Glory Hunter – Barcelona: October 2022

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

Another packed month, which takes in an international break once we have completed the home match against Sevilla. Real, Ajax and PSG all lie in wait this month, with a tightly contested scenario in La Liga and the Champions League group both to be resolved. At the end of October the league calendar takes a break until January, while we all sit back to enjoy the winter World Cup and keeping our fingers crossed that the Barca players taking part in it don’t get too battered and bruised in the desert.

Sevilla first. They’re in lower mid-table, for once not playing in their traditional personal fiefdom of the Europa League and now managed by former Man City and Italy boss, Roberto Mancini. He can call on Ivan Rakitic, who once dominated our midfield before old age took over and he was doled out to play his waning years for Los Nervionenses. As though specifically aiming to put some of our sluggish performances behind us, we end up winning 4-0 in this one. I field Pedri on the left wing, basically because I want to promote one of the more promising Barca kids, and he responds with two goals to crown a shining performance. Sevilla fail to deal with his superb dribbling, and while trying to keep eyes on Messi, Kane, Moriba and de Jong they similarly prove unable to cope when Florentino Luis launches a terrific long shot to beat the keeper, and they then fell Lionel Messi in the area to allow Little God to cap off a good day’s work from the penalty spot.

A brilliant performance, and a good feeling to take into the latest Interlull. Hector Bellerin has played his way back into the Spanish national team. Pedri isn’t selected, and I see it as a personal mission to play him as often as I can to stake his claim. If the youngster’s presence comes at the expense of Coutinho then that’s fine by me. The choice on the left is between two Barca prodigies and the Brazilian, and I know who I want to move forward with.

Spain beats Serbia 3-0 with a side containing five Barca stars – Torres, Bellerin, Sergi, Busquets and Fati – and the board announce that a small stadium expansion is now complete. We can now play host to 104,000 supporters, which will hopefully transform the Camp Nou into an even louder cauldron of noise. The difference between this place and Napoli’s San Paolo is pronounced. It’s never far from full, a massive degree of Catalan loyalty that we are all keen to repay on the pitch.

Not that we get to do so on the other side of the international schedule. We have to complete the single hardest fixture of the calendar, an away day at the Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid. Barca’s record against their bitter rivals over the past two seasons isn’t good. We haven’t won a single game, and while that didn’t matter in 2020/21, last season it was part of an effort that handed the title to the team that plays in white. It’s on me to try and change things, to reclaim the Classico.

Real are now managed by Maurizio Sarri, who guided them to La Liga glory in the summer. Some of their stars have left in that time (Odegaard, Valverde, Locatelli) and of course the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo sits atop everything, but they’ve been busy. Bastoni, Fekir, Wijndal, Brenner and Dalot are all in. They have started the campaign in slightly slower fashion than we have, but they aren’t far behind and my temptation is the measure our progress against theirs. Essentially, stay ahead of them and we won’t be going far wrong.

The first half of the Classico at the Bernabeu looks like living up to its billing. Real take a quick 2-0 lead via Casemiro and Mariano, but we begin to claw our way back and by the break Antoine Griezmann and Milan Skriniar have levelled the game. It’s so finely poised, so tense that I need to walk away from it for a little while before accepting the responsibility of seeing it out. Very early in the second half, we concede a free-kick about thirty yards from our goal, which gives Nabil Fekir the licence to fire in a spectacular effort. Driven to find yet another equaliser, we instead end up conceding a fourth, Vinicius Junior netting from a breezy counter-attack. We lose 4-2.

It’s a disappointing result to take, especially as we have dominated the game and ultimately go down to Real’s superior cutting edge. We are especially bad at the back, a top class defence looking quite amateurish, but the villain for us is Coutinho, who is kept in the pocket of Dalot. Fati does slightly better when he comes on, but my thoughts regarding the Brazilian are beginning to turn to considerations over his exit. Two Barca products – Fati and Pedri – just look more lively for us, so do we really need Philippe, even though the prospect of parting ourselves from his massive value and enormous contract will make him a difficult sell? Is he just an albatross for us? On the upside, Lionel Messi plays really well, yet this just makes me angrier. We are supposed to be moving away from relying on a club legend to make our waves, but he looks like one of the rare players who actually cares about trying to win this match.

At least we have now played all three of our main contenders – the two Madrid clubs and Valencia – away from home in the league now. When next we meet in La Liga it will be at the Camp Nou, presumably a different story for us. A run of matches played in Catalonia will complete our October. We start with a Champions League clash against Ajax, for whom Jasper Cillessen has become an ogre of a keeper, expanding to twice his size whenever we bear down on his goal. We should have the capacity to pummel them and we do, but the result is a vexing 1-0, Lionel Messi netting from a beautiful passing move in which his close playing relationship with Sergi Roberto is an absolute advantage. I guess it takes something special to beat Cillessen, and this is exactly that.

Eibar next, a game against a Basque side that is rooted to the foot of the table. The fact they have remained stubbornly in La Liga since 2014 is to their considerable credit, however it ought to be a scenario of men against boys, and we end up with a 5-0 victory. Pedri scores a couple of early goals to advance his credentials, before Milan Skriniar heads in from a classic set-piece and Bruno Guimaraes bags his first. Edouard Exposito gets himself sent off after that for collecting two yellow cards in quick succession. This wraps up a miserable afternoon for the midfielder, who listens from the changing room as Jordi Alba drives in a spectacular fifth for us. This is what I want to see, a complete performance. Bruno claims the match ball, but I am pleased with the work of Ousmane Dembele, on to give Messi the day off and providing two assists as part of an enterprising outing.

We can guarantee qualification from our Champions League group if we win our next match, however Paris Saint-Germain are the slight obstacle standing in our way. They beat us 1-0 in France and we do exactly the same to them here. Harrington Kane does the honours, a depressingly rare instance of him finding the net (I expected a free-scoring escapade from Day One, quite honestly). Skriniar is impressive in this one. His work leads Haaland to have an evening of absolute anonymity, which is all I could ever ask of him. PSG supply the fouls, earning three bookings as their inability to make an impression here descends into entitled thuggery.

Sporting Gijon (pronounced, I believe, Hee-Hon) are a higher standard of opposition than Eibar, but once again I’m expecting a win here, and I select an attacking side to get just that. Pedri puts in another enterprising job of work, taking less than a minute before putting us a goal ahead. Before the first twenty minutes are up, Torres claims that he’s pushed in the area during a corner kick and we get a penalty, which Harrington Kane duly dispatches. The star man here is Ousmane Dembele. Later in the game, he sets off on a solo run from deep in our half, which only ends when he’s placed his shot beyond the keeper to complete an outing of some potency. For the visitors there’s only pain. They don’t get so much as a shot on our goal, and are effectively hamstrung when attacking midfielder Pelayo Morilla tears his midway through the first half. I get some pelters for the level of squad rotation I do, but here’s why. Field the same players week in, week out, and watch the injury count ratchet up.

It’s a positive end to the first portion of our season, with domestic matters now taking a breather as the World Cup takes over. All we have left is to complete our Champions League group. In the meantime, we are in a three-way tie at the top of the league. Valencia are in the driving seat thanks to their match in hand, and in truth they have been very dominant recently, but we are up there, despite the Classico reverse, and that’s what matters. The five-point buffer between ourselves and Real gives me heart, though I’ll confess it’s a gap that can be worn down with a couple of poor results.

Ansu Fati agrees a fat(i) new contract, which puts the 20 year old within the upper bracket of Barca earners and ends the speculation that he might leave the club. Over my dead body, though you can have Coutinho if you’re desperate.

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.

Derby FM20 – October 2022: Points Please!

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

Strong winds howl around Pride Park on the Wednesday evening when we entertain Paris-Saint Germain. It’s like facing a Celebrity Eleven, so I’m hoping that the conditions act as a kind of equaliser. Can they produce much in the way of silky football when the likes of Azpilicueta, Grimaldo, Salah, Sandro and Milinkovic-Savic are playing through a gale force? We bask in the impossible luxury of having already qualified, so there’s an extent to which the game doesn’t matter. That said, we would like to top the group, and knocking PSG out brings the bonus of not having to face them again later in the competition. With all their experience of playing in the Champions League, I imagine they will rediscover their mojo further down the line, when all that quality can be brought to bear. To date, they have drawn three and lost to Porto. I don’t think I’m lapsing into hyperbole when I suggest they have a bit of work still to do, and if I was Thomas Tuchel I’d be looking to take apart the team that stands in their way tonight.

Their manager can’t select Neymar, who’s out with broken ribs, and as he’s the highest rated player in Ligue 1 that must come as a bonus for us. I could insert some old joke about him thrashing about on the field after incurring the injury for several minutes, everyone thinking oh come on you big fanny, just get up, before they realise something might actually be wrong with him, but I like to believe I’m better than that… In his absence they are forced to field Alex Sandro on the left wing, a heartbreaking change, I’m sure you’ll agree. Salah and Icardi are operating as their strike partnership, which is a little bit terrifying, and Saul joins Milinkovic-Savic as the string pullers in midfield.

From the videos of their previous European antics this season, and the experience of having already faced them in Paris, they give the impression of being the sort of team that turns up to grounds, holds out their hand and declares Points please!, in the voice of Queenie from Blackadder II. That’s fair to an extent. They are very, very good, and having that attitude has worked for them in the domestic league, where they have claimed honour after honour. But perhaps it’s this same level of entitlement that puts them behind here. Adam Hlozek comes away with the ball after a routine clearance in our half, runs the entire length of the pitch and puts in a cross, where Ademola Lookman is pretty much wide open to place his headed shot beyond Pickford. Where was the marking from Azpilicueta? Being PSG it takes them around three minutes to equalise, Mo Salah scoring the most prosaic of goals after claiming Sandro’s cross. They can do this any time they like, only they don’t, reverting to playing within themselves and allowing us to force them to a draw.

Elsewhere, Lazio go to Portugal and win 1-0, which makes the last round of matches kind of fascinating in determining who will make it through. Despite not winning a game, it could still be the French royalty who prevail. The chances are we will use a lesser eleven when we go to Rome in our final group game as we are now confirmed as winners and it’s an irrelevance.

That match will come in a week’s time. Before that we have to travel to Merseyside and face Everton, who are currently anchored in tenth, surely that most ‘Everton’ of positions for them. Our opposition finished thirteenth in 2021/22, disappointing after scoring a succession of top tens, and they will be hoping for better with a serious number of squad changes. Whipping boy Luca Zidane is out, having been transferred to Ajax, and goalkeeping duties have reverted to Zan-Luk Leban, a 19 year old Slovenian who can’t possibly represent an improvement unless he’s imbued with the same qualities and spirit as Donnarumma. Dominic Solanke and Nabil Fekir have been added to generate some additional firepower, but the one I’m really envious of is Declan Rice, signed for £36 million in the wake of West Ham’s relegation. The defensive midfielder might be labouring under the traditional tag of English Hammers youngsters that he’s going to be the answer to all questions (see Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, etc), but still he’s a hell of a player and there’s part of me that would love to have him strutting his stuff for us.

We have a good record against the Toffees, and we come into this one as favourites. This tag always raises my hackles. Despite everything they’re a pretty good set-up. Andre Gomes is capable of machinating victory for them, and though the odds are on our side I would view escaping from Goodison with a draw as a perfectly respectable outcome. I do get it though. Everton remain this monolithic team, always present in the top flight, far too talented to be sucked into the relegation battle and yet never capable of challenging for honours. When you come into a season basically knowing in advance how it’s going to work out for you then where’s the fun in that?

Thomas Frank’s side are clearly up for the fight. They come out all guns blazing, attempting to overwhelm us, and they get their reward in the fifth minute when Richarlison heads in from close range. This is annoying. We know we have to mark the Brazilian closely, and yet when he’s at his most threatening our defence simply melts away.

At this point I think we may just crumble. Despite fielding a strong side we aren’t getting much in terms of traction. The home side are pressing well, never allowing us to get comfortable on the ball. Their fatal flaw is in thinking with eighty-five minutes left that it’s okay to sit back and defend their lead. That allows us to push forward more, and eventually we force an equaliser in the twenty-ninth minute of play. This is one of our less artful goals. Lookman attempts a cross from the left, under pressure from the enterprising Guga. His effort finds Gomes only. All the Portuguese has to do is get rid of the ball; instead he opts to try and play it out of defence, which allows Lookman to steal in and battle with him for possession. Guga gets involved in the melee. So does Mina, and finally Sebastiano Esposito, who in predatory fashion pokes the loose ball over Leban’s line. If a goal can ever claim to have been bullied into creation then this is just that moment. It’s not pretty, but who cares?

As contests go this is a pretty even affair. We’re well matched, both able to put out strong defences that can deal with ninety percent of what’s thrown at them. Everton’s job is to protect their keeper, a clear weak link in the chain, and in Mina, Holgate, Digne and man of the match Guga they have defenders who work hard and stay alert. The latter does a good job of preventing the opportunistic Lookman from causing any further damage against his old team. On the other flank, Digne plays well to stop either Wilson or Hlozek having anything better than ‘well, they were there’ type games. The match eventually cancels itself out into a middling 1-1 draw, satisfying perhaps for neither side but overall probably the correct and fairest result.

Liverpool go to Swansea and unleash clobbering time to produce a crisp 4-0 victory. There are wins also for Chelsea and United, so our lead in the division is cut to a single point. Pity Manchester City, if you will. Their 2-0 downing at the hands of Leicester has them in nineteenth place, and surely places Jose on notice.

Esposito’s goal against Everton triggers another clause in his transfer from Inter and squeezes an extra three million out of us. The value of his transfer now stands at £41 million overall, and it could rise further still if he puts in another three appearances for the Azzuri.

Two more matches remain before we break up for the World Cup. Lazio will host our final Champions League group match before we in turn welcome Swansea City to Pride Park. We haven’t played the latter since both sides were in the Championship, and we produced a pair of 1-0 victories to aid the Rams’ promotion cause.

Derby FM20 – September 2022: The Terror of Paris

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

The transfer window is closed. A total of £1.81 billion has been spent on hopes and dreams in the Premier League, a stunning amount of money in which we certainly played our part. All the same, United’s £100 million acquisition of Joao Felix means they have paid only slightly less for one player than we have on our entire complement across the window. Overall City have gazumped the pack, racking up a total spend of £252 million. Newcastle have emerged as the most prolific buyers, making ten purchases of which precisely none tease me as people we could use.

For the record we stand as the sixth biggest spenders of the window. The teams above us are precisely the ones you would expect to see there. Derby stand fifth in the table of transfer monies received. Our net spend of £26 million places us twelfth among Premier League teams. The Red Devils have made the biggest splash, perhaps unsurprisingly, £238 million outgoing against a mere sixty coming in, while Leicester stand as the only side to make a net profit. This is mainly fuelled by the £44 million exit of Youri Tielemans, who now has a future of jostling for space in the Man You midfield to look forward to, but it’s a worryingly quiet window for the Foxes, who looked to me as though they could have used some fresh faces… Well, more than Frances Coquelin, anyway.

We come out of the international break facing what should be the most terrifying of challenges, which is Manchester City away. Like most challengers we don’t have a brilliant record against them, and that’s because they’re a super good team. I don’t really care very much about the constant excuse that they are only where they are due to rampant spending. I mean that’s still true, but any idiot can blow a lot of cash (just read through most of the posts on this site for more) and City are either at or near the top on a regular basis. They need to be respected.

All of which said, I don’t fully know what to expect with Pep gone and Jose Mourinho leading the blue half of Manctopia. Via a quick Google search, I’m sure this means that Jose is the first person to manage both Mancunian giants since the straw-boated days of Ernest Mangnall, back in the early twentieth century. What I do know is that the transition hasn’t been entirely smooth. City are currently in the bottom half of the table, something that I do not expect to continue, and whatever the Special One does to unravel the beautiful football instigated by his predecessor the fact remains that a team starring Kevin De Bruyne is capable of twatting anyone. And if you are out there, reading these words and thinking KDB? Hah! Totally beatable, then a few more names to throw out for you – Harrington Kane, Kai Havertz, Mateo Kovacic, Gabriel Jesus, Aymeric Laporte, Ederson, and so on, and on, and on. Quality oozes out of every pore. I imagine Jose will take some adjusting to his new job, and the players to him, but they are far too good to be waddling around the bottom half, twelve positions beneath ourselves.

Of course, Mourinho is no longer an instant translation into success. The gloss has come off in recent years, and this perhaps explains why we go to the Etihad and shade the first half. We don’t score, but we’re good, holding this world class bunch at arm’s length while Esposito has a couple of decent chances that he usefully fails to convert. They come out stronger after the break, turning the screw more successfully and finding more inroads into the danger areas, though everything still goes through KDB and Bielik’s man-marking job on him is nullifying much of their pressure. It can’t keep going our way forever, and the situation changes when Pellegrini is penalised for a push on Zaniolo as he’s ambling through the penalty area. It’s a horrible foul to give away – the winger’s looking to go down, and our man completely obliges him.

Harrington Kane puts away the kick with ease; nerves of steel are his as he slots into the bottom left corner in a way that Butland has no chance of reaching. I’m angry by this stage because we don’t deserve to go behind, so I make the decision to go more attacking, introducing Wilson and debutante Gray for the under-performing Hlozek and Lookman. Now it’s our turn to up the ante, looking for space and making quick runs and passes to sweep forward. If we have one thing going for us then it’s raw speed. When you’re quick you always have the capacity to cause blind panic in opposition defences, apart from maybe Virgil Van Dijk, and the rest of the half sees blue-shirted players backpedal as we put them to the sword. In the eighty-fourth minute Bielik plays a pass out to wide on the right, where Frimpong is darting past Tavares. The Dutchman gets his cross in to the feet of Eddie Salcedo, who shoots high into the net despite being covered – whatever that means – by Stones. It’s a great reaction, and we are due such a moment of ecstasy after our performance here. We could go on and win all three points, but Ederson pulls off a good point-blank save from Wilson to guarantee both teams sharing the spoils.

Other fixtures ensure that we lose top spot, and there’s the slightly worrying sign that we have won three home games in the league and drawn all three that have been played away. Perhaps we should have done better against Villa and the Saints, but there’s no reason not to be happy in clinching a draw at the Etihad. The players’ response to my demand that they don’t accept defeat is encouraging. We could very easily have lost; instead we refused to take such an outcome on the chin.

There’s not much time to dwell on it. Within a couple of days we’re jetting to France from Derby International Airport with Paris-Saint Germain lying in wait. I appreciate that at many points in this blog I have gone on about the size difference between my team and some of the sides we’re up against, but PSG are frankly frightening enough to have me cagily padding around the computer for a couple of days before mustering all my courage in order to engage the fixture.

Like in real life, Thomas Tuchel‘s Parisian Galacticos are a who’s who of top drawer players. To give an idea of how mismatched this one is, here are a few facts and stats:

  • Tuchel has lavished £848 million on his team since 2019. He’ll swoop beyond the billion barrier before too long. This makes PSG by a distance the biggest spenders in the game. In contrast, my total outlay is £304 million, which puts me in ninth place overall.
  • They have won Ligue Un in each of the last three seasons. Last year they finished on 98 – their points haul and margin of victory increases exponentially with each campaign.
  • They’re French top scorers, and thanks to their sheer attacking verve they also concede the fewest goals. In 2021/22 they scored 99 and let in 25, making for a staggering +74 goal difference.
  • Mauro Icardi and Mohamed Salah both enjoyed 20+ goalscoring seasons last term. Neymar came in third place with 15. That wasn’t good enough apparently, so PSG have snapped up Aguero and Benzema just in case their main forwards are firing blanks. Aubameyang, signed for £32.5 million a couple of years ago, can’t make it into the team so he’s been hawked off to Leicester on loan.
  • The Champions League continues to elude them, and you get the impression once they claim that particular grail things might calm down, a bit. Their best effort was in 2019/20, when they were defeated by Man City in the final, however ultimate success in the competition continues to elude them. Maybe this will be their year…

Lining up against them is like reaching the boss level of an especially hard video game. They’re so good that a central midfielder of some renown like Saul can be played at right-back just to find something for him to do. PSG field Reine-Adelaide and Milinkovic-Savic in the middle, with Kluivert and some bloke called Neymar on their wings. Jordan Pickford’s the guy who normally has little to do in goal. Their players regard us a bit like that fit girl you walk past, the one who fixes you with a stare that cuts the crap and demands you keep walking, loser.

I suppose I should be happy enough that we finish the first half only a goal down. Esposito has an early chance, which he puts wide of goal, and moments later he’s crowded out by Diallo when in a prime spot, but PSG turn it on from then and take the lead through Justin Kluivert. After peppering our goal with shots, the Dutchman breaks the deadlock with a bit of loveliness taken from just outside the area, taking advantage of our defenders not knowing quite who deserves the most attention. As against City I have soon swapped out all three attacking players. There isn’t a lot more that their replacements can do, but with some encouraging words from me we eventually fashion an equaliser. Rolando Vieira volleys in from the D, Reine-Adelaide agog that a supposedly lesser player can produce a fast and true shot of such accuracy. We could even win, when Hughes is put through, but the angle’s wide and Pickford is able to nullify the danger.

All the same, 1-1 from our first ever Champions League encounter, and against one of the favourites, is a great result. Two draws from two away matches, in which we’ve played perhaps the twin richest clubs in world football, is not to be sniffed at.

The rest of the September schedule will be played entirely at home. West Brom and Bournemouth are our league opponents, and we will also entertain Lazio and Porto in the continent. Hopefully the toughest test is behind us now.