.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 213

It’s really obscene, some of the things you start to take for granted as manager of Paris Saint-Germain, you know. International players for example. I’ve already spoken about how far we’ve come from the days of getting overly excited about Lassina Touré nearly playing for Burkina Faso to now having a squad full of World-renowned talent, but over the break Alon Keren made his debut for Israel. When the news broke, I had what I’m sure is the same question you have: Who the fuck is Alon Keren?

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Well I’m telling a bit of a porky really, because of course I know Alon. He was in our first team when I arrived in Paris but was quickly moved to the reserves and I’ve barely heard his name since. My point still stands though, which is that even Paris Saint-Germain’s reserve players, who are quite frankly nowhere near the first team, are considered sufficient quality to play international football. To be fair, Alon’s only so far away because we have so many attacking midfielders, which I’m not sure if I’ve already mentioned. I almost feel ashamed to have such depth at my disposal though, as if I’m hoarding an army of wasted talent from the rest of the world. And you know that somewhere in the Israeli leagues there’s a Yossi Benayoun-esque journeyman midfielder playing 40 first team matches per season and fuming his tits off that he’s been beaten to a cap by a lad playing for a big club’s reserves. Anyway I suppose my point is… Good job, Alon.

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In other international break related news, Boris Triponez came back nursing a broken nose that he picked up during Switzerland’s match against Sweden and will be out for a couple of weeks, while Orlando, who was very stubbornly not selected for the Brazil squad by Argel Fucks, picked up a calf strain in training and is also out for a short spell.

Orlando made the last Team of the Week after we beat Stade Rennais 4-3, along with Matteo Kovacic, whose Croatia side gave me a headache and Silvio Cvitanovic, who’s come back from Germany absolutely knackered. We’ve also drawn Guingamp in what should hopefully be a straightforward Coupe de la Ligue fourth round tie.

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So with a crucial Champions League match against København just days away, what do we do about Ajaccio? On paper it’s another straightforward tie: We should sweep a probable relegation battling team aside, especially with home advantage, but with Orlando and Triponez out, Ricardo Ibarra suspended and Cvitanovic blowimg out of his arse, we’re going to have to make some decisions. I want a full strength side at full fitness against the Danes as we could qualify from our group with a win. You could even say that I’d be willing to play a second string against Ajaccio and risk sacrificing 3 points in the league to achieve that. Just to add an extra spice though, Monaco have just lost their first Ligue 1 match of the season against Lyon and so the top spot is ours for the taking. I’d take a scrappy win.

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Although we’re resting some players, we’ve still got a strong lineup: Donnarumma starts in net with Marquinhos and Lucas in defence, Renan and Lato are our wingbacks, Neves and Éder are in central midfield and Coman, Veiga, Coutinho and Bueno are our front 4. Ajaccio look like they’re set up to frustrate and to grind out a clean sheet. Allez, Paris.

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13 minutes in, Éder plays the ball to Veiga and sets off sprinting towards the box, but the Spanish playmaker spins and attempts to loft a ball over the top for Coman to run onto. Padovano rises to head the ball clear but only as far as Éder, who brings the ball down expertly just outside the box and drills it into the bottom corner to open his PSG account. Good lad.

Almost quarter of an hour later, Renan breaks up a rare Ajaccio foray into our half by winning the ball from Vasseur and hoofing it down the line for Coman to chase. Coman leaves Padovano in his dust, sprints to the byline, pulls the ball across and Bueno slides in to knock in our second.

Before the match, I said that a scrappy win would do. Well, at half time I bring on Dobby, Hutka and Osséré so that Lato, Neves and Coman can have a bit of a rest, after which… Fuck all happens. The match makes for grim viewing, but all that matters is that another 3 points lifts us clear at the top of Ligue 1.

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Quite annoyingly, Rodolfo Chao goes and picks up a bruised shin in the buildup to the København match. Seeing as he’s not actually registered for Ligue 1 it would be handy to have him available for our Champions League ties, but to be fair we do have a lot of other options available ahead of him. Elsewhere, our unbeaten streak in Ligue 1 stretches to 20 matches and Éder makes Team of the Week alongside Auxerre’s Amine Reynier. My two biggest signings have had a good week.

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The ideal scenario for our next match is that we win and Roma lose. Currently we’re tied for first place in the group on 7 points apiece and I’d rather we put ourselves firmly in the driving seat at the top before we have to face them in the final game of the group stage.

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For København’s visit we’re making just 2 changes: Marquinhos is short on fitness and so makes way for Triponez, while Silvio Cvitanovic replaces Veiga. I was also going to bring Kovacic in for Éder, but as the Brazilian picked up a booking against Ajaccio he’s now banned for our next match against Guingamp, so I may as well swap Kovacic in for that one instead. Ibarra and Darcílio both join the bench.

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The first 20 minutes of the match is disappointing. We’re having a lot of possession but our passes into the final third are woefully inaccurate. We need to pass to feet to work the ball through the visitors’ half more effectively. 7 minutes from half time however we get our first chance and in blatant disregard for my tactical instructions, Cvitanovic chips the ball down the left for Coutinho to run onto. Coutinho crosses for Manuel Bueno, who volleys the ball low and hard into the net to open the scoring.

Here’s a strange one: When I get into the changing room at half time, the team’s in good spirits. They’re relieved and happy and Bueno’s getting pats on his big balding head from everyone in reach. However despite the fact that he’s put us in front, I feel like he’s holding us back. Yes he got on the end of a cross, but during our build up play he’s being absolutely dominated and is losing the ball every time it’s played to him. Ignoring his look of dismay, I tell Manuel he won’t be going back onto the pitch for the second half. Moise Kean will be coming on instead as a deep lying forward. The opposition centre backs looked quite comfortable marking our static target man, but Kean will be dropping into space, moving into channels and giving them a bit more to think about.

We restart for the second half and Kean instantly makes a difference, giving the rest of the team a more mobile target who they can spring into space. Approaching the hour, a particularly good ball from Kingsley Coman is fired into the right channel and Kean beats the offside trap, latches onto the pass, sprints into the box and drills our second under Radu’s flailing body. God, I’m good. Kean’s not bad either.

A shot’s soon fired across the bows of my ego though when the Danes put together a good move: Thomsen passes to Kishna, who slips the ball into the channel for Benali, who shoots just inches wide of the near post. I make a few subs shortly afterwards, with Kovacic and Darcílio replacing Neves and Cvitanovic. Kovacic moves into Éder’s role while the Brazilian drops back to protect the defence and Darcílio goes out onto the left wing, allowing Coutinho to move behind the striker.

With 15 minutes to go we’re looking good value for the win and nearly get a third goal when Kovacic’s corner is cleared and given back to him by Darcílio. Kovacic crosses again, Varela tries to head the ball clear but only succeeds in flicking it on across goal and Moise Kean arrives to head it low against the foot of the post.

5 minutes later we put together a really fantastic move. It starts when Éder slides in perfectly on Benali to win us possession and Lucas takes over, passing to Triponez who then plays it to Lato on the left. The Spanish left back dribbles to the halfway line and passes it to Darcílio, who cuts in from the byline, surges past 2 København players and gives the ball to Coutinho. Coutinho plays it straight to Kovacic, who carries it into the final third and plays a one-two with Coman before digging his foot under the ball and chipping it into the box. Moise Kean chests it down on the turn, jinks past the outrushing Radu and rolls the ball into the empty net. It’s hypnotic, it’s mesmerising, it’s beautiful and fucking hell it might be my favourite goal ever. 3-0.

The visitors continue to offer very little going forwards. 7 minutes from time, Benali tries a really optimistic potshot from the right wing and hits the side netting. From the goal kick, we build another attack: Lato winds up with the ball in a deep position on the left wing, swings a cross in, Kean leaps to beat Radu in the air and guides his header into the net. The substitute’s hat trick is completed. Game over.

A couple of minutes later, Strand’s hoofed ball bounces over our back line and Gigi Donnarumma rushes out of his area to meet it, but Benali beats him to it, takes a touch to go round our keeper and slots in a consolation goal. It would’ve been nice to come away from such an impressive win with a clean sheet, but it doesn’t really matter. We’ve turned up in the second half playing attractive and effective football and we’ve largely got Moise Kean to thank. What a performance.

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Elsewhere, Roma drew with Sevilla. This means that we’re out of reach of third placed Sevilla and have qualified from our group. Obviously that was expected and not doing so would’ve been seen as a complete failure, but I’m happy nonetheless that we’ve managed it with a game to spare. It also means that a draw from our final match against Roma will clinch us the top spot and a more favourable First Knockout Round matchup. Allez Paris!

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Episode 215 >

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

I fear that I may have brought this on myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goalkeepers

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

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Defenders

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

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Midfielders

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

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Strikers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now this is a very interesting development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 214 >

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

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

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

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 211

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

F*cks Off, Franjo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 210

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 212 >

Happy (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep210)

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

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 209

I’m very happy. Everyone’s very happy today. Why in the name of Timothy Filiga Cahill and his two storey vertical leap would anyone be anything other than happy today? I won both of my England matches, PSG are unbeaten in 15 league games and Bayern boss Massimiliano Allegri was spotted in the crowd at PSG’s last match watching Ibarra and Orlando. If he wants to make an official approach for either player, I’ll happily tell him to keep jogging on until he falls in the Seine. Happy, happy, happy.

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

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

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Lille are not as happy as us. Not by a long shot. While we have a close-to-fully-fit squad packed full of World class talent, Lille are in the relegation zone having shipped an average of 2 goals per game. They’re the antithesis of happy. They’re distinctly unhappy and I want them to stay that way beyond their visit to the Parc des Princes today.

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As I say though, we do have a few fitness issues at the minute and with one eye on our trip to Sevilla midweek for our third Champions League Group match, I’m fielding a slightly weakened side. Donnarumma, Ibarra and Lucas start in defence and incidentally I’ve been impressed with Lucas this season so far. A few really solid performances have put him right back into my good graces following our falling out when I dropped him from my France squad and I now actually wonder whether Marquinhos deserves to walk back into the side ahead of him. Renan Henrique, Éder and the Dobster start ahead of them, while Kovacic returns to his box-to-box role. Kingsley Coman gets a rare rest and I’m trying young Michal Hutka out on the right wing in his place. With Moise Kean still recovering from his concussion though the last 3 spots are as we’ve come to expect: Coutinho in the hole behind Bueno with Orlando out on the left.

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We try to come flying out of the traps but our attacks don’t click in the first few minutes. Credit to Lucas for getting stuck in, winning us the ball and launching those attacks, but he’s also at fault when Teixeira breaks past him in the 3rd minute and lashes a shot just wide of Donnarumma’s near post. I will admit that it very nearly wipes the smile from my face 15 minutes in when Benhalib breaks following a cleared Kovacic free kick, dribbles through our half unchallenged and sticks the opening goal in the bottom corner, but due to my unnaturally high current happiness levels, I manage to hold onto a slight smirk.

We go on the attack after the half hour as we’ve really struggled to break the visitors down so far, but our next patient passing move through the middle of the park is brought to an abrupt end when Kovacic’s pass is cut out on the edge of Lille’s box by Kapustka, who lumps it upfield. Teixeira takes possession on the halfway line and slices our defence open like a hot scalpel with a pass ahead of Benhalib, who runs through on goal but scuffs his shot wide. A minute later we manage to breathe a sigh of relief when Kovacic has a more successful pass find Manuel Bueno on the edge of the box and the big Spaniard blasts past Pattinama to equalise.

We’re nearly instantly behind again though as Benhalib passes into the box for Teixeira pretty much straight from kick off and Ibarra is nowhere near covering the striker’s run. Teixeira shoots, but hits Gigi’s right post to spare our blushes. If these could shoot, this match would be over.

After a calm half time exchange of ideas though, we manage to turn the tables on Lille just 2 minutes into the second half from a well worked right sided throw in. Renan throws to Hutka, who plays it into the box for Dobby, who lays it off for Coutinho and the Brazilian smashes one ruthlessly into the top corner for 2-1. After the hour we ease off a bit as Lille seem a broken team, with 10 minutes to go I decide to bring off Ibarra and Orlando and replace them with Marquinhos and Kean to get them 10 minutes fitter and with 3 minutes to go we drop back entirely into a defensive 4-1-4-1. This, as it turns out, is my mistake. In the 91st minute we’re so far back that Lille have got the run of our half and Sarabia surges down the left wing unchallenged, looking for options. He spies one in that nuisance Benhalib and lofts a cross towards him at the far post. Benhalib chests it down but Lucas charges courageously in and swings his boot at the ball in an attempt to clear our lines, but in doing so he smacks it against the striker and the ball ricochets back across our box in torturous slow motion. Sarabia arrives quite unmarked and prods Lille level from point blank range with barely a few seconds left to play.

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There’s certainly nothing like a late goal against you to dampen spirits, but in all fairness I think Lille deserved a point. We had the lion’s share of the chances, but they had the best ones. Also I refuse to get overly down over that result because of the fact that I’m still getting to know this squad! This was a side missing Marquinhos, Bologna, Lato, Neves, Coman and Kean, who I would say from my early impressions are some of our most important players. Today I’ve learned that I probably shouldn’t leave so many of them out of the squad at once, so lesson learned. The upside of that decision though is that we’ve now got the majority of them fighting fit for our Champions League trip to Spain.

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Sevilla actually shocked the World last time out by losing to FC København, who are seen as the weakest side in Group C by many including myself. They’ve also drawn against Roma, a result that gave both sides their only point so far. This bodes extremely well for us.

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I’m bringing a lot of the big guns back in for this one, although I’m also rotating a few players out because of ineligibility and fitness. Renan Henrique, Dobby, Kovacic, Hutka, Coutinho, Orlando and Bueno are all out as Triponez, Bologna, Neves, Coman, Veiga, Cvitanovic and Kean come in. Lucas gets a run out at left sided inverted wing back due to Dobby’s ineligibility and Lato’s injury and Éder pushes forward as a ball winning midfielder in front of Neves, who returns to his favourite role at the base of midfield.

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The game does not get off to a terrific start. It takes less than 2 minutes for Youri Tielemans, star of Belgium’s Euro 24 side, to poke the ball down the left for winger Fran García, who surges down the flank purposefully. He gets to the byline and squares the ball into the 6 yard box, where Triponez slides in but completely misses his interception, leaving attacking midfielder Óliver free to prod the ball into the net from point blank range. In the 19th minute, we’re playing some fairly nice football but Sevilla are pressing us mercilessly. We string together a particularly nice move through the middle of the park but eventually run out of steam under the hosts’ defensive pressure and they break forwards. This time Óliver turns Rúben Neves 25 yards from goal and flicks the ball past Triponez for Abba, who hits a sweetly struck volley beyond Donnarumma’s reach for 2-0. We go on the attack for the last 10 minutes of the half, but go in for the break 2 goals down.

As the half time whistle blows, a strange thing happens: It’s as if the sound shakes loose some old memories that I’d long since forgotten about. They flash across my mind’s eye in a brilliant montage and I grab Bechkoura’s arm as he makes to stand up and head for the tunnel. “Hang on.” I mutter. “We’ve done this before.” My assistant eyes me cautiously. “We’ve played this match before.” I insist.

“Are you alright, Boss?” He asks, wearing a look of genuine concern.

“I’m fucking fine, but I mean it, we’ve played this match before!” The memories start to swim back away into the back of my mind but I lock my eyes shut and try to force them back to the foreground. “Come on, come on… Coman crosses it…” I mutter.

“Boss?”

“Kean heads it in! We’re winning!”

“I’m going to get the doc.” I tighten my grip on his tracksuit sleeve.

“And then time stands still.” I open my eyes and notice that I’m breathing slightly heavily. “Everything froze. Right as that half time whistle went. But don’t you see? We were winning!”

“Well lucky us.” Bechkoura replies, trying to shake his arm free of my grasp. “But in the real World we’re 2-0 down, so shall we…”

“It was real! It was here! We were winning! It was as if it was a… A different timeline, where we came into the half time break with a 1 goal lead.” He finally frees his arm and half-laughs.

“Wish we were in that timeline now.” He mutters. “A 1 goal lead away at Sevilla at half time. Wow. That would really be something.”

“It would, wouldn’t it, Bechkoura. A 1 goal lead away at Sevilla at half time would really be something that would give me confidence of bouncing back after our disappointing draw against Lille at the weekend. But here we are. Half time in our match away at Sevilla and we’re 2-0 down.”

“Almost feels like we’ve been cheated out of a result, the fact that we’re now here in this decidedly worse timeline, doesn’t it?” He asks, seriously.

“Almost.” We stare at each other. There’s a long, heavy silence between us that the jubilant noises coming from the majority of the stadium fail to penetrate.

“Shall we head in?”

“Yep.”

I make a couple of changes at the break: Marquinhos comes on not only for extra leadership to sure us up, but also because I want him fully fit as soon as possible and every minute of football I can give him will hasten his recovery. Winger Darcílio also comes onto the left wing in place of Silvio Cvitanovic, who’s had another off day.

The last of my hope for this match doesn’t quite trickle away entirely until the 57th minute, when Moise Kean drives in from the left wing with the ball at his feet and slides it across the Sevilla box to Coman, who’s in acres of space. Coman shoots from the right hand side of the 6 yard box but Zoet parries it away as far as Darcílio, who turns the rebound against the outside of the left post. It just isn’t going to happen. Coutinho replaces Veiga, just in case the little Brazilian can work his magic.

With 10 minutes of the match to play, we go balls to the wall and hurl everything we have at the home side, but with 2 to play we’re punished for it when Sevilla break up our attack and break on us again. García drifts a cross in from the left, Óliver loops a header over Gigi into the far corner and my good mood of a few days ago is officially fucking ruined. 0-3.

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“It’s a real shame we weren’t in your other timeline, eh?” Grins Bechkoura as we step onto the team bus. “That Kean couldn’t put us ahead and give us a platform at half time.”

“It is a shame,” I concur, “But it’s not Kean’s fault that he couldn’t match his feat from the ‘other timeline’. He’s blameless.”

“Obviously Moise Kean is completely blameless.” Agrees Bechkoura.

“Obviously. To say otherwise would make you a stupid fucking ignorant dick, wouldn’t it. What a stupid fucking ignorant dick thing to say.”

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Episode 211 >