Glory Hunter – Barcelona: September 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Heading towards the closure of the transfer window, the temptation is to change nothing. We’ve got a good squad, and aside from a residual wish to reduce the average age there’s not very much that needs doing right now. But when I have transfer money it burns a hole in my pocket. There’s more than £60 million remaining. Players are out there. Players who need signing…

Things kick off when Valencia make an offer for Ismael Bennacer. I’ve made no secret of my desire to have the Algerian international under my wing, and the prospect of him going to a hated rival does not please me. So I match their bid, and in the meantime offer Gio Wijnaldum out to anyone who fancies a 31 year old Dutchman with occasional grievances over his earnings. There’s one place that will always take aging pros and that’s Juventus. They produce a £25 million punt, a bit less than the player’s actual value but good enough. Bennacer costs £42.5 million. He’s 24, slightly under-used by AC Milan but with the potential to go far.

I then read that Arsenal are after Bruno Guimaraes, the 24 year old Brazilian playmaker who plies his trade with Lyon. I envisage a dizzying scenario whereby he comes in and Miralem Pjanic leaves. The latter’s all right enough, but he’s 32 and it still strikes me as bizarre that someone in Barca’s past effectively traded Arthur in for him. Bruno will redress that balance. The sticking point is that Lyon won’t allow him to leave until a replacement has been signed, and the sweaty minutes pass as we wait for them to move their backsides, the player forced to wait as the £48.5 million agreed for his sale sits in the outbox. In the end, they sign not one but two midfielders, paying less for both than Bruno’s transfer fee for Djibril Sow, and former Napoli hero Stanislav Lobotka. The deal goes through, and Pjanic leaves for Lazio. He goes for around half his value, £13.75 million, and we need to pay a significant part of his spends until summer 2024 because some bright spark once thought he was worth £275,000 per week.

So what could have been a quiet window becomes anything but. I’m pleased with my signings and ambivalent about the players I’ve lost, which is just how it should be. Elsewhere, Man City pay a staggering £152 million for Real’s Federico Valverde, a ‘we’ve really seen you coming’ of a transfer if ever there was one. Joao Felix is no longer a Spanish league player, going to Liverpool for £97 million. Any departee that makes our rivals a little bit weaker is just fine with me. Martin Odegaard is another significant loss to this nation. He’s now a Manchester United midfielder, as the Premier League flexes its financial muscles.

We are scouting Ajax players hard. I would take all three of Kenneth TaylorNaci Unuvar and Ryan Gravenberch. They’re young, have amazing potential levels, and certainly in Naci’s case could come in as the long-term replacement for Coutinho. The former Liverpool attacker has started pretty well, however, as though begging me not to let him go.

We have been named 7-2 favourites to win the Champions League, an ominous tag if ever there was one. Man City, Real and group rivals PSG are all up there with us, and you can throw in Liverpool, Man United and Bayern while you’re at it. We’ll find out how close we are to earning that tag soon enough, with three group ties taking place across September.

While the international break continues, I seal another deal, a £3.7 million splurge for Malaga full-back Juan Francisco Herrera. At sweet 16, this is very much one for the future, the 4.5 potential star rating making my mind up for me. Help, I’m out of control! I can’t stop spending the club’s money. We had better end up being good because this won’t end well otherwise.

We reach the other side of the Interlull with just one significant injury. Milan Skriniar has picked up a back strain after trying to impress the youngsters during weight training. That’s three weeks without arguably our best defender and with PSG on the horizon. Nice one. Before travelling to France, however, we’re in Madrid to take on Getafe CF. They’ve started the season well and sit in fifth place. Midfielder Nemanja Maksimovic is their one to watch, albeit studded with unhappiness as he’s chasing a new contract while sadly playing for the sort of team that won’t shower him with his ‘deserved’ riches.

Getafe’s success lies in stiff defending and a tendency towards violence. I have had to make to substitutions before half-time, losing de Jong (not serious) and Fati, who’s out for a few days with a twisted knee. Before his departure the winger supplies a delicious cross for Antoine Griezmann’s close range finish. That’s all the scoring we do, and there’s certainly little possibility that the home team will trouble us.

Paris Saint-Germain clearly don’t have enough of a goals threat with Kylian Mbappe because they’ve signed Erling Haaland also. Thomas Tuchel can command considerable riches – Neymar, Icardi, Mahrez, and new signing Koopmeiners, all straining to stop us from leaving our half and causing problems for Aaron Ramsdale in their goal. This is going to be the toughest test of our Champs League run. I’d take a draw. Victory will make me believe that we might just live up to the pundits’ predictions.

It goes badly. On too many occasions the French giants simply threaten to overwhelm us. Pau’s personal battle with Haaland works out well enough. Sergi’s confrontation against Neymar ends with the latter going off injured, a three-month layoff with a hip problem. But we struggle to cope with their fluency, too frequently they break up our attacks and counter us quickly and fluidly, and when Luis Diaz scores from range, something special to beat Ter-Stegen, it’s all we deserve. Bennacer comes away from his debut with credit. Florentino Luis plays with the constancy of a whirling dervish; otherwise it’s worrying.

Back in La Liga at the weekend, and this time we’re off to Alaves in the Basque Country. I remember this lot best from when they contested the UEFA Cup Final against Liverpool some twenty years ago, and took them to a mammoth 4-4 draw before an own-goal in extra time finally killed off their effort. Beyond that, they’re a side that oscillates between the top two divisions. They’ve been back in the first division since gaining promotion in 2016, after a decade of second – and occasionally third – tier football. They aren’t at all bad, albeit there’s a sense of making up the numbers about them and we ought to take them to task at the Mendizorroza. Instead, the afternoon is largely an exercise in frustration. Defensively we’re good. Torres, Pique and Bellerin all come away with credit, neutralising the home side’s attacks. But in midfield Moriba and Guimaraes struggle to make an impact, and Dembele on the right wing shows scant evidence that he’s ready to take over from the Little God. We are good enough to win, however. One moment of magic has Jordi Alba supplying a killer pass that Ansu Fati smashes past Pacheco.

The rest is vexing, and there’s some gratitude from these quarters that the Barca board has placed so few conditions on me. All they demand is that I work within the wage budget (we’re below the threshold by £122,000) and develop players using the youth system, a condition within which I am in accord. No hopes here for the sort of sexy football required by Napoli, which is good as it generally takes me a year to whip the team into the sort of shape that’s made for entertainment. I guess they are happy as long as we win things. Nothing else matters to them.

We’re at home next to Borussia Monchengladbach. It’s tempting to dismiss the Germans because they aren’t Bayern, Dortmund or RB Leipzig, but in truth Wolfgang Schneider is leading them perilously close to Bundesliga glory. In consecutive seasons they have finished fifth, fourth, third and second, and we know what’s next in the trendline. Their key player is the ferociously named and excellently bouffant Hannes Wolf, an Austrian international attacking midfielder who normally operates as a shadow striker behind Victor Tsygankov and Marcus Thuram, two players who I had an eye on whilst at Napoli.

There’s an effort here for us to gain some ground after PSG. The side known colloquially as the Prussians – which I’m grateful for, as I don’t want to have to type ‘Monchengladbach’ again… damn – give us some trouble, but Umtiti, Busquets and the evergreen Gerard Pique deal with everything, and the latter even gets on the scoresheet when he heads Messi’s corner kick past Sommer. The visitors are fielding Allan Saint-Maximin, someone I actively coveted before moving to a club that wouldn’t offer so much as a sneeze in his direction, and they’re right to do so as the former Newcastle winger just runs into trouble against a full-back of Bellerin’s quality. In the meantime we add two more from Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi to come away with a creditable 3-0 win. The Champions League attracts capacity crowds as a matter of course, and I’m happy to have given them something to enjoy.

Another tricky tie in the league where we go away to Valencia. I would rate them as just behind ourselves and Real Madrid in terms of ability, and there’s little wonder that this one finishes in stalemate. It’s a good one though. For once Harrington Kane uses this as a stage to show his quality, scoring a brace to stand out as our best player in the game. But chances for us are few. Despite playing positively our attacking spark is largely snuffed out by Camavinga, Demiral, Azpilicueta and their groovy mates, and for each Kane goal they conjure an equaliser, both scored by Maxi Gomez. They deserve the draw, in fairness. We’re lumpy here, struggling to find any kind of fluency, and Messi in particular is kept quiet, their excellent full-back Jose Gaya making him look like a rapidly aging former great.

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All the same, I’m sanguine about drawing in Mestalla. It’s a difficult place to go and get any kind of result. The Bats have had a board takeover and are now one of Spain’s richest clubs, building to join the best this country has to offer, and their performance here leaves me grateful that the fixture is out of the way and we have left more or less unscathed. The result keeps us at the peak of the league, exactly where we want to be, albeit sharing the points haul with Atletico Madrid. The four at the top is how I expect the table to look at the end, with only the identities of the individual teams in that mini-league to be shuffled. As I see it, staying ahead of Real is the key, and we’re going to the Bernabeu next month in what should be another exercise in pure joy.

September isn’t quite over yet. We still have to go to Ajax in the Champions League, a fixture that results in a disappointing 0-0 tie. We do everything right here, achieving 62% of possession and racking up fourteen shots to their one. Messi makes up for his anonymity in Valencia with a really good display here, reaching into his bulging bag of tricks to try and find a way through, ultimately to no avail. Cillessen is excellent in the home side’s goal, and they’re steadfast at the back, anchored by the experience and guile of Daley Blind.

 

We are making heavy weather of a tough group, rather expectedly. PSG are running away with it right now, amassing three straight victories, and I know we are going to have to make up some ground to qualify. But it doesn’t matter who wins Group F. Simply staying in the competition is what counts, and the Frenchies have to come to Barca still, a revenge match that will be played in late October.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: July/August 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

After completing a meaningless friendly tournament, which we win but knackers Dembele for a week or so, the season opens with just about the most horrible fixture imaginable – Atletico Madrid away. Still managed by Diego Simeone and scoring two second placed finishes in recent seasons, they’re a perpetually competitive outfit that is predicted to finished third behind ourselves and some team that plays in white. There are various things about them that are great, notably the continued presence of Jan Oblak in goal. Almost impossible to beat without reverting to necromancy and finding some arcane magic to find a way through, they can also call upon a team of stars. Nikola Milenkovic and Andreas Christensen have been added to an already stiff defence, though their true strength is in midfield. Atleti line up with a four-man wall across the middle – Lemar, Koke, Saul, Herrera – supporting their front two of Houssem Auoar and Talles Magno.

A tough prospect to overcome then, and in truth I’d be happy enough with a draw, which is exactly what I get. Oblaks’s excellence makes the difference. I’m pleased to see our efforts to rip them apart, Little God in especially electric form as he tries to reach deep into his massive bag of tricks to find a way through. Ultimately he wins a penalty, which is taken by Harrington Kane, surely as reliable a scorer from the spot as you will ever find. Not so. He shoots wide. The honours are shared, and because we dominate the game I leave feeling a little disappointed by that scoreline.

There’s still nearly a hundred million to splash out on players. The presence of such a massive amount of lolly always leaves me uncomfortable. I want to spend it. I need to spend it. And I know where to, when it’s pointed out to me that Hector Bellerin has requested to leave Arsenal. At 27 the right-back is no longer the plucky youngster who seemed ever on the cusp of super-stardom, but he is a Barca old boy and I sense that in drafting him in I will be able to give Dest a loan move and free Sergi up to play in midfield. He doesn’t come cheap. £49.5 million is what the Gunners want and it’s what I pay, but Hector’s an obvious acquisition and the deal is done.

Going out the other door is Juan Miranda, a 22 year old left-back who doesn’t strike me as an obvious star for either the present or future. Atletico want him. They pay £23 million to make him theirs, which leaves me with nearly £69 million left to spend. There may be more activity before the window closes. We have a full 25-man squad, hitting the La Liga limit, but if Dest goes – Inter have made a loan bid – then there is an available space, and the money is sitting there, like a lead weight in the back of my mind. There are no obvious gaps in the squad, but it’s a long season and I am always in the market for a young gun. At the back of my mind is the feeling that I could use a long-term replacement for Coutinho

Before any of that there’s a home game to play against Athletic Bilbao. More than 90,000 souls are in the Camp Nou on a breezy summer evening, a gorgeous climate in which to play football. I’m keen to add three points after the disappointment of Atletico, and we get it via a hat-trick from Lionel Messi. The Little God is in terrific form, making up for the slight anonymity from Kane as we simply blow the visitors away. I’m also happy with the debut from Florentino Luis, who plays a complete game in defensive midfield to announce his ability. 3-0 will do nicely.

Liverpool beat Real Madrid 3-2 in a cracker of a Super Cup. In a bad-tempered confrontation, Martinez’s winner in extra time splits an even contest that is quite thrilling to witness. Despite conceding three, new signing Bastoni stars for Real in defence.

Sergino Dest moves to Inter for the season, and we are away to Leganes. The promoted side are tipped to struggle, so hopefully we can take advantage with a big win. Their one player who really stands out to me is centre-back Kenneth Omeruo, not for any great ability but the fact he was once a Chelsea loanee who did pretty well at Aitor Karanka’s promotion chasing Middlesbrough. Elsewhere, theirs is an incredibly Spanish side, featuring Barca alumnus in defenders Sergi Gomez and Rodrigo Tarin, and full-back Sergi Palencia. It’s 1-0, hardly an advertisement for our silky skills and a stage upon which Fati and Griezmann struggle to make any great impact. As a contest it reminds me of all those narrow victories achieved at Napoli, where a number of players take the day off from trying their best and rely on our superiority to ease us across the line. Which we do. Pau Torres does well on his debut, but it’s in midfield where we’re special. Ilaix Moriba has a busy, ‘look at what I can do’ game, and Frenkie de Jong scores the goal, something out of the ordinary with a spectacular strike wellied from distance.

Back at home to Real San Sebastian, a side that should be a pretty good one but stands aside here within the Nou Camp. I guess it’s the presence of forward Mikel Oyarzabal, someone to fear but who is well shackled by my defenders, and Xherdan Shaqiri playing on their wing. He does nothing. Philippe Coutinho puts us in front early, before Lionel Messi scores from a direct free-kick. A second-half melee ends badly for Mikel Merino, who has the ignominy of tapping the ball over his own goalline to make it 3-0. This is good stuff. Whilst much of our shooting is off-target and doesn’t test Andrade, we’re clinical when we need to be and Real seem happy to pad out their fouls account.

A home game against Granada rounds up the month. Since promotion in 2019 they have settled into lower mid-table and should be meat and drink for a team of our calibre. It’s another 3-0, notable because we prevent the visitors from so much as having a sniff at our goal while racking up enough shots to turn it potentially into a rugby score. Pau Torres scores a brace, both from set pieces, and Philippe Coutinho comes on for Fati and finds the back of the net from Sergi’s cross. We’re so good that Messi’s penalty, sliced wide of goal, doesn’t become a factor, besides which he has turned provider here, supplying both corners for the Torres goals.

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An easy enough start then, one in which we have won four and drawn one, conceding zero goals while scoring ten. Things will get more interesting in September when we face Valencia, newly moneyed and showcasing the likes of Camavinga, Suso, de Roon and this summer’s £63 million acquisition, Merih Demiral, within their ranks. I think they’ll be a challenger. Also, the Champions League starts. We’ve been handed what I consider to be a tough group. AjaxBorussia Monchengladbach, and top seeds Paris Saint-Germain await. At least we avoided Napoli, right?

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: Meet the Boys 2022/23

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

A rundown of the players who will win it all at the Camp Nou, or it will be my head on the block…

Goalkeepers

One of the first things I had to do upon being appointed was give a new deal to Marc-Andre Ter Stegen ( 30, 24 caps), one of the planet’s classiest keepers; the disaffectedness was threatening to become a crisis. Happily, it was something I could resolve quickly. He deserves it, a perfectionist who reminds me of the need for a great number one. Part of my decision was based on the presence of back-up Neto ( 33, 1 cap), who is a long way off being good enough for a team of this calibre. For all that, he’s a decent enough back-up, though over time I hope to swap him out for Inaki Pena ( 23, 0 caps), a young homegrown product who is getting first team experience with the B team. Some bright spark in the past paid £26 million for Neto and offered him a £105,000 per week contract. He’s worth neither.

Right-Backs

An area I didn’t feel the need to touch. Sergi Roberto ( 30, 22 caps) is a one-club man who can operate either here or in central midfield. A brave and hard-working international baller who’s perfect for the short passing game I prefer, he’s been a consistent and reliable club servant since his elevation from Barcelona B. In 2020 Sergino Dest ( 21, 30 caps) was snapped up from Ajax to serve as back-up. A fast and determined operator, he has the potential to become the main man over time. There’s no rush, but it’s good to see him being available for us. Barca have a couple of good prospects who can be elevated to the first team. Moussa Wague ( 23, 37 caps) is on loan at Club Brugge, and Emerson ( 23, 1 cap) is playing his football for Fenerbahce this year.

Left-Backs

Jordi Alba ( 33, 76 caps) is one of the several club relics who harks back to bright times and is now approaching his career’s end. Now beginning to decline, especially in physical areas, I see it as part of my brief to replace waning players like him and it’s for that reason I have brought Marc Cucurella ( 24, 0 caps) back to the Camp Nou. Inserted initially as a squad player but tasked with taking over eventually, he’s a smart and lightning-fast wing-back who believes innately in the club’s ethics. A long way away from readiness for first team football, Dimitris Tzavidas ( 17, 0 caps) is the one to watch for the future. If my dynastic instincts are correct, then by the time Jordi’s contract is up in two years’ time, Marc and Dimi will have the capacity to take over.

Centre-Backs

A new contract for Gerard Pique ( 35, 102 caps), who’s now earning big wages for being here until 2025. At any other club this would be a reckless waste of money, but he’s our captain and a team leader, and in my early days in charge I think moves like this matter. Even at 35 he’s still excellent, a composed and technically excellent Catalan at the heart of defence who by the end will have completed five hundred league games for us. The first choice to start alongside him is Milan Skriniar ( 27, 52 caps), acquired expensively by Koeman and almost the perfect centre-back. Imagine having Robocop play for you, this perfectionist athlete who’ll never stop working.

Next in the ranking is Pau Torres ( 25, 13 caps), my addition to the unit. A current international who seems determined to up his game to Barca levels, he should be competing with us for years to come. The fourth and probably least of the bunch is Samuel Umtiti ( 28, 31 caps), who after some reticence I offered a new deal to as he’s still very good. Reliable, technically gifted and consistent, he’s accepted squad rotation status and due to our high standards will be liable to play the fewest games among the group.

There are several players with high potential who are bubbling under. I’m happy to keep Ronald Araujo ( 23, 1 cap) around. Homegrown and available for loan, though it’s not a problem either if he remains with us, he represents our future, as does Jean-Clair Todibo ( 22, 0 caps), who is spending the year with Sporting Lisbon.

Defensive Midfielders

I didn’t especially want to sell Oriol Busquets. My preferred plan was to offer him out on loan, however the stability of a permanent deal to a club that will give him the amount of football that he wants was the deciding factor. Maybe I’ll look him up for a re-signing one of these days. For now I can call on his older brother Sergio Busquets ( 34, 134 caps), a vastly experienced leftover from the Guardiola era who has seen and won just about every possible competition in the game. By now waning physically, he’s otherwise excellent and I am sanguine about relying on his veteran presence. The job of Florentino Luis ( 22, 6 caps) is to assert himself as the regular starter, and this first season ought to see the handover take place. Described by the coaches as a model citizen and highly reliable, it’s clear he sees this as his big chance for stardom and an opportunity he will grasp with some relish.

Central Midfielders

The best is Frenkie De Jong ( 25, 38 caps), by this stage an advanced playmaker par excellence, a world class star who is one of the best on the planet at the job that he does and is continuing to improve. Other sides want him – they can want. He’s the senior pro to Ilaix Moriba ( 19, 0 caps), the homegrown firebrand who is steadily emerging as a star player for us. Carefully eased into the first team, my brief is to give him more game time and transform him into the star player that he clearly going to end up becoming.

In terms of our deep lying playmakers we can call upon Miralem Pjanic ( 32, 120 caps), who was at one point the subject of a swap deal with Juventus that handed Arthur over to them. Personally I preferred the Brazilian, however Miralem is a vastly experienced midfielder, a superb team player who wholly belongs at this level. He is battling with Georginio Wijnaldum ( 31, 81 caps) for the starting role. A free signing for us in 2021, Gio is a strong, consistent and technically excellent performer who entirely belongs at this level, and best of all is his sheer enthusiasm to take on the biggest of opponents in our colours.

Beyond Sergi Roberto, who’s perfectly comfortable in central midfield, Barca have several young guns who are out on loan and vying for a place. Monchu ( 22, 0 caps) is a deep lying playmaker spending the year with new Serie A side, Monza. Not quite at our level but great at passing and technical facets, this is his opportunity to assert his first team credentials. Or how about Riqui Puig ( 22, 0 caps), playing the season at Basel and looking great creatively. The coaching staff aren’t sure he is at our level, but I think it may be a case of bubbling under and that he will make it. The one to really watch is Gonzalo ( 16, 0 caps), with Segoviana in the Second Division. There are doubts about his willingness to work towards meeting his massive potential, but he has time to get there. Matheus Fernandes ( 24, 0 caps) is a box-to-box midfielder who is beginning to suggest that he will never quite make the grade, while David Timmer ( 16, 0 caps) and Joan ( 15, 0 caps) represent the brighter of distant hot prospects.

Attacking Midfielders – Right

Barca are blessed here to the extent that I saw little future in the side for Adnan Januzaj and sold him off. Currently it’s the domain of Lionel Messi ( 35, 152 caps), the GOAT and Barca legend who remains a considerable jewel in our crown. Signing a year’s extension to his contract and sticking around until 2024, his abilities remain dizzyingly high even if his physical attributes aren’t what they once were. He holds off Ousmane Dembele ( 25, 35 caps), at one point a staggeringly high £98 million signing and still struggling to justify the price-tag. He has everything he needs to achieve greatness, though his injury record (eleven knocks in two years) suggests there’s a fundamental lack of reliability in his capacity to start match after match.

Sitting neatly behind is Pedri ( 19, 2 caps), off the production line of fantastic homegrown kids and able to play in various positions across midfield. Highly prized and improving quickly, it’s his ability to do the unexpected that makes him such an exciting player for the future. Of the loanees Ilias Akhomach ( 18, 0 caps) might be the best and will hone his talents this year with Gijon. Both Alex Collado ( 23, 0 caps) and Francisco Trincao ( 22, 0 caps), on loan with Levante and Kobenhavn respectively, might never quite make the grade. It’s a staggeringly high one.

Attacking Midfielders – Left

It’s a toss-up here between the experience and reputation of Coutinho ( 30, 91 caps) and the sheer potential and emerging brilliance of Ansu Fati ( 19, 21 caps). It’s a privilege of a problem to have, one being among the great prospects of world football and the other at one point breaking the transfer record, a £137 million acquisition from Liverpool who Koeman transformed into a key player for the team. The clear path is for Ansu to wrest the position over time, but for now it’s a nice problem to have.

Gavi ( 18, 0 caps) is the best of the prospects, an inverted winger who isn’t far from first team level but could use a year’s loan, playing plenty of football, to get himself into position.

Strikers

There’s a tendency at this club to make a statement signing every year. In 2021, Koeman’s pick was Sir Harrington Kane ( 29, 68 caps), bought from Spurs for £83 million. A lifelong Tottenham kid, Harry repaid Barca with an excellent 2021/22 and is surely one of the world’s great centre-forwards. In pre-season, he scores a goal from such an acute angle that I am just as convinced by his sheer virtuosity, as though there were any doubts. He just about holds off Antoine Griezmann ( 31, 100 caps), though in truth the pair are entirely interchangeable and the latter an equally potent presence on the wings. A £108 million signing in 2019, the Frenchman will be a big star for us because how can he not be?

The classic Tiki Taka philosophy of Pep Guardiola, which asserts you don’t actually need strikers, leads to a dearth of potential in this area, however you should watch out for Arni Sorensen ( 17, 4 caps) and Fabian Luzzi ( 18, 0 caps), both working hard in the Under-19s to push themselves to the dizzyingly high standards that Barca demands.

Glory Hunter – Welcome to Barcelona: Summer 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Like that, I’m whisked from adulation in Naples to shrugs and general nonplussed attitudes in Barcelona. My wage jumps to £155,000 per week. With this I can afford a seven-bedroom mansion in Vilanova i la Geltru, built in 1912 and once the summer home of the Bishop of Barcelona. Nice.

The first thing to do is check out the squad. It’s very good, indeed it’s a clear jump from what I’m used to. Whilst at Naples I pondered who to alternate with Victor Osimhen, here I get to choose between Harrington Kane and Antoine Griezmann, a nice headache for any manager to have. Footballing legends like Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong pass me on the corridor. Topping off the lot is of course Lionel Messi, the Little God himself, by now 34 and still spreading his divine presence around the Camp Nou.

It’s tempting to believe that there isn’t a thing I need to do to improve this lot, which of course isn’t true at all. Overall the standard is very high; still, I start spotting gaps, notably at left-back, where they still rely on an aging Jordi Alba. He has something to contribute, but it’s for sure that the abilities have waned over the years. Pique, Busquets and even the Little God are all entering their twilight years as top drawer international superstars. And that, I find, is the job here, nothing less than overseeing the transition from a team that still relies on its former deities. It’ll take some doing. You don’t easily replace these guys.

Barca finished in third place in 2021/22. Real Madrid were champions on 102 points, dropping 14 across the entire season and putting a huge distance between them and us. We actually won the title the year before while gaining fewer points, but the white half of Madrid roused themselves into action this time around, and for good measure added the Europa League along the way. Thanks Maurizio Sarri, replacing Zidane and smoking his way to instant success at the Bernabeu. In the Champions League, Porto saw us off in the first knockout round. A sorry second half to the considerable success we produced in 2020/21. It did for Ronald Koeman, and opened the door to your writer.

It’s late June. I’m trying to recruit a team of new coaches because Koeman left me with three to work with the first team, though soon enough I learn that a promise I rashly made in my job interview was to change nothing in the backroom staff. This holds until late December, meaning the first team runs with a tiny coaching team for now. The only change I can make for now is to promote youth coach Ivan Cuadrado.

The Barca transfer budget is a staggering £160 million. There’s nearly five hundred grand left to spend on wages each week – the overall amount is six million, essentially doubling what I had to blow at Napoli. There’s a very nice number of homegrown players in the first team. Prodigious teenagers grown from within like Ansu Fati, Ilaix Moriba, Pedri and Ilias Akhomach rub shoulders with the giants, players they all look up to. There are more ploughing away at Barcelona B, a young midfielder like Nico who at most clubs would already be a first team regular. It’s a daunting place at which to work. Talent is everywhere. I need to make sense of this.

Barca expects. They want their league title back, and a final placing in next season’s Champions League would be nice as well. The board aren’t bothered about domestic cup competitions, which shows just where their focus is, but of course I am. Glory Hunter cannot progress without claiming the Spanish Cup along the way, though I can see myself staying here for a little while. There’s something dizzying about taming the beast that is FC Barcelona. The resources available are incredible, and the ever-present challenge from the two Madrid clubs is something to work against.

A number of contracts are up in 2023. These include legends like Busquets and Messi, also Umtiti and Junior Firpo. Gerard Pique demands a new deal, and even at 35 I think it’s worth offering him one. His new deal includes wresting the captaincy from Little God, a change I would probably want to affect anyway so this is a nice, underhand way of resolving it. Georginio Wijnaldum is also hankering after improved terms; I tell him to do one and he accepts that! Everyone is offered an extension apart from Firpo, the left-back who I frankly don’t think is good enough to remain here. He’ll be offered out instead.

The Brazilian ends up leaving, going to Lazio for a fee of £10 million. I want to replace him with an up and coming star to steadily take the left-back spot permanently from Alba. My choice is Marc Cucurella, who grew up here before Koeman sold him to Getafe. We sign him for £32 million, which is more than we got for him when he left but money isn’t really an object at the Camp Nou and my sense is that Marc belongs with us.

Centre-back is another area of comparative weakness. There is one really good player – Milan Skriniar, a signing from Inter last summer, and in Pique we have an aging legend, plus Samuel Umtiti. Below them are young guns who I don’t see as being perfectly ready for the grit of first team football. Jean-Clair Todibo is the best, a 22 year old Frenchman who is close but not there yet and could use a season on loan. Ronald Araujo is a decent Uruguayan prospect, also made available on loan but I’m just happy if he stays as ballast. We need a fourth good one. I go for Pau Torres, the 25 year old Spanish international at Villarreal. He’s someone I lusted after at Napoli. He wasn’t affordable then, but he is now. £57 million is the fee for his services.

In defensive midfield, Barca showcase the two Busquets brothers. Sergio is approaching the back-end of an illustrious career. Oriol is wanted by Lazio, who offers £25 million for him. In my view, I’d rather loan him out, but the Romans are prepared to give him first team regularity, which I never would, so that seals his exit. I go for Florentino Luis as the long-term pick. The Benfica man has a minimum fee release clause of £50 million, and at 22 can operate at the top level for a long time. The deal is done, completed easily because people want to play for us.

The other first teamer I sell off is Adnan Januzaj. Barca already have some bloke called Lionel Messi who operates perfectly from the right wing, with Ousmane Dembele an ideal alternative choice, and Pedri and Akhomach serving as our youthful options. Januzaj, now a long way from the rabbit in the headlights bairn he was under David Moyes’s brief, unhappy stint at Manchester United, was brought in by Koeman in 2021 and barely used. He paid £38 million for the Belgian. We recoup two million less than that in moving him on to Juventus.

Pre-season is a string of bulldozer showings. Ajax, Roma, Basaksehir and Leixoes are all dispatched at an aggregate score of 14-1, and then the league calendar looms. We start at the end of July with one of the toughest tests I’ll face – an away day at Atletico Madrid – before the calendar begins in earnest. You’ll recall that this is the season that will take two months off in the middle for the winter World Cup. Either side of that is a schedule that runs to the very end of May.

Unless something dramatic happens in the month between now and the end of the transfer window, like for instance I make the bizarre decision to rescue Cristiano Ronaldo from his hell in free agency (Juve released him), the squad will not change much from where it stands presently. It looks like this – homegrown (trained in Spain) players are shaded green; homegrown (trained at club) in blue:

Glory Hunter – Napoli: Summer 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Neapolitans entering the final years of their contracts are Koulibaly, Asenjo and De Sciglio. The veteran keeper pretty much accepts the same terms again for another season. De Sciglio demands enough to put me off from offering him anything, and Kouli is still cross with me after I accepted a Manchester United bid for him last summer. It was a lot of money, in truth, however I’m sure this will all be ironed out once he simmers down, given that his love of the club is so fervent that the incident has put him in a year long sulk.

The gap between the wages that we currently pay and the budget ceiling is nearly engulfed as a string of players demand new deals. Their demands are actually fair enough, I feel, even though sorting out the contracts means we have more people on six-figure weekly salaries and, in Fabian’s case, we are splashing out £170,000 per week for his services. That’s the price of stardom for you. The trouble is that it was a case of doing this or probably losing the guy to Liverpool, and nobody wanted that. Eric Garcia’s freshly signed £120,000 weekly spends removes the £40 million release clause from his contract, and that’s important for someone who emerged as a first team player. The two main men in central defence (Kouli and Manolas) are both in their fourth decade now. Garcia is 21. He’s the future and they are not.

I’ve identified centre-forward and left-back as my priority positions to fill, beyond the usual wishlist of picking up good players wherever they emerge. I struggle to find anyone to back up Grimaldo who isn’t going to cost a pretty penny. My underhand scheme is to bring Luca Pellegrini back in for another season on loan, hope that Juve forget that he’s in his last season with them and snap him up for free in 2023. It’s a gamble, but it might just work. High quality players for the role who are prepared to rotate just aren’t lying around right now. This one could run and run.

As for strikers, I am determined not to get it wrong again. The lacklustre performances of Schik and Edouard show just how easy it is to think you’re getting a strike of capability, until to find they are faint of heart when it really matters on the field. Added to that, forwards are often expensive and it’s criminally easy to mess up while having lashed a lot of the club’s money on your mistake.

Alongside three Brazilians, I am as ever following the fortunes of Sebastiano Esposito closely. Winning six of the nine possible Under-19 Player of the Month awards in Serie A this season, scoring nineteen goals in thirty-three appearances for Sampdoria overall, it’s clear enough that he’s a complete forward of real quality, and that this very high level of talent and potential possibly makes his mother team, Internazionale, unwilling to entertain any permanent offers. So it might be one of the three Brazilians, players I’m a little reticent about as Esposito is no stranger to Serie A and they are. In any event, those Samba superstars:

  • Pedro (Flamengo) – 25 year old who has forced his way into the Brazil national side and now finds himself wanted by Chelsea and Manchester City. While the asking price could be as little as £17 million, his agent informs me that Pedro would require Napoli’s squad to be improved significantly before he would even consider signing for us. Bloody cheek.
  • Brenner (Sao Paulo) – he’s broken into their first team at 22, scoring eighteen from twenty-seven appearances and he’s now on the shopping list of various outfits. He’s gettable, but the striker’s perception of himself could put him in direct opposition with Osimhen over who is the preferred first choice. I’m not certain that he’s worth the hassle.
  • Marcos Leonardo (Santos) – the teenage option, a tender 19 who’s attracting longing looks from Manchester United and Atletico Madrid. The youngster has simply been a goal-scoring phenomenon at Santos and I am advised to sign him at any price. This, incidentally, is around the £15 million mark, so he’s affordable, but again he expects to treat the San Paolo as a stepping stone, a showcase for his talents, and that makes him a risk.

Questions, questions, ones that will need answers. In the meantime, Empoli accept a request from Samuele Ricci to go on the transfer list. They haven’t achieved promotion, and so the 20 year old midfielder – one of Italy’s most exciting young talents – wants to go elsewhere. The deep lying playmaker is definitely one for the future, but what a future, and we can get him for £7.5 million, which seems like a reasonable price for someone who should develop into a top player for club and country. The scouts identify 17 year old Bruno Coutinho, currently with Braga, as a great prospect. A ball playing defender who is yet to make a first team appearance, it’s his bravery along with high physical levels that are qualities upon which to build. £1.2 million will do the trick, a tiny gamble for a possible future star.

Tottenham’s attentions on Eljif Elmas convert into actual cash money offers. I knock them up to £53 million before accepting. It will mean seeing off a good and very promising midfielder, but losing him should allow me to go after someone I really want – Milan’s Ismael Bennacer, available it seems for about half the Elmas bid. Bennacer, an Algerian international who has been used sparingly at the San Siro, ticks all the boxes, not least his complete knowledge of Serie A, and selling Elmas is the route to bringing him in.

I believe that my efforts to sell Hirving Lozano are a non-starter until Lazio, still without a manager, show up with a straight £40 million offer. Thanks, we’ll take it! Again, I have someone in mind. The player I would like to replace him is Allan Saint-Maximin, part of the Newcastle side that’s just been relegated. ASM looks like a match winner, and I think he will fit really well within the Napoli set-up. The chance of a fresh start in a different country ought to be really appetising to him.

So that’s where we’re at currently, in the middle of June as the players are on their holidays. Then I get the call from the Nou Camp. They want to interview me for the Barcelona job. I agree to all the things they demand, mainly not wanting anything to be done by the board nor replacing the Director of Football, and then I’m offered the post of manager. At Barcelona. And without further ado I’m off to work at one of the world’s biggest and most impressive set-ups.

Glory Hunter – Napoli 2021/22: The Squad

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

A review of the boys who entertained you through another exciting and ultimately successful season…

1. Alex Meret
Age – Nationality: 25 –  (1 cap)
Current Value: £43 million (£14.25m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 54 (0) – 37
Average Rating: 7.09
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Should be considered a leading Serie A player
By now, Alex is undisputed wielder of Napoli’s goalkeeping gloves, performing above average in every key area (especially in the paltry number of goals – 17 – he conceded in all competitions). Happy at the San Paolo and in love with me (it’ll never work out), Alex is being offered a new contract to keep him in my favour. Another good year’s work.

2. Giovanni Di Lorenzo
Age – Nationality: 28 – (22 caps)
Current Value: £45 million (£26.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Right Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 40 (0) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 7.18
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Good timing in the challenge
A high level and consistent season, the injury breaks of 2020/21 seemingly a thing of the past as Gio raised his level to that of being a regular fixture for club and country, and earned a new contract in the process. He enjoys a big match, is still improving as a player, and while his attacking work wasn’t as emphatic as it had been he made up for it with consummate performances at the back. Gio was at his best when up against star players on his flank, notably Cristiano Ronaldo, who he neutralised on each occasion they opposed each other.

3. Alex Grimaldo
Age – Nationality: 26 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £34 million (£19m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Left-sided Complete Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 30 (1) – 0 – 7
Average Rating: 7.21
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Very technical
Any doubts I reserved over Alex evaporated this season, as he remained fit, played often and became much better in his providing of assists. He claimed four match balls to underline his importance to the cause, and he seems to grow in authority by the game. By now a clear first choice in his position, the harder job may be to hold on to him with the likes of Milan sniffing around, though why he would want to leave is anyone’s guess.

4. Kostas Manolas
Age – Nationality: 30 – (58 caps)
Current Value: £44.5 million (£27m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (0) – 3 – 0
Average Rating: 7.17
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a physical player
It’s no black mark against Kostas that the Garcia impact wrested him from an obvious starter’s place. The Greek international had another good season, and the arrival from Man City allowed me to rotate the pair with Koulibaly to keep all three fit and raring to go. Kostas was at his very best in January, when we were short of players and his regular partnership with Garcia maintained our gnat’s chuff tightness at the back. A steady, reliable and consistent performer.

5. Eric Garcia
Age – Nationality: 21 – (5 caps)
Current Value: £52 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 41 (2) – 5 – 2
Average Rating: 7.19
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Anticipates situations well
This season’s revelation. You never know what you’re going to get from a free signing, do you, and yet Eric turned out to be worth every bit of faith that we showed in him, playing very often and somewhat effortlessly muscling in to break up the Koulibaly-Manolas partnership at the back. A resolute and smart defender, his excellent work has propelled him into the Spanish national side and landed him with a new contract as his release clause was worth less than his current value. I think he could be good for us for many years to come.

6. Kalidou Koulibaly
Age – Nationality: 30 – (64 caps)
Current Value: £47 million (£46m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 31 (0) – 4 – 0
Average Rating: 7.15
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Strong player
Manchester United made a strong offer for Kalidou last summer. I accepted it, only for him to turn down the move and spend the time since then resenting me for trying to sell him. Ideally I want his disaffectedness to end (another ninety days apparently) and for him to sign a new contract as he is entering the final year of his current one. I think it will all end well. The Senegalese remains exactly what he was, which is a defensive titan, also the team captain, and emblematic of what we have achieved together here.

7. Eljif Elmas
Age – Nationality: 22 – (38 caps)
Current Value: £53 million (£14.75m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (10) – 6 – 5
Average Rating: 7.11
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Ability to dribble makes him a difficult player to come up against
Very much an improved job of work for a player about whom I admit I had my doubts in 2020/21. He became exactly what I hoped he would, which was to be crucial in midfield, producing an excellent personal xG/90 level and enhancing his value both to us and in terms of what he would fetch on the market. He’s wanted by Tottenham, who I should expect to meet at least what he’s worth on the market. He won’t be easily replaced, and I couldn’t always say that.

8. Fabian
Age – Nationality: 26 – (25 caps)
Current Value: £61 million (£48.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 (8) – 1 – 4
Average Rating: 6.93
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Passing ability underlines his technical prowess
What on first glance seems to be a fairly average season needs to be placed within the context that Fabian played in all of our more difficult matches. Invariably picked away from home, in the Champions League and against the best Serie A has to offer, he was very good and his overall value improved markedly. In the Liverpool games he was the most imperious Napoli presence, sparking everything that was good about us, and it’s probably this that has made him a target for Jurgen Klopp. He’s now mithering about a new contract, which will no doubt pay him at the elite level he’s attained.

9. Victor Osimhen
Age – Nationality: 23 – (29 caps)
Current Value: £52 million (£23.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Pressing Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 36 (1) – 19 – 4
Average Rating: 7.06
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has explosive pace
I’m still smarting about the outlandish amount of money we paid for Vic. Thanks to various add-ons and bonuses the fee has now risen to £68 million, and I don’t think we are done with coughing up yet as various treats are still to be activated. It’s a ruinous fee, and Vic just hasn’t been worth the outlay… That said, he had a 2021/22 that was broadly in line with his first season here, which makes for a solid couple of years’ work overall, and it doesn’t seem to matter which forward we bring in to challenge him, he always comes out on top. That speaks volumes.

11. Hirving Lozano
Age – Nationality: 26 – (62 caps)
Current Value: £47 million (£21m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left/Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 12 (14) – 9 – 0
Average Rating: 6.95
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Lack of any real strength hinders his physical presence
A season of two halves. Before his torn hamstring injury in December, Hirving was firing on all cylinders for club and country. Upon his return, all his powers appeared to have been wrested away. A ghost of the player he once was, there’s too much competition for places and other players out there who I like the look of, and my temptation is to sell him, especially as we could do so for a lot of money. Paying someone £120k per week for bobbins isn’t my idea of good value.

12. Armando Izzo
Age – Nationality: 30 – (3 caps)
Current Value: £23 million (£17.75m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Ball Playing Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 4 (1) – 2 – 0
Average Rating: 7.43
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has declined slightly
The impact made by Garcia put paid to much of what Armando could do. Our three main centre-backs all remained fit, and our back-up could do little but sit on the bench. That said, when he did get on to the field he didn’t do a lot wrong, and two goals in his five appearances is an excellent return. His status as a homegrown player, coupled with his relative happiness, makes him protected and more or less unsellable.

13. Luca Pellegrini
Age – Nationality: 23 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £7 million
Homegrown status: Trained in Nation
Position: Full-Back (Left)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (1) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 7.13
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Extremely interested in joining our club
Drafted in as a loanee from Juventus, Luca took his chances and did well with them, a technical player who could produce some levels of magic on the ball, measured by high aggression levels that earned him ten bookings. He’d love to move here permanently, however his club aren’t interested in selling him to a rival, which seems fair.

14. Odsonne Edouard
Age – Nationality: 24 – (1 cap)
Current Value: £18.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 6 (12) – 4 – 0
Average Rating: 6.72
Key Coaching Comment: ‘A peripheral figure in the squad
Before we brought in Patrik Schick Odsonne was a player I looked at to the extent of making an offer. I was put off by the high number of demands he made, and he ended up going to Borussia Dortmund instead. Barely getting to play (he was up against Haaland, in fairness), he was transfer-listed and I made the decision to draft him in on loan in January. Suffice it to say I’m happy to give him back, on paper a consistent and big game performer who rarely raised his game above the moribund. This was his chance – opportunity blown.

15. Riccardo Orsolini
Age – Nationality: 25 – (3 caps)
Current Value: £47.5 million (£13.75m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 28 (14) – 11 – 9
Average Rating: 7.24
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The player has been in a rich vein of form of late
Everyone likes a maverick. Ricci isn’t the best team player; his liking is to collect the ball and try to produce something of solo wonder, which led to as many moments of ridicule as magic. More of the latter in recent times though, as this unpredictable and exciting winger grows in confidence and stature within the set-up. I like him a lot. He’s a brilliant dribbler, and his high determination levels have made a winner of him.

16. Nikita Contini
Age – Nationality: 26 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £2.1 million (£1.2m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: N/A
Average Rating: N/A
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Leading player for most Serie C sides
Time to call it a day here. Nikita drew another blank, decent enough in non-competitive matches but far behind both Meret and Asenjo and the only reason he’s still around is to pad out the homegrown numbers. There’s no reason to keep him on the books any longer.

17. Stanislav Lobotka
Age – Nationality: 27 – (40 caps)
Current Value: £42 million (£12.25m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 19 (8) – 2 – 1
Average Rating: 6.98
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Is adept at using either foot
Stan converted to defensive midfield in the summer, alternating with Tonali and never letting us down in his new role. By the end he has commanded a more enhanced place in the side and will be awarded a new contract. A good year from a consistent performer.

18. Matteo Politano
Age – Nationality: 28 – (26 caps)
Current Value: £41.5 million (£35.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 27 (11) – 6 – 15
Average Rating: 7.31
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Displays resolute characteristics
More good work from Matteo, one of the side’s most reliable and productive players, a true team player with a bagful of assists to his name. The fans really like him, particularly his crossing ability, his great effort to be found in space, and his work on corner kicks. The battle between him and Orsolini for the right wing continues to be a good-natured and fascinating battle of wills.

19. Jeremie Boga
Age – Nationality: 25 – (20 caps)
Current Value: £32 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 8 (13) – 2 – 5
Average Rating: 7.06
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fairly poor intelligence on the football pitch
A force of nature to rival Orsolini, Jeremie was drafted in to provide quality at back-up and has probably asserted himself by now as the legitimate alternative to Insigne on the left. Wholly capable of misplacing a pass, then running back to regain control before setting off on a mazy dribble that ends in a shot, there are sure contradictions in his game, however his sheer flair and agility, coupled with dazzling pace, makes him a threat, albeit of the ‘headless chicken’ variety on occasion. On the whole, a promising start to his Napoli career.

20. Piotr Zielinski
Age – Nationality: 28 – (74 caps)
Current Value: £58 million (£29.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 32 (11) – 3 – 11
Average Rating: 7.00
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a creative player
A very good season from Piotr, who took the threat to his place from Castrovilli positively by upping his game from central midfield. Capable, sadly not all the time, of controlling matches, and able to put in some fine killer passes, the Pole is a leading Serie A player who is starting to wonder whether he should move to a bigger club. Mate, there is no bigger club. This is the place for you.

21. Gaetano Castrovilli
Age – Nationality: 25 – (8 caps)
Current Value: £38 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Advanced Playmaker/Mezzala
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 23 (22) – 4 – 6
Average Rating: 6.94
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has improved as a footballer over the last two months
Signed from Fiorentina to enhance our options in central midfield, Gaetano had little difficulty in raising his performance levels to the bigger side for which he was now playing and impressed us with his creativity. Performing above average and providing a genuine alternative to Zielinski, it was actually pairing them in the side that turned us into a killer, driving force, the Italian using his superior vision to pick out teammates and move into space. He’s an exciting player for us, and I look forward to seeing his development.

22. Sandro Tonali
Age – Nationality: 22 – (9 caps)
Current Value: £40 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 36 (3) – 2 – 3
Average Rating: 6.95
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Displays a fairly determined attitude
Sandro arrived with big shoes to fill, having to take over in defensive midfield from Bakayoko and Demme. This he did, with some aplomb. His performance levels dropped towards the business end of the season, but overall he produced good work throughout and was a clear first choice for his most pivotal of roles. His physical play was of an especially high standard, and he never stopped working. An international footballer who’s wanted by Manchester City, it’s a priority of ours that we keep him.

23. Sebastiano Luperto
Age – Nationality: 25 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £9 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 21 (0) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.69
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fringe player who could still improve
Seb has spent the second half of the campaign on loan at Bordeaux. He needs the playing time, and he’s got it, but I don’t think he has done especially well and the temptation is to quietly shuffle him out. That said, we will await his return and then assess him further. By all accounts, the promise of future capability is there.

24. Lorenzo Insigne
Age – Nationality: 30 – (55 caps)
Current Value: £50 million (£42m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)/False Nine
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 (7) – 13 – 11
Average Rating: 7.29
Key Coaching Comment: ‘First touch is key to him being a technical player
There are moments when we have threatened to be the showcase for Insigne’s talents, which sort of works because he’s central to the cause, one he would bleed for, given the need. It’s testament to the improving levels elsewhere that he gets to be what he is, which is a leading attacking force, performing consistently well and still working to improve his game at a time when many players would consider themselves to have hit their peak. The guy cares, that’s for sure, and we are the better for him.

25. Mattia De Sciglio
Age – Nationality: 29 – (39 caps)
Current Value: £17.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Full-Back (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 17 – 0 – 1
Average Rating: 7.30
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Current role model for younger players
Almost the perfect back-up player, Mattia was signed cheaply from Juventus and went on to perform well whenever he was required to give Di Lorenzo a break at right-back. Despite his lack of creativity, he did well defensively – all positive points for a fringe player acquired for £3.2 million. The sticking point is that his contract finishes in summer 2023. Mattia wants a big pay rise and to be considered a regular starter; I’m prepared to meet neither condition, so perhaps we will need to revisit this role again in a year’s time.

26. Sergio Asenjo
Age – Nationality: 32 – (1 cap)
Current Value: £5.25 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 1 – 1
Average Rating: 7.10
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fringe player in his prime years
I meant to use Sergio more often, however Meret’s sustained fitness and his exploits made the Spaniard a complete bit-part option who nevertheless seemed reliable as an aging back-up. He signed a one-year deal initially and has quickly agreed to a further season with us. He’s happy to belong. I’m pleased to have an experienced alternative.

27. Gabriel Martinelli
Age – Nationality: 20 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £23.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)/Pressing Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 3 (6) – 3 – 0
Average Rating: 7.01
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Exciting young prospect who isn’t far from first team level
Brought in on loan from Arsenal in January, while Lozano was injured, Boga was playing in the Africa Cup and Insigne was struggling with fitness. There was never any great prospect of Gabriel playing regularly, and he didn’t, though to give him his due the flexible Brazilian forced his way back into the side, emerging as a more potent forward than Edouard and preferred to Lozano on the left. That says as much for those players as it does him. Even so, three goals in nine appearances isn’t to be sniffed at, and while Arsenal’s price-tag of anything up to £89 million makes him an obvious short-term option only, we’ve definitely got something from his stay.

Glory Hunter – Napoli 2021/22 – That Was the Season That Was

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

A very satisfying season’s work from the Partenopei, with a single defeat across the entire campaign (away to Liverpool, no shame in that). The Invincible finish to Serie A actually resulted in two points fewer than what we achieved in 2020/21, those eight drawn matches against four draws and two defeats last time around. We both scored and conceded a couple more, but who’s counting? We produced a +71 goal-difference, being second highest goal-scorers masking another year of brilliance at the back. There’s a lot to be extremely happy about – winning the division and the domestic cup competition, along with making it as far as the Champions League Quarter-Final, which as it happens is historically our best record in the competition. Something to build upon, right?

Glory Hunter Progress

The Coppa Italia victory over SS Lazio unlocks Italy. After just two years my work here is complete, though I am reticent about leaving Napoli behind. The players have become my babies, well maybe not crappy Edouard, and they took on the challenge of overcoming a resurgent Juventus with some relish. As before, Serie A is a mish-mash of some very good sides and a lot of ordinary ones. Juve, Lazio and Inter play at the same level as we do. Milan and Roma aren’t far behind, and then it all becomes much more straightforward. The likes of SPAL, Benevento and Cittadella would struggle to prevail in the English Championship, and as long as we held our nerves and didn’t become too complacent the chance of padding out our points total was nearly always there.

So where next then?

Season Review

Another year featuring three trophies – Serie A, the Coppa Italia and the European Super Cup. Of my new signings, the pick is considered to be Eric Garcia. The board are delirious with this one, a 21 year old Spaniard signed from Manchester City for gratis, playing 43 games for a 7.19 average rating. Over the course of the term Eric became more highly prized than Manolas, easing into second place – behind the inevitable Koulibaly – in our ranking of the team’s centre-backs. The only negative is that he signed with a £40 million release clause, and he is currently valued at £52 million. A contract offer will be winging his way.

Of the rest, Matteo Politano (signed permanently) and Matteo De Sciglio were unqualified successes. Pellegrini, Boga, Tonali and Castrovilli all did pretty well. Sergio Asenjo hardly got a look-in, though he didn’t expect to and I fully intend to offer him another year’s deal. Gabriel Martinelli joined on loan in January and did a fine job either on the left wing or in attack, contributing three goals in nine appearances, but Odsonne Edouard ended up being a bit of a stinker. He replaced Patrik Schick, the black mark on my transfer record. The search for an alternative striker to Osimhen goes on; at the moment, I look as though I have dropped a clanger in letting Dries Mertens leave.

Average home attendances have grown. While the San Paolo continues to play to less then capacity crowds, which annoys me, the overall average – 42,677, or 77% – is an improvement. Better still, player wages now only account for 44% of our turnover, a considerable drop on the 61% we posted in 2021. This is good. It’s for this reason that the board are being more generous with their budgets, giving me £60 million to spend on transfers and an increase in wage allowances. The latter is likely to be quickly eaten away with a raft of new contracts, as Fabian, Di Lorenzo, Lobotka, Orsolini and Meret are all seeking improved deals. They deserve them too.

Fortunately, this can be offset against a larger set of financial bonuses. Most notably, competition prize income has increased considerably, a £30 million rise as we were lavished with £77.74 million across the tournaments in which we were involved. The Champions League is an enormous money-spinner. Despite not getting as far in it as we did in the Europa League, which we won as you’ll recall, what it earns is far in excess and the club will hope to progress here.

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Here’s our best eleven across the term. At the back, you could just as easily have swapped Manolas for Kouliably, however it’s probably the latter’s loss in January for the African Cup of Nations that removed him from the selection. Alongside Osimhen and Insigne, only Orsolini hit the ten-goal mark, scoring eleven, however Politano probably deserves his inclusion for a more consistent season. The pair are interchangeable and bring different qualities to the table. The older of the two, Politano is a more considered and smart baller, ever looking for openings, while Orsolini is still a bit of a blunt force. You never know what’s going to happen when he’s on the ball, but it will end more often than not with an effort on goal. Sometimes, it works.

Of the awards, Lorenzo Insigne wins Player of the Year. I agree with this. It’s encouraging that we never turned into the Insigne Show, despite the winger’s importance and sterling effort levels. He broke a team record, earning ten man of the match awards across the campaign. Alex Meret shattered his own record for clean sheets, amassing thirty-seven, which is somewhat incredible. Eric Garcia is an obvious signing of the season; he also snaps up the young player award. Victor Osimhen is our top scorer with nineteen; it could have been more but for his Africa Cup exploits. With a strong fifteen assists, Matteo Politano was our most creative player.

Eli Martin of SPORTbible writes ‘Napoli have been brilliant since day one; their early-season football was a joy to watch, and they’re deserved champions.’ Our friend, Claudio Zanchetti from the Italian Football Free Press, has this to say – ‘Napoli flew out of the traps and set themselves up for the title many fancied them to win.’

The Wider World and Available Jobs

Elsewhere in Italia, Simone Inzaghi is dismissed – a little harshly, I reckon – by Lazio, and Verona are looking for a new gaffer after sacking Ivan Juric. They finished seventeenth, broadly as well as they were tipped to do, so again this seems a bit unfair. Torino (relegated), Juventus and Fiorentina are in what are considered to be precarious or insecure relations with their managers.

Manchester United retain the English Premier League by a margin of seven points over Liverpool. Bruno Fernandes is their main man. The Scousers make up for this reverse by claiming the Champions League, putting three past Chelsea in the final to win 3-0. In France, Mbappe’s twenty-five goals help Paris Saint-Germain to excitingly seal another Ligue Un Uber Eats. Lyon finish a distant second, fourteen points behind, however the league looks increasingly like the Parisiennes’ personal fiefdom. They’re inspired by a superb season from Mbappe, Neymar and Mahrez, and with a perceived lack of obvious firepower go out and spend £90 million on Erling Haaland. I’m genuinely not sure why they need him. The loss of Haaland to France is Bayern Munich’s gain. Another Bundesliga win, with Monchengladbach finishing second to make it a Munich-based wrapping up of the top two places. Dortmund are third. In Spain, Real Madrid do the double of La Liga and the Europa League. It’s a impressive job of work, racking up 102 points to leave Atletico Madrid and Barcelona trailing some way behind.

Available top flight jobs:

  • England – Newcastle (relegated, no thank you, though I do think that given Italy’s geo-politics Napoli are sort of the Newcastle of Serie A – still, no)
  • France – Amiens SC
  • Germany – none
  • Spain – Barcelona, Real San Sebastian

Personal Development

I have a four star rating, very good apparently, with the hope of progressing from the £36.5k weekly salary I’m drawing at the San Paolo. A lot of players earn considerably more than I do, making my charge of millionaire footballers occasionally a bit rich, if not downright embarrassing. I can now speak Italian fluently, and am considered excellent in media handling and managing finances, and very good at tactical consistency and handling team discipline. My career statistics are also worth a look:

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Glory Hunter – Napoli: May 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

We make heavy work of Sampdoria up in Genoa, drawing 1-1 after a bad-tempered effort that’s low on incident and the board’s ever-demanding wish for excitement. Still, it’s enough to land the Serie A title in our laps. Gianluca Caprari fires them in front before the break, a consequence of building nerves as we totally fail to deal with Jankto’s incisive assist. This one’s on Garcia, a rare lapse in concentration from the Spaniard who, in fairness, is still a bairn. In the second half we roar back, making a series of changes, including the decisive one of swapping Fabian for Castrovilli to enhance our attacking options. The Italian lays off for Piotr Zielinski’s virtuous equaliser with seventeen minutes remaining on the clock, and then we continue to press the home team until the final whistle.

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Job done. We retain the league crown, after being forced to be more competitive with Juventus ever breathing down our necks. The following weekend we are entertaining AS Roma, a happy occasion as there’s a celebratory atmosphere in the stands and little sense of pressure. The side from the capital could make life hard for us. They turn up with a sterling midfield containing Pellegrini and Veretout; Zaniolo is playing at number ten, Kluivert in attack. They’re weirdly porous at the back, however, and a number of their stars’ potency is rendered useless as we put two quick goals past them, Gabriel Martinelli and Kalidou Koulibaly netting in a two-minute, second-half blitz to seal the victory. The slack-jawed performance of Odsonne Edouard makes it clear that he will not be dirtying our halls again after the end of the season. For some reason, his transfer-listed status at Dortmund leads to a string of questions about his ability to play his way off said list while with us. I don’t care. It isn’t my problem, and quite frankly I can see why he’s on it.

A number of players who wouldn’t normally be considered as regular starters – De Sciglio, Elmas, Lobotka, etc – play against Roma to keep us fresh for midweek. It’s time for the finale of the Coppa Italia, in which we are taking on Lazio. The blue half of Rome are in third place, almost certainly Italy’s best representatives behind our good selves and the bad selves of Juventus. They turn up to this one with several players who we really admire. Ciro Immobile is having another potent season in attack, scoring at a steady rate of one in two. Alongside him, the Argentinian attacker Joaquin Correa is a tricky customer, while both are serviced with high quality midfield talent in the shape of Sergei Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto. They’re good, no doubt there, but so are we.

Though being contested at Lazio’s ground, the Olimpico, we are the home side for this game. We’re favourites also. Close to a capacity crowd turns up for the occasion. It’s chucking down but mild, good spring conditions, and the action is sparing. While we make the lion’s share of attacking moves, Lazio foul their way through. Cataldi and Milinkovic-Savic earn first-half yellows, the latter locked in a personal battle with Fabian that the Spaniard frets over because he’s aware that they are both just about the best players on the pitch and he doesn’t want to fail. Early in the second period, he at last gets the better of the Serb, giving him the slip when collecting a Grimaldo throw-in. Fabian launches a lovely pass forward, to Victor Osimhen, who beats the offside trap and launches a vicious volley past Strakosha. It’s the only goal of the match, and a very good bit of quality from both players involved in it. Lazio do little in response, and we’ve won the Italian Cup.

Two more league games, and the minor landmark of an Invincibles season to play for. The tougher of the tests is an away day at Inter Milan. The home team are fighting for Champions League qualification, so this one matters. If we are ever to lose a game in the division then this one looks like being it, especially when Kostas Manolas is dismissed for a grisly challenge on Barella in the forty-third minute. At that stage the tie is tightly poised at 1-1. Romelu Lukaku and Victor Osimhen have traded goals. They’ve had the upper hand throughout, however, and without Manolas a hard afternoon is suddenly looking impossible. There’s nothing for it now but to defend. A lot. Fabian makes way for Koulibaly, and the second half becomes a Blitzkrieg as we work to keep Inter from adding to their account. As always at these moments, Alex Meret in goal shows his quality, keeping out shots from Lukaku, Malen and the enterprising Barella to ensure a 1-1 result. Defending is what we are best at, and we show why that’s the case at the Giuseppe Meazza.

The calendar finishes with Torino at home. Dead last in Serie A and officially relegated a couple of weeks ago, the Bull are considerably less bullish without the goals of Belotti. It’s in something of a party atmosphere as we romp to a 3-0 win, a double from Victor Osimhen before Riccardo Orsolini fires in our third.

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The final table looks like this. The points margin over Juve makes it look as though reclaiming the title was easy; it wasn’t. The Old Lady dropped off when the pressure was at its highest level, surprisingly losing to SPAL in May and finishing with an insipid draw against Bologna. Mauricio Pochettino is lucky to still be in a job.

Elsewhere, Ronald Koeman has been sacked by Barcelona. This is by some distance the most appealing of the available assignments in other divisions, and with no little sense of hope I send off my application. Italy is done. I could aim for cutting deeper into the Champions League with Napoli. We are moving into an elite level of European football, with the financial picture improving and good players becoming stars, but with the Coppa Italia added to my record I have a right to consider taking the next step within the Glory Hunter challenge.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: April 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

If Champions League qualification is what we’re after, then there should be no easier way to nail it than with a home game against SPAL. In seventeenth position but probably having racked up just enough points to avoid the drop, this has all the makings of easy pickings. I field a lot of my back-up players here, keeping my powder dry for the trip to Anfield in midweek. That means starts for the likes of Izzo and De Sciglio, and Lozano making his long-awaited return at last. The Mexican scored five goals in a 10-0 demolition of Nicaragua during the break, and that would suggest he’s ready for this.

As it turns out, Lozano’s comeback game is edgy and riddled with nerves. He does well enough because, y’know, it’s SPAL, but there’s a certain effervescence missing from his game. He won’t last the ninety. After making hard work of soft opposition, perhaps realising what’s on the line here, ill discipline finally gets the better of the visitors when Strefezza fells Odsonne Edouard in the area. There was little need. The Frenchman hasn’t exactly clicked for us so far. Still, he makes simple enough work of the resulting penalty, sending Berisha the wrong way. A muscular Armando Izzo header from Boga’s free kick later in the game settles the score at 2-0. As usual, it might have been better, but poor finishing (Edouard fluffing his lines, Lozano fretful) keeps the scoreline down to a conservative level.

With Europe in the bag, I am advised of my initial budgets for next year. They’re good, so much better than what we were dealing with last summer. The weekly spend on wages has been increased to just under £2.9 million, but it’s the £60.9 million I’ve been handed to lavish on transfers that really pleases me. At last, I don’t need to rely on wheeling and dealing as I’ve had to do so far. I’m reminded that Pellegrini and Edouard are here on loan and will have to be replaced. Permanent solutions at left-back and up-front are my top priorities.

Also arriving at the top of my inbox is the news that this year’s youth candidates are here to be evaluated. I was previously advised not to expect a vintage clutch of future talent, and they weren’t kidding, however 15 year old centre-back Simone Gatti looks like he knows the right direction to move in, and that’s something. I fire off a quick contract offer to a boy who could turn out to be half-decent.

Liverpool next, who obviously look totally brilliant. You may recall me starting this adventure with a friendly against them, a ‘backs against the wall’ exercise as they tore into us. I hoped then that when next we met the odds would be more even, and I guess now’s the time to find out. They have Lautaro Martinez playing in attack, a wonderful striker signed from Inter in summer 2021 for £73 million. He’s a handful, however their real strength is behind the Argentinian, Salah and Mane promising to give my full-backs one hell of a handling job.

They show their hand early when Sadio Mane fires them into an early lead, one of those incisive finishes from someone who knows how to find and exploit space so well. My defenders, normally so accomplished, aren’t used to seeing work carried out so quickly. We’re shell-shocked. Not long after that Grimaldo puts in a meaty challenge on Alexander-Arnold that results in broken ribs and will ensure he can’t figure in the return. A horrible way to go, but good lad Alex. We’re marshalled out of the attacking areas completely. Insigne, Politano and Osimhen are anonymous, and when I replace all three after the break the results are only slightly better. Our best comes from an Orsolini shot. Shut down by Virgil and his mates, his effort goes wide, quite a bit wide in fact, but it’s better than anything we’ve produced to that point. It finishes 1-0, and it could have been worse given how contained we were.

After that debacle, travelling to Bologna should be a reprieve. Sinisa Mihajlovic has guided them to sixth position, a good season, however we’re favourites for this one, even if I’m having to rotate once again. Worryingly, this doesn’t go to plan. We can afford to drop a point or two, and the draw we crawl to only reduces our margin over Juve to six points, but my feeling is that despite changing the side we should be winning at the Renato Dall’Ara. Instead, it’s 1-1. Edouard hits a penalty kick straight at the keeper, before Musa Barrow sucker punches us, and we then spend the majority of the game trying to find a way back. On the hour mark Victor Osimhen finally equalises. We pummel Bologna, giving Skorupski the football equivalent of playing in a hailstorm (of shots), but ultimately it finishes as a draw. Not good enough. I’m especially displeased with Edouard, who we’re paying handsomely for not much return. His diffidence in front of goal concerns me so much that I am tempted to start using Martinelli instead. Of the others who let me down here, Lozano is having a poor comeback from injury. My patience with him isn’t endless. The Mexican is valued at £40 million and is sporadically wanted by other teams. Is it time to consider cashing in…?

Back to the Champions League and the return fixture against Liverpool. Given the personnel amendments that pulled up short in Bologna, there’s a part of me hoping our European adventure ends here. To my mind, we aren’t strong enough to rotate to the extent that we are, and we need those top players to help the cause in Serie A, to drag us over the line. A resurgent Juventus doesn’t help. Sure, it’s good to have the tension of a competitive run-in. Last year we won the division by a margin of twenty-two points, great for us yet less exciting for fans of Italian football, and the Pochettino-inspired Old Lady roaring back into contention makes me concerned that we could choke it at some stage. We have Roma at home and an away day at Inter to come in May, so the banana skins are very much ahead of us.

Still, we’ll give it our best at the San Paolo. Sadio Mane again gives Liverpool an early lead, a disappointing goal to concede as we have been testing Alisson at the other end and get caught on a counter-attack. Shortly after, Grimaldo picks out Victor Oshimen with a long ball. The striker holds off the attentions of Virgil and volleys his shot home to make it 1-1, but that turns out to be it from us. The visitors have a world class defence and are not afraid to use it. Despite emerging with the majority of shots and Insigne spilling his life blood in trying to rouse us into winning the contest, I think in the end we went out to a better team, and there’s no shame in that. At least I got to see Grimaldo win his personal battle with Salah, and we now get to concentrate on Serie A. Despite losing, we are awarded £9.59 million for reaching the Quarter-Final. The game also becomes a new gate receipts record. The £2.2 million we rake in from this one shows where the real money is at. We’ll come back better, harder, stronger.

After that, it’s incumbent on us to get back to winning ways in Italy. Fiorentina are the visitors, and we beat them 3-1, a scoreline that doesn’t quite reflect the superiority that we show here. Lorenzo Insigne bags two in a sublime display of attacking intent. His corner kick is headed in by Eric Garcia, the defender’s fifth of the season, and there’s also time for Felipe Caicedo to keep us honest with a tap-in after a sustained spell of Viola pressure. It’s a morale-boosting victory. That said, when your visitors’ main threat comes from Jesse Lingard then I guess the writing is on the wall (editor’s note – clearly this was written before Lingard became the new Cantona for West Ham; still, the comment stands).

We’re off to Cagliari in midweek, knowing that we can now finish no lower than second. Doing this would be a real shame, of course, but Juve have forgotten how to lose and we need to carrying on gathering the points. In a low-key affair, we win via the penalty spot, when Lorenzo Insigne is scythed down in the area. He nets the resulting spot-kick, and that’s about it. We’ve been compelled into putting Edouard into the team as Osimhen took a slight knock against Fiorentina. He does nothing. Lozano comes on in the second half and there might as well have been a big empty space in his zone. But we win, which is what counts, and even better news comes from Turin, where Lazio have produced a 1-0 away win.

April finishes with a home game against Sassuolo. We win 2-0 against a decent but perfunctory opponent. Victor Osimhen scores from a delightful Elmas through-ball, and then Riccardo Orsolini volleys in something of a worldy, a strike so good that it elevates him to Man of the Match status. The visitors are game yet limited. They get themselves into promising positions without being able to deliver a final product, ultimately generating one shot, almost an insult to a keeper with Meret’s calibre, whilst at the other end we constantly test the keeper. Props here go the Jeremie Boga, named in the starting line-up against his former employers, and to Eric Garcia who puts in an excellent tackle in our area to deny Berardi.

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Juventus go to the San Siro and are turned over 3-1 by AC Milan. The situation therefore becomes surprisingly simple going into the final month. Claim a single point from any of our remaining matches and we have won Serie A. Hopefully we can do it quickly. May also contains the final of the Italian Cup, tucked away neatly in midweek, betwixt difficult fixtures against Roma and Inter, so getting our league business out of the way before we complete this most important of matches will be a big bonus.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: March 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Twelve fixtures remain in Serie A, three of which will be played in March as the international break cuts into the schedule. As it has been for much of the campaign the title’s destination remains a tightly poised affair. We’re in control of our destiny. Win them all and there’s nothing anyone can do, but Juventus are lurking on our coattails to take advantage of any slip-ups. We’ve conceded four fewer goals than them, however they have scored eight more, and this may end up counting when it comes to the final analysis, even though ultimately I believe we will be sorted on how we have performed against each other. Score a victory at the San Paolo against them and it will matter.

A key week in our destiny opens with an away day at AC Milan. The Rossoneri have been disappointing and sit in tenth place, however they did well against us in 2020/21 and have just appointed a new manager in Luis Enrique. Who knows how he will line them up…? The Old Lady is entertaining Benevento in Turin, which ought to result in a thwacking, but instead they’re forced to a 1-1 stalemate, sluggishly conceding a late equaliser by centre-back Nikolaos Michelis. I’d be happy with a draw at the San Siro.

Victor Osimhen puts us in front after seventeen minutes, a placed shot from twenty-one yards out arising from Tonali’s assist and something special to beat a keeper as good as Donnarumma. It’s the striker’s tenth of the season, a statistic with which I’m a little disappointed. Milan try to haul themselves back into it after this, putting together some lovely passing moves that force us to be at our best to defy them, even though they’re starting Batshuayi and it’s a bit like dealing with the potency of a soft kitten. Early in the second period Enrique gets this and replaces the Belgian with Zlatan. Even in his mid-seventies and with all the pace of an old banger that I remember once owning with affection, he is by far the trickier opponent, using all his wiles to make life hard for my defenders. But we hold. Calhanoglu is suspended for the home side, which makes our lives easier, and late on Matteo Politano nets from a direct free-kick to guarantee the points.

We aren’t at our best in the San Siro. Our set-piece play is particularly disappointing, corner kicks that are ordinarily such a steady source of goals invariably being broken up and sparking opposition counters. The implication here is that Milan are a lot better than their league position. Thankfully, we have completed our games against them now. I suspect they will end the season strongly.

Before entertaining Juve we are completing the Zenit St Petersburg tie, one that is wide open after we played out a 0-0 in Russia. We should get through, indeed we need to as the board expects us to reach the Quarter-Final, however it looks as though we might just mess it up when Martin Merquelanz scores from a counter-attack, classically after breaking up a Napoli corner. I switch our focus to an attacking one and then watch as Piotr Zielinski then puts on a rare show of his outstanding brilliance. The Pole scores two and makes another, Lorenzo Insigne and Victor Osimhen finding the back to the net to seal an emphatic 4-1 win. All good stuff, though Zielinski’s superb display makes me a little depressed that he gets to strut his funky stuff so infrequently.

Beating Zenit adds £8.68 million to the coffers, and now we have to wait another week for the other ties to be played and then to learn who we’ll be facing next. At this stage, any draw involves difficult times, but I would prefer to avoid Bayern or Liverpool, if the gods of football would be so kind.

The scouts are falling over each other to recommend Pedro, a 24 year old Brazilian striker who currently plays for Flamengo. Wanted by Chelsea and Manchester City, and netting twenty from twenty-four appearances in 20/21, he’s considered to be the next big thing in the sort of delirious tones that they once reserved for the likes of Adriano and Pato. Even better is his availability, the possibility that he will cost less than £20 million, and in my mind is our vacancy in attack. Schick has gone. Edouard is here on loan and with a (very, very, very) remote possibility that he will become a permanent addition, so the simply named Pedro Guilherme Abreu dos Santos might just fit the bill. Other prospects, who wouldn’t cost more than a small nation’s GDP, include Gabriel Barbosa (also at FLA), Sebastiano Esposito (Inter unlikely to sell one of their brightest prospects), Karim Benzema (golden oldie who is leaving on a free in the summer) and Lyon’s Moussa Dembele (with doubts that he would add anything that we lack currently).

Bayern see off Juventus in their tie, meaning all that latter now have to play for is the league. Our game against the Old Lady at the weekend is my one hundredth in charge of the Partenopei, a milestone that doesn’t mean very much, but I have an 80% win percentage to maintain and victory at the San Paolo would be priceless. I’m warned to keep tabs on Ronaldo (thanks for that, Dr Obvious), though obviously the high-scoring legend is only the most illustrious within a series of attacking options that are straight out of the top drawer.

We’ve already beaten them in the Coppa Italia, a tie decided at home when the Old Lady didn’t even get going until the match was largely beyond them, and they do the same here. This one is decided by good concentration levels. A couple of our early moves that are broken up and lead to near misses resolve our minds. We keep good possession, remain patient in looking for openings while the players work hard to put themselves into space. Victor Osimhen opens for us. Before the half is out Matteo Politano (clear choice for man of the match) has us two-up, a lead we never look like losing. Juve are strangely toothless. Ronaldo is closely watched by Di Lorenzo. Dybala comes on and does nothing, possibly thinking about his potential move to Manchester United. They seem content to collect bookings and for Cuadrado to get himself removed with an ankle injury. Danilo comes on, which is no one’s idea of a poor substitution, but on the whole Juve are rubbish. This is an important victory. There are ten games left to play, and we have an eight-point lead.

Lazio’s defeat to Chelsea means we are the only Italian side left in the Champions League. Things here suddenly become very serious. We are drawn against Liverpool, which is rough enough, but in the unlikely event we prevail here then Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain awaits in the Semi-Final. The Pool might be third in the Premier League, eight points distant of Man You who are sailing away with the title, but they remain a formidable side to plan for. The dream may very well end here.

We’re travelling to Hellas Verona ahead of the international calendar, which will wrap up our March schedule. Juve demolish Udinese to sustain the pressure. After downing the Old Lady and Milan, this game feels like the softer one, but it’s in exactly these scenarios that we tend to take our eyes off the ball. Concentration, please. You’ve dealt with Ronaldo; Nikola Kalinic should be easy enough in contrast.

Verona are torn apart, deconstructed surgically, but you wouldn’t know it from the scoreline, which is the classic 1-0 to the Napoli. Lorenzo Insigne bags our first-half goal in another impressive outing for the talisman, and Orsolini also comes in for praise, which he deserves after playing well to show Mancini – who’s dropped him from the Italy squad – that’s he’s worth it. The home team go into fouling mode, getting in the way and felling whoever happens to be getting the better of them, and they do enough to keep us from causing any further damage. Garcia gets a second, which is quickly called back for offside, a decision made on inches.

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Not that it really matters. We’ve retained our lead over the Old Lady, and we can now finish no lower than fifth. One more victory – hopefully over SPAL after the internationals are done with – and Champions League football in 2022/23 will be guaranteed.