Derby FM20 – March 2023: Out of Europe

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. We are now four seasons into an epic quest, covering hundreds of posts and many thousands of words. If you’re new to these pages then catching up might be a daunting task. A handy index of story chapters is available here, or for the really time-pressed visitor there is now a digested read that summarises everything to bring you up to speed in the shortest time possible.

Two cup matches are taking place before we go off on the international break, which at this time of year comes as a huge reprieve. There are certain players whose stupid faces I’m sick of seeing, and some time away from them will be most welcome right now.

Things don’t improve as Darren Wassall brings me the details on this year’s crop of youngsters. They’re not good, not good at all, and considering how much has been invested in facilities and recruitment I did hope the quality would go up rather than take a nosedive. My pick from the group of teenagers who don’t look as though they can stand in a straight line is Mike Howe, a 16 year old from Stafford who appears like he might have the raw makings of a striker, but he’s a long, long way away right now. Where’s this year’s Josh Kirk, or even a John Vasey?

So we’re up against Marcello Gallardo’s Atletico Madrid side, at home in the Champions League. You will recall that they take a 2-1 advantage into our home leg, which means that everything is still to play for. Obviously I want to win here, but we still have at least one FA Cup fixture to honour and a mass of league games on the schedule, and in my current mood I would be just as happy if we withdraw at this stage. We’re the last of the round’s ties to be decided. Elsewhere there have been victories for Liverpool, Schalke 04, Internazionale, RB Leipzig (who do for Manchester City), and Napoli. Manchester United leather PSG at home to record a 7-2 aggregate victory. Barcelona emerge from their own confrontation with a 7-0 ducking of Zenit. There’s a sense of the chaff being separated from the competition’s wheat, but which of these are we?

Clearly this one will be hard. We have the bonus of Jan Oblak being missing. The legendary keeper is out with a broken finger, so instead they’re fielding Arijanet Muric, which isn’t a bad alternative to possess but he’s a bit more human than Oblak. We’ve got to take the game to them. Given our stuttering attacking form this will not be straightforward, however we have to believe that the Spanish league leaders are mortal, just like we are, and culpable to fast forwards.

Pellegrini and Oxford are suspended for this tie. Max Lowe and Scott McKenna start in defence, with the likes of Moriba and Lookman chosen to inspire our attacks. Nothing happens. Gallardo’s a bit like Theoden King, watching the Orcish hoards crashing against the walls of Helm’s Deep and saying ‘Is this all you’ve got?’ You all know what goes on next in the movie, right? Well, it doesn’t here. Wilson, Hughes and the undercooked Lookman all fail to inspire anything of any note against Gimenez and his buddies, and then things get worse in the seventy-fourth minute. By this stage, Max Willian is on. The young Brazilian goes in two-footed on Ivo and earns a red card for dangerous play. I have no argument against the dismissal. He deserves to go. What kills me is having to revert from positive play to becoming defensive, which we have to do as the cause is now pretty much lost. The Mattress Makers agree that Max’s sending off is the end of our fight and happily see out the rest of the time.

So our first foray into Champions League football ends 0-0, a 2-1 defeat overall, and this marks the end of our journey. I’m disappointed, of course I am. This was an adventure, an opportunity to test ourselves against the continent’s biggest guns and one in which I think we did the good name of Derby County proud. At the same time, there’s so much football to be played without the additional burden of these matches that exiting comes as a bit of a relief. It’s sad that we can’t reap the financial rewards of staying in the tournament, but for our efforts in getting to this stage we earn £8.18 million, and that isn’t a bad pay day.

All that remains is for us to get through the FA Cup Quarter-Final, a teasing home game in which we’re taking on Brighton and Hove Albion. The blizzard of games is so thick that I can’t recall who we played a fortnight ago, but I’m sure we were up against this lot quite recently. While we prepare, I learn that another member of our little family has been called up for England. Reece Oxford is chosen alongside Butland and Vieira to wear the three lions. We’re all very proud. It’s absolutely warranted.

It would be a nice early spring Sunday afternoon for the Brighton match if not for the scything rain. We’re used to all that by now, naturally, the reports of flooding within the county as Biblical levels of wrath are washing whole communities away… it’s not quite as bad as all that. It’s just raining a lot. The Gulls are 18th in the table, despite having what I think is a pretty decent team. Graham Potter is putting out his traditional central defence of White and Drunk, with Leo Ostigard parked on the right and perceived by many to be the ace up their sleeve. For our part, there are places for Frimpong, Lowe and Bellingham as we aim to end the pre-internationals spell on a high. Hell, if we can’t score past Angus Gunn at home, when we’re figuring at opposite ends of the Premier League, then there really is something wrong.

Max Willian makes up for his sending off in the last match by opening the scoring here, in the thirty-first minute. From a Frimpong throw-in, Salcedo eases himself down the right channel and crosses in. The Brazilian collects, weaves behind both Ostigard and White and slots past the keeper into his bottom corner. Brighton react with some weak attacks of their own, which we deal with, and it emerges that we aren’t the only side to be feeling a knock in our confidence right now. They really aren’t happy, their efforts non-committal and very much on the half-baked rather than full-blooded side.

Eddie Salcedo has another goal chalked off for offside, which seems to be his thing, and then Adam Hlozek puts a gloss on our victory. Bellingham embarks on a run from the halfway line. His somewhat aimless pass into the box is cleared away easily enough and rebounds back to Chirivella. He finds Hlozek on the edge of the box and a first-time volley, struck with venom and precision, does the rest. Splendid.

It isn’t the best or most comprehensive victory Pride Park have witnessed this season, but it marks out what we can do when we’re at home against a team that isn’t quite as good as we are, and it will do nicely. It’s certainly a welcome feeling to enter the international break on the back of a win – no rage to suppress while the players are away and you have to wait a fortnight before taking it out on someone. We get Bristol City in the Semi-Final. A Championship team that is currently seventh, and who I don’t believe we have faced since we were both at that level, it’s a kinder draw for us than we might have faced with any alternative permutation. The other semi, which is being billed in harsher quarters of the media as the one containing the future winners, features Arsenal taking on the might of Liverpool.

That completes our March run. It seemed to go by very quickly after the churn of action that was February, but April will be more like normal service with nine matches to play. There are twelve left overall to decide the Premier League, a possible 36 points in play, which could leave us with a grand total of 98. Clearly with the way things are going we now have to try and go on a winning run, which won’t be easy as we start the month with a home tie against Liverpool.

Hope arrives with the news that Sebastiano Esposito is entering the rehabilitation phase of his return from injury. The physios believe he is anything from two to five weeks away from achieving full fitness, but it now feels like a quantifiable length of time before he’s available again. He should be back by the start of May.

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