PSG: Kinda Like A Big DealBy: Brian | December 5th, 2009
I’m loathe to say that things are breaking our way. I think the team is too good to give most of the credit for a run like this to luck. And maybe I lack the experience with French football to be saying something like this, but a French team that is competitive in Europe should be dominant in domestic competition, shouldn’t it?
Before I get to the matches, some other things of note. I didn’t mention this in the recap, but in our victory against Barcelona, we also hit the woodwork three times. Sessegnon grabbed two of them himself. I like to think that we were a matter of inches away from a 6-2 victory, but I also realize that had any of those gone in, the entire character of the match would have changed. Still, it’s a nice thought. We also lost out on the Edin Dzeko sweepstakes. He went to Man City. At least he’s not lying about wanting to play European Football. Man City are currently in second place in their group after 4 matches, with 7 points (5 points ahead of Bordeaux in third), so he should have a chance to play this season. Maybe we’ll be able to grab Adebayor (ha!), as someone’s not going to play enough for their liking.
I decided to use the funds I was so willing to spend on Dzeko to grab us another player for right now, which meant a Joker Window player from another French team. If I wanted him to play in Champions League matches, he had to be 21 or younger, as I’d already registered 25 players for the group stages (and actually had to leave out Makélélé and Apoula Edel, but neither one is playing at all anyway). After the Montpellier match, Sessegnon strained his back in the weight room and had to sit on the sidelines for at least 4 weeks, leaving us thin in midfield for a stretch of 6 matches in 17 days. Initially I considered Blaise Matuidi, who was affordable and highly recommended, but he’s 23 and another defensive-minded midfielder. I preferred more of an attacking threat (I might still be able to add Matuidi on a free for next season). Meet Sofiane Feghouli, who joined us after he played against us for Grenoble. He’s eligible for the Champions League, technically skilled, and an emerging threat on set pieces (maybe not a threat, but we’re still really deficient in that area, which is about the only thing I feel I still need to address).
I knew playing Montpellier away so soon after the high of beating Barcelona was going to be dangerous. And it was. I gave Sandro and Sessegnon a rest, putting Capoue and Chantôme on in their places. The match began at an almost intolerable pace. Montpellier was content to keep all 11 men in front of the ball and play for a point. Unfortunately for them, in the 38th minute they got away from their gameplan and attempted an attack. Bassong cut the ball away from Montaño and passed it forward to Chantôme. He knocked it up to Chamakh, who hit an easy ball to put Artem through at the edge of the center circle. Artem took the ball into the box, dribbling to his right. He took his shot just as the last defender was catching to him and hit a shot across the keeper and into the far corner. I thought that would be the end of my worries, but at the end of the half, from a throw-in down the left touchline, Montpellier knocked the ball around to Alberto Costa at the top of the box and he hit a rocket to even the score. We were brought back to reality and I let the boys know at halftime that this wouldn’t do. At 55 minutes I brought in Sandro, Sessegnon and Kleber, for Capoue, Chantôme, and Chamakh. Still nothing. Montpellier wanted that point. I changed our tactics to an even more attacking style. There was some progress, and they started to break down. As the fourth official held up the board for injury time, we won a corner. And Sakho saved our asses again, heading in a pure laser right over the head of the keeper, earning himself MOTM and giving us the three points.
We had two weeks off for more international fixtures after that match. This was when Sessegnon had to go and get injured, making him a certain scratch for our away match at Inter, and a doubt for the return leg at Parc des Princes. Great. We had to go away to Valenciennes first (in fact, in this report, which covers 7 games, we only had 2 at home) before dealing with Inter, and I was scared the team would look ahead. Fortunately, they didn’t. Milevskyi grabbed a goal in the tenth minute, and then Sandro grabbed 2 in quick succession on similar plays before 30 minutes had gone by. Twice the went into the left corner, twice the crossing opportunity was closed down, and twice the ball was swung back up to the top of the box where Sandro had all the space in the world to run onto it. He has quite the shot. Remi Gomis pulled on back for Valenciennes in the 61st minute, but in injury time Milevskyi grabbed his second. Off an offsides call, Akinfeev kicked it all the way into the opposition’s penalty area, and poor communication between keeper and defender let Artem latch onto it, round the keeper, and put it away. The whistle blew, Sandro got MOTM, and we were off to Milan.
Inter. The Chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaampions! I’ve never liked The Special One (does anyone? I certainly respect what he’s done, but that doesn’t mean I have to like the man). For whatever reason, their preferred formation is a very un-Mourinho 4-3-1-2, essentially the formation I use with a player in the trequartista/AMC role rather than our more attacking playmaker/striker. A 10 to our 9 1/2, I guess. Working in our favor for this match: Júlio César was coming off an injury and wasn’t fully fit, and Mourinho had left Córdoba entirely out of the Champions League squad. He left Materazzi (retiring at the end of the season) off the bench for this match, giving him no flexibility in the center of his defense, with Chivu also unavailable because of a broken foot. Oh, and Sneijder was out, too. Torn calf muscle. Maybe they’re training too hard?
I also like that I can manage the way I really want to in these matches. My pre-match instructions are typically to show everyone to their weaker foot and tackle everyone hard (with a formation that can be stretched thin it’s important to try to win the ball at the first opportunity). In domestic play, where the refs love to call fouls and 3 yellows gets you a suspension, I can’t do that. It works here, though, and as a bonus we’ve been getting English officials. When they’re officiating, I wish there were a “kick him in the shins” instruction available.
Before we walked out into the drizzle, I looked at my players. They looked nervous. Not “guy pissing himself in the tunnel in Gladiator” nervous, but nervous. I told them the pressure was off. This was never a must-win in my plan to advance, but beating Barcelona made this not even a must-draw. That got the response I needed. We held a majority (54%) of possession in the match, although Inter threatened more often, with 9 shots in the match to our 4, and 4 shots on target to our 2.
We defended valiantly throughout the first half, and Akinfeev played out of his mind, making a number of one-on-one saves. We attacked when we could, but were mostly content to keep the ball out of our net. I started the Giant Line (Artem, Hoarau, and Chamakh) and it paid dividends in the 42nd minute. On a corner, Sakho was left with only one man marking him, and poked Vukcevic’s corner in past a nearly immobile Júlio César. Well… that’s interesting, I thought. I certainly wasn’t expecting that. Funny how having 3 guys 6′2″ or taller attacking the ball on corners makes defenders forget about the guy I actually want getting the ball (and why having someone who can actually deliver corners to him is so important). The half ended with us up 1-0. I told everyone that we were a good team, and now that we had the lead, we shouldn’t squander it. In the back of my mind I was sure that Inter, a team that had scored 9 goals through 2 matches thus far, would have no problem answering (and then some) in the second half.
And right off the kickoff, Lucio took the ball away from Artem and passed it to Stankovic. He knocked it back to Cambiasso who had the angle to play Eto’o through on goal. Akinfeev came out in an attempt to make him make a move, and he flubbed a lob attempt, hitting a soft line drive directly into Igor’s chest. I exhaled. Igor threw it out to M’Bengué on the left, who, on the volley hit a loooooooong ball in the air down the wing towards Hoarau. Another advantage of having tall, strong forwards: we win those balls. They’re not just clearances for us. Hoarau knocked it forward and centered it, where it landed just inside the penalty box. Had Júlio César been healthy, I’m sure he would have come out to collect it. But he didn’t. And Artem outraced Samuel for it. And then he put it into the back of the net!? What the hell was going on!?
After that, Sakho picked up an injury, and Sandro and Vukcevic grew tired, so they all came out for Otamendi, Capoue, and Sebastián Blanco (making his debut). I wanted fresh legs on the pitch. Blanco made a nice pass to put Milevskyi through again, but he was judged offsides. Other than that, the boys just naturally dropped back and played keepaway when we managed to get the ball. Inter tried to play more offensively, bringing Tranquilo Barnetta on for Motta (dropping Stankovic back into the midfield and putting Barnetta in the linkup role). Mourinho brought Zanetti on for Muntari in a bid to get more leadership onto the field. In the 90th minute, he brought Balotelli on for Milito. Nothing worked for him though, and we flat-out stole this one from Inter. In my post-game speech I told everyone how much of fantastic result this was, and how proud I was of all of them. Despite having to come out, Sakho still got himself the MOTM award, and we were somehow on top of the group.
After Inter we went away to Grenoble, who had already agreed to sell us Feghouli. He still started against us, though. I rested Artem for the first time… well, possibly for the first time since he signed with us. He was still on the bench, but he’d taken a knock against Inter from muscling up with Samuel, and I’d prefer that he not suddenly breakdown against a team I thought we could beat without him. Chantôme and Vukcevic also began the match on the bench, with Capoue and Abou Diaby in their places. Daeseleire and Dodô got the nod at the fullback postitions, and Otamendi and Papastathopoulos were in the center. Hoarau got most of the match off, making my forwards Kleber and Erdinç on the outside and Chamakh in the middle. Chamakh put one in in the 19th minute, heading in a Kléber cross on a breakaway. 3 minutes later, Kléber ran onto a loose ball rattling around the edge of the area and hit a perfectly placed shot just inside the near post, netting him his first goal since our Trophée es Champions win in July. That was all we needed, and that was fine by me. Chantôme and Vukcevic came on late to get a bit of light running in and stay fresh, and Hoarau came in as well to work himself back towards fitness, but Grenoble never even threatened. Kléber got himself the MOTM, and in the locker room I thanked everyone for the two-part birthday present. The early gift of the win over Inter, and then the followup gift on my actual birthday with this comprehensive victory.
Feghouli came back to Paris with the team for our first home match in nearly a month, against Nice. For the first time in what seemed like forever we actually played in decent weather, too. In the 23rd minute, the ball went back and forth off a goal kick until Auriac inexplicably turned his back on the ball, letting Quartey’s pass bounce off of him. Kléber snatched the loose ball and found Artem in acres of space. Artem got onto the pass without any trouble and put a low shot past the keeper to make it 1-0. Simple, really. We had a full-strength midfield, and 2/3 of the Giant Line (Hoarau resting in favor of Kléber), and we kept the ball when we had it (they finished with a 16% tackle success rate), despite not dominating possession. Late in the second half, once I’d rested Sandro and Vukcevic in favor of Capoue and Feghouli in his debut, and then Chamakh in favor of Hoarau, Kléber got behind the last defender in our own half and started making his way towards goal. He had Hoarau trailing unmarked off to his left, and rather than be selfish crossed it to Hoarau, who put it into the wide-open net for his first goal of the season. That’s how the match finished, and Kléber earned his second MOTM in a row with his two-assist performance, continuing to display signs that he’s understanding our system.
We went away to face our partner team Boulogne 3 days later, with our home match against Inter looming. Sessegnon had almost returned to full training, giving me confidence he’d be ready for Inter. That meant I didn’t feel the need to rest Chantôme, as I expected he’d be back on the bench for Inter thanks to Sessegnon’s recovery. With a midfield of Chantôme, Capoue, and Feghouli, and a front line of Erdinç and Kléber on the wings anchored by Hoarau, we began the match in a lovely downpour. Just before the end of the first half, Kléber took the ball into the box on the left side, drawing the entire defense to him. That left Hoarau wide open, and he tapped the ball in after Kléber found him with a quick pass. In the second half, Hoarau gathered the ball at the top of the box, turned, and found a streaking Feghouli running into the penalty area. With only the keeper to beat, he put the ball smartly into the corner. Then, in injury time, Erdinç ran loose with the ball down the righthand channel before sending a low cross at the last possible moment to Hoarau, who knows how to make a sitter. 3-0 to us, and a MOTM to Hoarau. I also got to see Tolói and Adrien play. Tolói didn’t have the best of games but Adrien came on as a sub and held his own. I’m confident at least one will be a contributor next year, with Adrien being the more likely simply because of his citizenship status. Tolói has 3 years to go before he’s a French citizen.
We returned to Paris to face Inter again, and, proving that I can acknowledge when things break my way, Walter Samuel tore his calf muscle in the time between our two matches, leaving Mourinho with a central defence of Lucio and Materazzi. Here’s what Materazzi looks like:
He’s got all he needs mentally, but his body just can’t do it anymore. That’s why I use Makélélé as a tutor and tell him all the time that he should be a coach. It’s not their fault. But with Materazzi forced to play, I actually went into this game expecting to win. How was he going to handle Artem “Mini-Ibra” Milevskyi? Or Chamakh, or Hoarau? He couldn’t out-muscle them, and they could run right by him. The solution would be to use superior positioning and stay in front of the ball, but he’s too aggressive and prideful and I knew he’d get caught out.
I gave Sessegnon the start with Sandro and Vukcevic, kept the Giants up front, and our strongest 4 defenders at the back. 5 minutes into the game, Vukcevic tapped a ball forward to Chamakh on a freekick, and with all the time in the world Chamakh hit a screamer that curled in for a goal, one of those where the ball hits the underside of the bar and rockets straight down, but has just enough momentum to carry forward across the line. I looked at it as a huge statement goal, one that said, “We can do this, too. Deal with it.” And then 10 minutes later, as if to prove that my feeling about this game was right, Materazzi picked up a yellow card. With no possible substitute on the bench, he was going to have to be extra careful. Artem started running right by him, just to prove how ineffective Materazzi had become. In the 32nd minute, Artem ran right by him again, getting onto the end of a through ball but deciding to take it towards the byline to the right of the goal. Materazzi and Lucio followed, and Artem turned around and found Vukcevic running into approximately 3.7 acres of space in the penalty area, and Simon slotted under a diving Júlio César to make it 2-0. Lúcio picked up his own yellow card before the end of the first half, and I knew, barring some catastrophe, that it was over. I told everyone not to let up in the second half. Sessegnon had to come out for Chantôme after 57 minutes, and in the 65th I brought Capoue on for Vukcevic to give us a much more physical and defensive-minded presence across the midfield. I also brought out Anyukov, who’d picked up a knock, replacing him with Papastathopoulos. I patted Anyukov on the back for his last-ditch sliding tackle on Eto’o in the box, saving a sure goal and completely throwing poor Samuel off of his game for the rest of the match (Ed.: I’ve never seen a player argue for a penalty, have play continue, and then the player argue some more, and he didn’t even get a card). Two minutes later, Chantôme hit a long lob over the defense to Hoarau who cut in from the right wing and put the ball low and across Júlio César for our third goal of the match. And that’s how it ended. Our coming-out party was a 3-0 domination of a highly-favored, internationally-recognizable team in European play. I have to be honest, I’m going to be upset if I don’t have offers to refuse when January comes around. Not for me, but for my players. I’m sticking to my promise of staying in Paris until we win the Champions League (and never searching out a new club to manage. Having said that, maybe I’ll get the chance yet to manage Stevie G.).
So here we are. Meaningful stats thus far: We’ve only allowed 7 goals in league play, and 10 total all season through 17 matches. We’ve only been held to one goal all season, our draw at Toulouse. Everyone’s healthy. Our next two matches are at home against Bastia and Nantes, two of the newly-promoted teams. We play Craivoa at home next in group play, and 13 points clinches the group. Not just a spot in the knockout rounds, but a group win. Unbelievable. My next update will be once we hit the Christmas break, and I’ll follow that up with a transfer window post. Barring a massive string of injuries expect those to mostly be free transfer targets for next season. I will share that, again barring injuries or a club coming to me with an offer I can’t refuse for anyone currently in the squad, my plan for next season is to put as much of the transfer funds as possible into the wage budget and lock everyone down for the long term at wages they deserve. I already gave an extension to Sakho (€56k a week through 2015, and I’ll probably increase that, too) and I will do everything in my power to keep this nucleus intact.
What made me even happier after the second Inter match was learning that it was our 12th win in a row, a club record. I wasn’t happy about setting the record, but rather that I hadn’t even noticed. I don’t think the boys had either. We are focusing on every match as if it decides our season.
Our upcoming fixtures:
Ed.: I had a job interview this past Monday, and I think it went rather well. I’ll know soon if I actually got the job, and if that happens I have no idea what that will do to my playing/posting abilities. We shall see, but even if you like this (all 2 of you) please think happy thoughts. Thanks. Oh, and Emmanuelle Chriqui has nothing to do with this post, in case you hadn’t figured that out. She is rather attractive, though.