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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.
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.