The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.
CSKA Moscow won their Europa League group, just like we did, indeed the teams they overcame – FK Austria Vienna, Astana and Bohemians 1905 – are like a wet dream line-up, all beatable. Little wonder that the Russians ended on eighteen points and a +14 goal difference. They’re waiting, as we are, to find out who they will get in the second knockout round, and until then they’re at the top of their Premier League with a squad made up of cast-offs and hand-me-downs, some from England. Ever wondered what happened to David Luiz, Sokratis, Nainggolan, Jovetic and Robbie Brady? They’re all here, a team of golden oldies. Hell, even Football Manager legend Igor Akinfeev is still on their books. I think we must all have signed him at some point in the past, no? He’s now 35, having taken in 498 league appearances, each one for CSKA and stretching all the way back to 2002.
A cheap gate for our friendly encounter – hey, if you’re wondering what to buy for your Valentine… – attracts 23,469 Derby fans, who get to watch us win 2-0 with a vastly reassembled side. Jason Knight plays in midfield for this one. Eddie Salcedo gets to strut his funky stuff as our starting forward, and Ojo and McKenna supply the goals. In a game that doesn’t matter we look impressive, restricting the Musovites to one on-target shot while we pepper their goal with chances. Sure enough, no one busts a gut to produce the victory. Everyone is looking forward to a few days’ break, so the last thing the players want to do is pick up a dumb injury, nevertheless they determine to put on a show for the supporters and everyone goes home happy.
There are European matches taking place before we return to action. I catch some of the first leg matches of the initial knockout round. Man City and Borussia Dortmund both look ominous, putting five goals past Ludogorets and Austria Vienna respectively. Juventus conspire to lose 1-0 to Lille – a turn-up of a result, with ageing legs not producing the goods for the appropriately nicknamed Old Lady. Ronaldo is still the man for them, more like the codger by now, at 37 and slowing down to the extent he’s only scored the 22 goals so far this season.
And then it’s off to Old Trafford and the joys of taking on Manchester United. This warm-up game for the Carabao Cup final at the end of the month is the perfect tester. What will our opposition be like to play? They’ve lost Paul Pogba with a nasty bout of torn knee ligaments, which will keep him out for some time, and Harrington Maguire has sadly broken his leg and will be lucky to feature again this season. If we had a couple of injuries to such key players then our effort would be – sorry! – crippled, and yet the Red Devils can shrug their shoulders and power through the fixtures. Theirs is a squad of champagne footballers. They’re so stuffed with talent that an outright god of the game like Edinson Cavani is only good enough for the bench, sitting on his £225,000 weekly salary and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Greenwood and Wan-Bissaka.
In a blustery but mild stadium, they put out an international XI of elite talent that we can only admire. The absence of Pogba is mitigated by a midfield pairing of Fernandes and Bentancur. Lindelof and Lenglet compensate them for the loss of Maguire. Martial is up front, supported by an attacking midfield trio of Rashford, Dembele and De Arrascaeta. The latter, a Uruguayan January signing, is still adjusting to English life, but United can afford to help him ease into their side. Must be nice…
I’ve been warned about their fluidity, their sheer ease whilst on the ball – which is all you would expect from such a high standard of playing personnel – and the class of David de Gea in goal. Getting anything past him will be a tall order, indeed for my forwards it’s a privilege to test themselves against such a superb keeper, a net custodian so physically accomplished that it can seem at times as though he has extendable, Mr Tickle arms. As against Liverpool, I opt to defend first, hoping that we can absorb their pressure and gut-punch them on the counter. United don’t like marking players very much, I’m informed, a rare weakness that can hopefully be exploited by our pace in attack. You never know, maybe Lookman and Esposito bearing down at top speed will produce something…
Instead, a first half played on Saturday lunchtime before the cameras produces a premium of entertaining football. It’s on the home team to break us down, and this they stubbornly fail to do. Against the Pool we had the ominous sense that they could score from anywhere, especially from free kick situations, but the Devils don’t quite have the same cutting edge. There’s an element of stodginess to them – they can do all the same things as Liverpool, nearly but not quite as well. Martial misses an opportunity from point-blank range – Dybala would no doubt make no mistake in the same situation. These efforts are a matter of split-second timing, but the ball finds him beyond our defenders, with only the keeper to beat, and he sends his shot into the sky.
As the second half picks up where the first left off, more of the same and Ojo and Hlozek now on to throw fresh legs at the situation, it looks for all the world as though we are going to battle to a 0-0 scoreline that does nothing for neither of us. And then Alfonso Pedraza gets himself sent off when he takes down Dembele just outside the area. As challenges go it’s messy. There’s no malice and it isn’t a dangerous tackle, but it’s clumsy, a clear foul, and you can almost sense the referee deciding to send him off just to spice things up. At this point United are reaching some sort of ascendancy. Their attacks are becoming more frequent, and now they can take us to task. Anthony Martial produces their sixty-ninth minute winner, a shot from the left side of goal that Butland parries, but only right back into the forward’s path who is able to slot into a gaping net.
With a man down, we are unable to respond in any fervent kind of way and are left to accept the defeat. It’s pointed out to me that this is our first league defeat in eighteen matches. I’m asked whether our lack of experience, the youth of my players and the fact they’ve never been involved in a title challenge, will count against us when it really matters? Don’t ask me, kidda. The prospect of fighting for a Premier League crown was never seriously on our minds. A top four place is our goal, and we still have in it mind even after losing here.
The battle for first is in full swing all around us. Drop any points, any at all, and suddenly we’re off the pace. Spurs beat Wolves 3-0, and in the pick of the round Liverpool go to the Etihad and produce a 2-1 triumph thanks to an injury time Bailey winner. This opens a four point gap between the front two and ourselves. United are a single digit behind us now, and City are marooned. Pep’s situation is described as insecure; he joins Sheffield United’s Danny Cowley and Chris Wilder of West Ham in looking over his shoulder for the chairman’s sacking finger.
Speaking of the Hammers, they’re who we are up against in several days’ time. This is a rearranged fixture, which should be taking place at the weekend but instead we will be going to some ground no one has heard of called Wembley to take on United all over again in the League Cup showpiece.