This guest series is written by my good friend Harry, who has chosen to make himself miserable for your enjoyment. This is Chapter 6. For previous chapters, see Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, and Chapter 6. -Isaiah
The month begins with me waving Paolo Gazzaniga off into the sunset as his loan ends, sending him back to the jaws of Jose Mourinho’s Spurs like Tyrion Lannister marrying off his cousin. He really wasn’t that bad but, with MATS and Neto both fit again, I can’t really justify having him hanging around the place.
January is a tough-looking month, featuring five league games (including what looks like a crunch game with Atleti at the Camp Nou), a couple of Copa del Rey rounds and that dumbass Super Cup competition that the Spanish FA expanded to make sure that us and Madrid are in it every season. Fortunately a bunch of those league games are against poor teams so hopefully we can blitz them in the first half and I can then rest players.
With that in mind, I give Trincao, Braithwaite and Puig starts against Levante. Let’s not mess around here guys.
And we don’t. We attack straight out of the blocks and Trincao gives us the lead with a long-range pea-roller. 90 seconds later De Jong’s cross is met by an acrobatic volley from Puig for 2-0. On 21 minutes, Trincao collects a cut back from Jose Gaya to score with a shot across the goal. The only blemish on the half is when Levante pull one back through Morales a minute later. In the second half, we waste time and keep the ball effectively, letting me take Messi off after 64 minutes. A good day’s work, all in all.
And on to the Super Cup. Puig can keep his place because of his good performance last time out. Otherwise, Fati and Dembele come in, with Messi moving to centre forward. Valencia, it turns out, are having one of their good seasons (I’ll have to shout at my analytics department) and are currently in third, only three points behind us. I’m not saying I’d be happy if we went out of this but I wouldn’t exactly be crying.
One of the more bizarre games of my tenure. We race into the lead, Dembele scoring twice in the first ten minutes. It’s all going well until the half hour mark, when both sets of players decide they’d rather just kick the shit out of each other instead. Toni Lato is forced off after 22 minutes and ten minutes later I have to take Dembele off with a bruised thigh. We make it 3-0 before half time with a Fati curler from 20 yards.
20 minutes into the second half, the players decide that the game has got boring and leap into action again. In the 64th minute, a cross from deep by De Jong is met by Fati on the volley for 4-0. A minute later, a Kondogbia rocket from 25 yards pulls it back to 4-1. A minute after that, our counterattack is stopped by Kevin Gameiro’s foul, for which he is booked. Straight from the free kick, he chases down Sergi Roberto and launches into a wild tackle that gets him his second yellow. After a few minutes to calm themselves down, Maxi Gomez pulls another back with a placed finish at the near post, only for Puig to make it 5 with a close range finish only a minute later. As an afterthought, Maxi Gomez is forced to limp off a few minutes later. 5-2. Weird game.
And so on to the final of the Slave Owning Kleptocracy Sponsor Cup – sorry, Spanish Super Cup – against Atleti. This gives us a good opportunity to lay down a marker ahead of our league fixture in three games time. With that in mind, I pick basically my first choice team, with Alba and Coutinho returning.
An even and uneventful first half leads on to a more eventful second. Athletic go close twice in the early exchanges, with MATS saving well from Correra on one occasion and Jose Gimenez missing the target with a well-worked header from a corner. In the 65th minute our best chance comes when Gimenez misplaces a pass directly to Messi but the Argentine fluffs the one-on-one. Only four minutes later, however, Pjanic lays the ball off to Alba, who jinks past Koke into the box and thrashes a rocket into the top corner. Nice.
The rest of the game plays out uneventfully. We’re on balance the better team and have a good chance for 2-0 when we win a penalty but Messi misses. It’s a tough-fought game but I’m pleased to make the Slave Owning Kleptocracy Sponsor Cup my first trophy.
Returning to defiantly non-slave owning Spain (n.b. do not look up the Wikipedia entry for Spanish history before 1886), it’s Real Betis and a game against their new(ish) keeper and our old friend Claudio ‘Chocolate Wrists’ Bravo. I bring in Wilshere for a flagging De Jong and then take the painful decision to bench Messi, who’s really in the red, for Trincao, while also making the usual rotating out of the full backs.
And Trincao doesn’t disappoint me. After only 26 seconds, good combination play down the right between him and Dest leads to the ball coming to Griezmann on the edge of the area, who makes no mistake to make it 1-0. In the 25th minute, a break led by a mazy run by Fati leads to a through ball in for Griezmann and he makes no mistake again. 2-0. In the second half, MATS saves comfortably when Cristian Tello (yup, him) dribbles the length of the pitch only to produce a tame shot. Fati rounds old Chocolate Wrists to make it 4-0 after being put through by Wilshere and Griezmann completes his hattrick on 68 minutes with a VAR-assisted penalty. I breathe a sigh of relief and take off players to give them a rest.
In the press conference things are looking up for me.
I mention this to Messi in the dressing room. He sniffs the air. “Xavi-ball sounds better” he says and wanders off. I return to my office and cry into the musky, strong arms of Ghost Puyol.
For the cup game against lower-league Almeria, I make 11 changes but keep a strong bench so we should be fine. I tell the players I expect nothing less than a win.
Sweet Christ I remembered why I hate this team so much. After half an hour, Dembele hurdles a challenge to cross for Pedri to convert. We hold onto the lead relatively straightforwardly but Almeria look pretty good. We’re having shots but they’re not that great and we’re not testing their keeper as much as I’d hope. I think about how much easier things would’ve been if VAR hadn’t ruled out an earlier Pedri goal for the narrowest of offsides. But we’re ahead and I make the usual time-wasting subs. And then, in the 91st minute, Jose Gaya (one of those subs) launches into a wild challenge to concede a penalty that Robertone converts. Almeria’s best chance.
In extra time, we again dominate but, again, don’t create good chances and, again, have a Pedri goal chalked off for offside. In the end we scrape through on penalties but I’m annoyed that we needed them.
Not the best preparation for the Atleti game but at least I’ll be going into it with a new team while the 11 that started in the Cup have time to think about what they’ve done. Atleti are two points ahead of us at the top of the league. A five point deficit wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world (considering we play them again only two months later) but it would definitely be worse than a one point lead.
Things start well for us. Pjanic opens the scoring with a drive from 30 yards that ricochets off Trippier and loops just out of Oblack’s reach into the net. A bit jammy but I’ll take it. We’re looking good to go into half time ahead until Saul splits our defence with a through ball and Suarez equalises. Not for him this not-celebrating-against-his-old-team lark: he leaps directly into the celebrating crowd. Prick.
Ten minutes into the second half, we are awarded a penalty when Gimenez brutally hacks down Pjanic, only for the clearly-biased VAR technology to scrub that off. Atleti then immediately break and take the lead with a Joao Felix dink over MATS. Typical. After this, Atleti shut up shop but they’re hardly hanging on: Pedri is the only one of our forwards to have a rating above 6.3. He has our best chance two minutes from the end when he slots in but he’s called back for offside. I knew hiring Alvaro Morata as his personal trainer was a mistake.
I’m very disappointed.
Messi didn’t play well, and he’ll be the first person to admit that, but this question in the post-match press conference is weird…
Was there really “bafflement”? Were Barca supporters really baffled that Lionel Messi wasn’t subbed off when the team were behind?
For the next game against Bilbao I bring in Pedri, Puig and Trincao to freshen up the forward line and I’m almost rewarded after an even first half when Trincao prods in after a goalmouth scramble only for VAR to call it back. Bilbao have the better of the game after the break and take the lead when Muniain coolly finishes from a Capa cross. I bring on Coutinho and tell him and Trincao to stay wide to try and stretch the play. This looks like it works when space opens up for Pjanic to make a late run into the box to crash home an equaliser from Gaya’s cross. Only ten minutes later, however, another header by Muniain from a Capa cross gives Bilbao the lead back. I push players forward, leaving Roberto by himself in midfield. The predictable thing happens and Bilbao break and score a third through Nolaskoain.
“Whomersley out – and you can put that in your dumb column” says my wife. Even Ghost Puyol is looking downcast. Crap.
I make 11 changes for the tie at Leganes in the Copa del Rey. We should beat these guys and I’m so pissed off with the team from last time, I want to shake something up anyway. I tell the players that we are not at home to Mr Cock Up and send them out.
No problem. Coutinho puts Braithwaite through after two minutes, who rounds the keeper to score against his old club. No word on whether he troubled the stewards afterwards. Dembele doubles the lead four minutes later at the end of a wonderful team move. After half an hour, Puig latches onto Coutinho’s backheeled pass for 3-0 and the scoring is rounded off on 66 minutes when Pjanic scores a penalty. I shouldn’t get too excited, given that Leganes are a lower league team, but that was pleasantly straightforward.
We close out the month against Getafe. I don’t like to insult fellow sporting professionals but these guys have been a bit crap this season. I tell the players that I expect them to get in and out with an efficient win.
We’re basically on top throughout the game but Getafe take the lead when Ante Palaversa scores with their first shot. Fortunately, Messi precludes the possibility of half time panic by holding off a challenge to equalise after half an hour, his first goal since November. Despite everything, though, the second half doesn’t see us have that many chances until Braithwaite finally latches onto Messi’s through ball to score the winner. The stats suggest that we deserve the win but I don’t feel we do.
I didn’t expect to feel so down at the end of a month in which I won my first trophy but those defeats at Atleti and Bilbao sting badly. Oh well, I’ll always have the drinks cabinet with Ghost Puyol.