Glory Hunter – Barcelona: May 2023

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

The deal going into the season’s final month is straightforward. Five more victories and it doesn’t matter what anyone else does. For now, we can finish as low as fourth, but that would take both a collapse of monumental proportions on our part and constant wins from the other three. We just have to hold our nerve. And beat Real Madrid in the Champions League return match.

To clear things up, this game is first up, a grudge encounter at the Bernabeu that is finally balanced enough to make me name my strongest eleven. The home side is of a similar mind, fielding the enterprising Nabil Fekir behind Luka Jovic and Brenner, and it looks as though it may pay off in the tenth minute when the former runs through the gap between Skriniar and Torres, collects Ceballos’s pass and volleys home. It’s a training ground goal to concede, one for which I berate the players as I don’t want us to lose concentration so easily. At times like these, when everything is on the line, you need your best players to produce. Twenty-three minutes later, Messi emerges from another Real attack and dribbles deep into their half. He picks out Harrington Kane, the only player in front of him and slackly covered by Ceballos. The English striker is able to keep away from his marker and sidestep Courtois before hitting a sweet shot into the net.

The Real players try to find another gear. They’re 3-1 down. The fans are angry and those efforts to redress the balance become more constant and frantic. Now requiring three goals against a notoriously difficult to beat defence, they end up collects as many bookings as shots amassed. They’re also open to the counter, something that devastates and finally kills them off late in the game. This is the moment for Antoine Griezmann, a fresh pair of legs for the inconstant Fati, collecting Torres’s through ball and cutting inside from the left wing, firing through the keeper’s legs to make it 2-1 on the night. And with that the illustrious Madrid side are undone. It’s been an even game, but defensively we have shown our quality, particularly the solid Torres, and we have also done enough in the attacking quarters to see ourselves safely over the line.

Liverpool await in the Final, to be played at Stadion Munchen, the hyper-modern home of Bayern Munich that has always looked to me like a gigantic Liquorice All-Sort. The Scousers played a pair of 1-1 draws against Manchester United, the two titans finally separated in extra time by Mohamed Salah’s sweet left foot. You may recall Liverpool turning out to be impassable opposition for Napoli, so there’s something of a personal grudge match about this one.

But first the league. Our march to the title begins on a perfect spring afternoon at the Camp Nou. Our opposition is Cadiz, who are turning their promotion season into a fine effort to beat the drop. With little left to play for, they should be beatable and the four goals we put past them are testament to that. Tammy Abraham states another strong case for being added to the squad permanently, scoring twice and looking like the consummate thirty-goals striker that any side wants to add. In fairness, when you have the likes of Griezmann and Dembele providing quality assists on a plate it would be impolite not to convert them into goals, don’t you think, and Spanish defences haven’t yet learned that Tammy needs to be covered in much the same way they are all over Kane whenever he plays. Gerard Pique heads in from a Griezmann corner on the strike of half-time, and Coutinho adds a fourth to keep the run going.

Sporting Gijon (Hee-Hon) are next. Another mid-table outfit, earning plaudits by doing things the right way with a mainly Spanish set-up. I should have precious few doubts about our resolve by this point, but Hee-Hon overturn us. Striker Stiven Plaza shocks our defence with a goal in the fifteenth minute, and then conjure a winner after Tammy Abraham’s reply by unpicking us on a set piece, Modibo Sagnan heading in the Pipi free kick that we appear to stand and watch. Now, anyone can lose at any time they like, but I’m criticised harshly after this, as is the team, and I can’t argue with the slings and arrows. Gerard Pique is a particular target for my ire; he’s slow, running at half the speed of everything around him, and it’s a concern. On the whole we are nothing like good enough here, expecting to show up and be gifted the points by sheer virtue of who we are, and that just isn’t how football works. A diffident and poor evening’s work.

Villarreal overcome Atletico to end the other Madrid team’s slim chance of catching up with us, and we have to lick our wounds at another away ground, El Sadar, home of Atletico Pamplona. Jose Angel Ziganda’s outfit look relegation bound. They should be easy enough to see off, but the Hee-Hon reverse has added an element of tension that perhaps is exactly what we need in order to stay focused during the run-in. Real continue winning, and the straightforward 2-0 result we produce eases our nerves somewhat. It isn’t terrific from us. A Lionel Messi double shows that when we’re in any doubt about our abilities it takes a true legend to step up and lead the way, and perhaps more importantly the defence steps up to allow nothing more than two off-target shots on goal. But this is the Little God’s game. He’s incredible, dazzling the crowd with his skills and commitment, and leading them to feel there’s probably nothing they could do against such a divine player.

In midweek we’re at home to Real Hispalis. Potentially they’re a difficult opponent, but we make short work of them at the Camp Nou, with goals from Coutinho, Harrington Kane and a late Antoine Griezmann piledriver to which they have no response. Enterprising midfielder Thiago Almada is dismissed after an angry, frustrated performance, which sums up their evening as they make little impression on Ter-Stegen’s goal. An efficient and dominant victory, which is all I can ask for at this point in the campaign.

By the time we go to Levante we are finally at match-point. Win here and it’s over. The home team are capable, notably Nico in midfield, who’s on loan from ourselves and will surely earn a place in our squad next season, but Paco Lopez’s team have secured their mid-table berth and have precious little left to play for. It’s a 3-0 win against a side that places nine men in defensive-minded positions, looking to put players behind the ball but quite unable to stop our clear virtuosity as Pau Torres, Antoine Griezmann and Bruno Guimaraes cause the damage. Another Lionel Messi masterclass, the diminutive God buzzing everywhere as he plays himself into space, fields defence-splitting passes as a matter of course and generally becomes impossible to contain. Of the three remaining old legends in the side, he’s assuredly the one I can’t imagine a near future without. Sure, see off Busquets and Pique, but lose Messi and we are absolutely the lesser, and I can’t imagine that scenario in the short-term.

Title secured and the remaining two games remain as an extended celebration. We have Liverpool to play in early June and it’s important to keep my best players fresh for it, so I field some lesser lights and see off Alaves 2-0 and treat the supporters to a  6-0 demolition of Girona. Both games feature starting turns from young right winger Ilias Akhomach, the player selected to ultimately take over from Messi (no pressure then) but who puts in two superb performances, scoring against Alaves and effervescent in the Girona win. The finale is a delicious display of what we can do. Gerard Pique earns some credit for his two goals in the final victory, a committed display that contrasts with the distracted work put in by Umtiti (nobody wants him, and he can’t be surprised after this shop window opportunity produces absolutely nothing). Frenkie de Jong plays both games in defensive midfield, my effort to find a place for him in which he can excel, and where he neither impresses nor fails. Manchester United have been long-term suitors for him, and despite his obvious talent the Dutchman has been our one midfielder to struggle to assert his abilities and I may be tempted into letting him go for the right price.

Here’s the final league table. Despite the humiliation against Hee-Hon we were very good value for our favourite status, winning La Liga with something to spare and emerging with Messi considered the division’s best player, an accolade against which I have no argument. With this and the Spanish Cup in my pocket I could actually look elsewhere at this point, but it’s been a fun year in charge of a good team, and for now I want to go nowhere. You don’t often get the opportunity to enjoy a side like Barcelona, after all, and despite our success it feels like a mission that hasn’t yet ended.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: April 2023

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

The highlight of the international break is the call-up and first caps for new Spanish star Marc Cucurella. He deserves it. Back at home, we review the intake of this year’s youth candidates. As promised, it’s a highly promising clutch of prospects. Patrick Kluivert, our Head of Youth Development, waxes lyrical about Amara Kelepliy, a 15 year old winger who stands at 5’ 2” but already comes in with a sharp suite of technical merits. There are the two players called Roger, one an attacking midfielder, the other a very fast right-back. Oscar and Nissim Weiss have the capacity to become central midfielders for us in the future. The latter is English and seems to have a smart reading of the game. It looks to me as though Barca knows how to source good young talent.

By the time we come to April Fool’s Day and a home game against Valencia, I can call on a full squad once again. Messi and Bellerin, who have both just returned from lengthy injury lay-offs, need to be used sparingly, but I expect to play them increasingly as the number of matches and the sheer tension develops. Of course, we can’t expect to keep the situation as it is forever. Frenkie de Jong lasts around twenty-five minutes before going down with a twisted ankle and four weeks when he will be out of action. Otherwise, we’re good enough to put down a spirited Valencia team. Despite squandering the chances, we produce for a 2-0 win. Antoine Griezmann scores early in the game, and then much, much later, as the visitors chase an equaliser, Bennacer provides the assist that Ousmane Dembele hits first time to beat the keeper. This is an important victory, against a side designed to challenge for the title. There are now eighteen points between us, which should be enough to kill off their pretensions.

Things get harder still as we travel back to my old haunt of Serie A and Internazionale. Now managed by Ernesto Valverde, the Nerazzurri are tucked neatly into third place, a bit distant of challenging Napoli and Juve for the top of the table but in their own way highly potent. Valverde has spent a lot of money to enhance his already pretty good ranks. After drafting in Gio Wijnaldum from ourselves, he has added Spurs’ Ryan Sessegnon on loan and plays him on the opposite flank to Kingsley Coman, a winger I really like who was signed for £39.5 million from Bayern. Midfield has been strengthened considerably by the acquisition of Ruben Neves, costing £68 million from Wolves. With the likes of Lukaku, Tagliafico, De Vries, Sensi, El Shaarawy, and intrepid right-back Achraf Hakimi all present and correct, they’re a stiff challenge, which they go on to  prove by beating us 1-0 at the Giuseppe Meazza. For long, long swathes it looks for all the world as though this will dribble out to a 0-0 result. The home team have the lion’s share of the scoring opportunities but Lukaku plays indecisively, Torres stopping the bulky striker from putting his anatomy in the way to divert assisted balls into the net. There isn’t much to us. Fati, Kane and Griezmann do little, and even Messi is marginalised by stuff Inter defending. In injury time, they finally get the breakthrough when a typical Hakimi maraud deep into our half leads to the cross that Stefano Sensi slams home for the winner.

1-0 isn’t a disastrous result to take back to the Camp Nou, but our toothlessness in attack is a concern. The Barca board expects, and going out of the Champions League at the Quarter-Final stage would be viewed as an aberration. Winning La Liga might save my bacon, but I’d prefer to avoid any further black marks beyond the criminally juicy contract I handed to Sam Umtiti, and to pile on the pressure we are taking on Real Madrid at the weekend.

This one is considered to be nothing short of a title decider. Win this and I think we will have widened the gap to almost insurmountable proportions. Lose and they come roaring back, and gain the satisfaction of having done the Classico double over us. I still smart from the defeat they handed to us back in the season’s early stages. It’s our only reverse in La Liga. I don’t like losing, not ever, and especially not to the preening jackanapes from the capital.

To everyone’s surprise, Maurizio Sarri orders his talented side to play a game of containment, expecting a rush of Barca pressure and attempting to halt us while stinging on the counter. The Camp Nou is a vast wall of noise, 103,700 attending on a gusty spring evening, a mass of expectation. We have to deliver, tearing into the opposition from the start and getting our reward in the seventeenth minute when Bennacer’s corner kick is headed viciously towards goal by Milan Skriniar. The effort is so powerful that Thibault Courtois can only palm the ball into his own net. In the second half, another corner is converted by Pau Torres’s header, and Real are undone. It surprises me that for all our good play, which we produce with nine shots on target, it’s set pieces that win the day. Griezmann is excellent as Messi is rested for the Inter return. Fati has one of his more exciting displays on the left. Real feel that if they stop Kane then they do the same to us, which isn’t true as we can score from various positions. Just as importantly, we restrict them from inflicting any punishment on Ter Stegen’s goal. The white shirts amass two shots during the entire game, an exercise in shutting the door on them. And with that a considerable hoodoo is broken.

In midweek, Inter bring the same spirit of halting our attacking elan to Catalonia and set out to defend their slim lead. I pick what I consider to be just about our best eleven, and watch as we pile into the Milanese visitors. We’re at our absolute best in defence, specifically in defensive midfield where Florentino Luis provides a masterclass in halting Inter attacks and sparking moves of our own. It takes us a while to get back on terms. In the fiftieth minute, as my fingernails fall victim to the tension, Luis fires a long ball that picks out Ansu Fati. The winger evades Hakimi and shoots a virtuous volley that beats Handanovic at his far corner. Lovely. Messi and Fati have two further efforts ruled out by VAR, both fairly, before substitute Tammy Abraham finally produces the game’s decisive moment. A Messi corner is headed towards goal by Skriniar. His shot clatters off the crossbar, but the Englishman is there and has to do nothing more than poke the ball over the line. It’s a win, claimed more closely than I would like but a win all the same.

In the Semi-Final we will almost inevitably come across Real Madrid once again. The Quarter-Final against Paris Saint-Germain is a pair of 3-1 results, the two sides using home advantage to their benefits and cancelling each other out. In the end penalties decide it. The French go home after Joao Cancelo’s climactic spot-kick is saved by Courtois. This sets up a clash with our bitter rivals that guarantees five matches against them this season. They’re up next, at the Camp Nou in the Spanish Cup Final.

We welcome Sarri’s Real in a Catalan rain shower, admiring the way they line up with a wall of defensive midfielders featuring Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Antonio Blanco. What they intend to do here is clear enough, Torres and Pique reminded to be mindful that Brenner is a considerable threat for the opposition. It isn’t a problem. As we pass through them ill discipline takes over for Real and when Ramos thugs Coutinho over in their box we have a thirty-first minute penalty. Harrington Kane takes it, not the guaranteed converter that I hope he would be, but he makes no mistake in sending Courtois the wrong way. Just before half-time, Coutinho fires a free-kick into the penalty area, where the terrific Ilaix Moriba beats the keeper with a header. Things get worse for Real in the second half. Sarri’s calls for passion are misheard through a fog of nicotine when Kroos piles into Dembele and earns himself a straight red card. We know we have won by this stage. Very late on, Bennacer collects Griezmann’s cross and cues the ball for Coutinho who both drives the ball home and collects the match ball. The Spanish Cup is ours, a thirty-second triumph in the competition.

Yet another banana skin awaits in midweek as we make the short journey to Estadio Cornella-El Prat to face Espanyol. The ‘other’ Catalan side can’t touch us in the league, but derbies contain risks of their own and they are very competently managed by Age Hareide. A 69 year old Norwegian who has picked Espanyol as his first non-Scandinavian assignment, the veteran manager was in charge of Denmark before coming here and picks a good side featuring striker Raul de Tomas and Sergi Darder in midfield. We come into this one feeling the weight of all those big matches. Messi starts, because I think it’s important to use someone who appreciates the merit of winning the Catalan Derby. Sergio Busquets captains, for much the same reason.

For much of the game it looks as though this isn’t going to go our way. The home side are ahead after the nineteenth minute, when Yanatan Cohen converts from de Tomas’s cross. It’s a nadir moment for Cucurella, whose job it is the mark the winger and instead falls over on the wet turf as Cohen gives him the slip. We move into attack mode, bringing on Coutinho and Griezmann for Fati and Kane, who aren’t making much of an impression. The former has his moment when Cabrera challenges him clumsily to gift us a seventy-eighth minute penalty. Lionel Messi converts. Later still, Messi lays the ball off the Antoine Griezmann in the area, who evades the luckless Cabrera and finds the net from close range. It’s a deserved win, a contest we have dominated, and a victory for our fighting spirit. Barca simply refuses to accept defeat here, battling until the final whistle, and in Messi we are fortunate enough to have an absolute winner who personifies everything about us that’s good.

First plays last at the weekend, as we venture deep into the Basque Country and Eibar. At last, a straightforward contest, one in which I can pick an eleven of back-ups – Umtiti gets the call – and save my best players for Real in the Champions League. The one starter who gets the nod is Ismael Bennacer, who is of course the injury victim here, collapsing to a rough tackle that twists his ankle and removes him from the contest for three weeks. This is bad. Bennacer has emerged as a potent deep lying playmaker for us, someone on whom we can depend, and now he’s gone. Not that his absence makes things much easier for Eibar. We score six unanswered goals, two apiece from Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, and best of all a brace for Tammy Abraham, who announces himself in predatory fashion and defies the beleaguered home team with his pace and shooting élan.

On to another clash with Real Madrid, the first leg played at home within a tie that must have the schedulers rubbing their hands with glee. If we played no one but Real, an endless cycle of head to heads, then they would probably be delighted. In the other half of the Champions League Semi-Final draw, it’s an equally embittered rivalry as Manchester United take on Liverpool. Spoiler alert – Liverpool win.

The first leg is to be played at home, and we come up with a fine 2-0 victory to give us an advantage. Pedro and a rare Florentino Luiz shot that fires through a sea of legs on its way to the back of the net do the business. In truth it’s all over by the end of the first half, Varane’s reply on the hour mark ruled out for offside representing their best opportunity. We’re imperious, especially at the back, as Brenner and Luka Jovic fail to find a way through.

A frantic April concludes with the visit of Villarreal. Even after this there are seven league games remaining, and the season is now feeling very long and absolutely gruelling. Thank goodness for a good squad. Abraham, Dembele and Riqui Puig makes our starting line-up, and then it all seems to go wrong when Yeremi Pino puts them in front straight from kick-off. It’s a horrible one to concede. The blame lies with Gerard Pique, who is starting to look very old and not so quick as he is unable to keep up with the marauding winger.

The visitors’ advantage forces us to move into the attack, producing a blizzard of shots that Villarreal are forced backwards to defend, DM Mattia Zaccagni emerging with real credit as he breaks things up with skill and concentration. But he’s one man, and he isn’t enough. By the end, Tammy Abraham has bagged a hat-trick, a brilliant personal display that makes his £21.5 million price tag look cheap indeed. Pau Torres heads in from a corner as we go on to record an important 4-1 victory. Over in Madrid, Real won’t give up, so wins like this one might look routine but are absolutely vital to the cause.

As it happens, our 4-1 against the Yellow Submarine coincides with a 2-0 reverse for the Madrid giants at Athletic Bilbao, which puts us thirteen points clear in the league. There are twenty-one still to play for. It isn’t over, but by now I feel that we would need to collapse completely to cough up the title. Surely it won’t happen.

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.

Introducing the Real Madrid Nationalist Challenge

The rules of the Nationalist Challenge are simple – take any team, any team you like, and only sign players of the same nationality as the side that you are managing. In the end, you will have a squad that is entirely homegrown – how will they perform? Does having a set of players all speaking the same language make any difference, or is the current state of affairs where changing rooms are multi-national all the better for the mix of influences…?

For this challenge, I’m taking on a club that to many people represent the evil empire itself – Real Madrid. I’ve never managed this lot, principally because I tend to think negatively of them, their throwing around of reckless amounts of money, their insatiable and arguably unethical drive to be the best of the best… At the moment I’m reading The Barcelona Legacy by Jonathan Wilson. The book’s principal subject is the rivalry between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, what it describes as the battle for football’s soul. Right now I’m up to the period when Pep was at Barca and Jose running Real, when it really did feel as though the latter were the bad guys in their running battle for hegemony. Negative play, press conference spats, pokes in the eye for one of the coaches and an effort to alienate his best players, the Special One really did a job at the Santiago Bernabeu, didn’t he?

It’s reading this account that intrigues me about Real. What are they like really? Does their ambition beat any other concerns e.g. fair play, or are they misunderstood? Can they achieve the level of Seniorito the club aspires to? How will they handle an English manager in his first job? Most of all, what will they make of a transfer policy that not only ditches the rest of the world for Spanish players, but also steadily whittles down the overseas influences that are already at the club?

Let’s find out. I will be playing this game at a much quicker pace than Derby County and updates left here (around once per week) are going to be at several points in the season rather than the match-by-match commentary being undertaken at Pride Park. It’s a break from the Rams, hopefully a happy joyride through the season rather than the nerve jangler that is each league game I manage with my main team…

You might be thinking ‘Real Madrid? Pah how easy!‘ and that’s understandable, but allow me to remind you of the two salient points of this challenge (i) we can only sign Spaniards (ii) the board still demands success, more or less from the opening kick-off. Failure won’t be tolerated. They might just about understand a very close runners-up finish in the league, but I drop any bollocks here at my own risk. Real aren’t patient with their managers. The 233 matches in charge that Vicente Del Bosque achieved from 1999 to 2003 is a rare instance of a lengthy tenure. If I look like failing they will drop me quicker than you can say ‘Santa Maria’, so the pressure is always on.

Squad Review

Los Blancos start with a decent smattering of Spanish talent. There are no obvious gaps, but a couple of additions to the squad will help. At the start of the game their home nationality contingent is made up of:

Marco Asensio – 23 year old left winger who until recently was considered to be among the up and coming stars of the Spanish scene. More recently he hasn’t progressed as well as Real hoped, and he starts the game carrying a ten-month cruciate ligaments injury, so we will be robbed of his services for practically the entire season.

Dani Carvajal – homegrown right-back, almost continually a Real player apart a year spent in Germany. The default starter in his position and sometimes for the national team also. At 27 he’s in his peak years as a player. Personally I think he’s about the best we could possibly have in his position, which makes this a rare instance of a role we won’t have to tinker with very much. Real have sent Alvaro Odriozola out on loan to Bayern for the season, so the future here looks bright.

Isco – flair-riddled midfielder who can often be found at the heart of Spanish efforts, Tiki-Taka’ing with the best of them and constantly busy. Not quite the second coming of Iniesta that he’d like to think he is and a little out of favour with the club before I start, he’s nevertheless a star player albeit one who’s being asked to drop back into central midfield. Hell, it worked for Paqueta at Milan…

Mariano – third choice striker, slowly progressing in importance within the squad and for anyone else he’d be a star. A great finisher and he can head the ball beautifully also; at 25, he isn’t quite at the top of his game yet. Centre-forward isn’t a position that is blessed with immense practitioners within Spain, so there’s every chance that Mazzerwill still be around in the long term.

Nacho – one-club man, now 29 and more of a back-up right-back than an automatic starter. He loves Real Madrid and would lay his life on the line for our cause, but hopefully playing with concentration will be enough. Carvajal and Odriozola will almost certainly carry this position into the future, so Nacho’s status is uncertain, however it says here that he can fill in anywhere across defence and that flexibility could prove to be his saving grace.

Sergio Ramos – Mr Real Madrid, one of football’s most notorious figures with his combination of superb skill in central defence and often brutal levels of gamesmanship. I can’t see Mo Salah thinking too kindly of him, ditto the population of Liverpool’s red half. He’s 33 so the end for him is in sight, but for now there’s little doubting his high standards, his ruthless determination levels and his enduring affinity with the supporters.

Lucas Vazquez – 28 year old right winger, developed in-house and a willing worker. He’s no Gareth Bale, the player who currently owns his position, but a blend of availability and the Welshman’s love of golf endless injury worries should offer him plenty of game time. How long he lasts here is anyone’s guess right now. By our standards he looks very average – will he survive as the likes of Angel Correa and Inaki Williams are checked out as solutions for his position?

Elsewhere Real are a world class squad of household names. The level of quality is so high that there seems little point in running through each position. You know who plays for them and how good they are. The summer addition of Eden Hazard demonstrates a continuing commitment to signing the very best talent out there, and even before I arrive they’ve spunked the best part of £300 million on new players. Eder Militao is an important acquisition for their defence, while Ferland Mendy has been picked up to challenge Marcelo at left-back. Luka Jovic is added to suggest a future beyond what feels like the eternal Karim Benzema.

There’s age here also, and contracts that are about to finish. James Rodriguez is already listed when I start and I see no harm in letting him go. Spurs are willing to pay his wages for the season, which is probably about as good as the situation will get for the last thrust of a disappointing time with us. More importantly, Luka Modric is in the last twelve months of his contract and has no interest in renewing. The Croatian 2018 Ballon d’Or winner has been critical for us, and while his £400,000 weekly wage can be put to good use there’s little doubt that he will be missed.

New Signings

With a budget of £52 million there’s no chance of me going out to get the very best Spain has to offer, however we do have squad places to fill. Real are slimmest in central defence, where there’s nothing beyond Ramos, Varane and Militao, and the latter isn’t even a natural centre-back. I spend £27 million on Diego Llorente from Real San Sebastian, a rather shrewd signing as he started life as a player from this set-up (if I’m honest, I didn’t even know this about him until he was already with us). He isn’t demanding Galactico wages and is happy to accept a career of squad rotation. Overall as the squad becomes more Spanish we will need a bunch of foot soldiers like Diego.

We could also use another defensive midfielder. Casemiro is more natural in central midfield, where he will share time with Kroos, Modric and Isco in a star-studded group, and that leaves Federico Valverde, the young Uruguayan on whose shoulders it would simply be unfair to load such a responsibility. Bayern are willing to let Javi Martinez go for around £25 million, and that seems too good to be true in filling the hole. At 30, Javi is older than the usual player I’d like to bring in, but he’s a good professional, an internationally recognised name, and he brings no dip in quality to the line-up.

Pre-Season and Early Meetings

The mood in the camp shows what the scale of this challenge will be. When I go in to the dressing room to give my team talk there’s a palpably awkward silence despite the overall decent mood, and the players are clearly disinterested. And little wonder. Who am I to be telling them what to do? Clearly where the players are concerned the sight of this low ranking English Meester is a big step down after they’re used to being led by Zinedine Zidane, so I have a lot to prove. The best way to get them onside will be through winning matches, a lot, all the time even, yet pre-season is a functional exercise rather than inspirational. We nearly always win, but it never feels as though the side are busting anything like a gut, and when we scrape a draw away to Aves of the Portuguese league I start to get really worried about my ability to drag anything out of this lot.

All the same, I use pre-season to improve match fitness so it’s rare that the best eleven Real players are on the pitch at the same time. When I do field my prime line-up, in the season opener against Sevilla, we romp home with a 4-0 victory. Eden Hazard scores an errant hat-trick because when it comes down to it he’s a superstar so of course he does. I’ve only ever managed Hazard once before, and that was back in Football Manager 2010 when I plucked him from Lille as a callow 18 year old for Manchester City and watched him transform into pretty much the behemoth he has turned out to be in real life. He’s exciting. Gareth Bale plays a good game also, and I feel a pang of regret as I realise I should enjoy them both while I can.

Like any squad of world class ballers Real is an international set-up. The line-up that takes on Sevilla contains just two Spaniards – Carvajal and Ramos – with the rest made up of two Belgians, one Brazilian, two Frenchmen, a Uruguayan, a German, a Croatian and a Welshman. In some positions, there are very good Spanish players out there who will not shame the badge – for instance, we already have the scouts courting Alex Grimaldo at Benfica, to try and draft him before his queue of suitors gets too long. He would be a fine replacement for Marcelo. Elsewhere, we will almost certainly be swapping out overseas diamonds for homegrown cubic zircons. Hazard and Vinicius Jr are superb players on the left wing. Spain has nothing like as good to put in their place. However we resolve this position we will be slightly weaker for the ethnic cleansing exercise we are about to instigate, no doubt about it.

But that’s an issue for the future. For now I get to steamroll the opposition. Real Madrid are like the Incredible Hulk piling through a crowd of terrified citizens. For me, used now to cautiously weaving through top flight fixtures with Derby it’s an exercise in outright glee, to expect to win things and do precisely that.

Next Time

The winter update. The Whites aim to scale the heights of La Liga and keep Atletico and Barca at arm’s length. Who are we looking at to fill the ranks? Is it possible to sign players from our biggest rivals? Will Marco Asensio ever return from injury and meet his enormous potential…?