I’m agitated as we rumble back to Seville from Murcia. We’ve got 6th-placed Salamanca next, followed by a crucial tie against Valladolid — the team one place above us in the league who haven’t conceded a single goal so far this season. Eight consecutive clean sheets is bordering on ridiculous, and I’m not sure what to do differently to guarantee we’ll be the first ones to stain their goalsheets. All I know is that my team can’t quite find a rhythm, and something is wrong, so I do what I normally do in this kind of situation: drink heavily with people who know nothing about football until someone accidentally hits on the answer without even trying.
Seventeen cañas later, I’ve befriended a stray dog and am laying down on a bench on the Alameda staring at the sky. I’ve tried the Typhoon but it leaves us with too much to worry about at the back, and I’ve tried dropping back into the Diamond but it leaves us without enough thrust up front. I’ve hardly ever had a problem with tactics or formations before… why has it started now? Do I need to think about this differently? I stare at the clouds as they gently breeze by, tiny cotton buds interrupting the great blue nothing. As they drift together, a pattern emerges… a pattern I haven’t seen for a very long time. Not since I left England, in fact. But it’s a pattern that hits me like a football in the groin, and in an instant, I know what to do. I just can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner.
4–1–3-Fucking-2. The formation that led me to (basically) glory with Rushden & Diamonds. The formation the mighty Finn Harps have used to wipe the floor with every team in the Republic of Ireland. The formation that we will use for our next two games unless it’s a complete disaster. It’s so obvious, and so glorious. The only tweak for this set of players is to leave Alonso off the forward run list — he’s been sensational as our sitting playmaker and there’s no need to change his instructions, but everyone else? It’s storm time.
Salamanca are pinned back from the first whistle, and it’s only the ongoing profligacy of Maxim Tsigalko that means we aren’t 2–0 up after three minutes as he wildly slashes shots off target when put through by Sestelo and Abreu. No, I’m forced to wait all the way to the fourth minute before the Belarusian makes the breakthrough — and it’s the sort of move that rolls back the years and makes me remember why I always loved my teams playing this way. Victory flicks a header to Bergtoft, who does the sensible thing and passes to Mikel Alonso ahead of him. Alonso takes a few steps into space and then arrows a pass onto the head of Sebastián Abreu, who nods back across goal for Tsigalko to rise and power a header down past legendary Romanian keeper Bogdan Stelea and give us the earliest of leads!
Salamanca then have a couple of goes at getting towards our third, but Jorge Campos is back to his brilliant best, commanding his area and sweeping up for his defenders when balls are played in behind them. Lundén then puts another glorious chance wide after a through pass from Bergtoft, but minutes later, we’re 2–0 up. Alonso puts yet another ball into the box for Tsigalko, his shot is parried by Stelea, but Sergio Sestelo marauds into the box and flicks home the rebound! Sergio Sestelo, who many thought wouldn’t be able to get into this team after our summer arrivals got here and smartened up the place, is showing why he’s your reigning Player of the Year.
Salamanca do put the ball in the net but it’s rightly disallowed for offside, miles ref, well played fella — but other than that, it’s all us for the remainder of the half. Sestelo centres a ball for Abreu, who climbs above Stelea and heads the ball, not goalwards, but instead down for Jonas Lundén to get a confidence-boosting tap-in, and although Salamanca forward Robert has to score for them since he hasn’t scored yet this season and it’s tradition, before the half-time whistle sounds, Abreu goes on an inspired run that sees him dance past three visiting defenders and cross for none other than Sergio Sestelo to rise at the far post and head home his second goal of the day for a 4–1 half-time lead for the Rainmakers. I bloody knew this formation would work.
The second half is equally wild as first Abreu has the ball in the net only to see his effort ruled out for offside, from which Salamanca smash the free-kick long and hotshot striker Pablo Zegarra batters a volley past Campos to reduce the score to 4–2, Bogdan Stelea then decides he’s going to be unstoppably brilliant for a ten minute period that sees him deny Bergtoft, Tsigalko, Tobros, Dunwell after he comes on for Tsigalko and then Bergtoft again, but from the corner that results from his final save, Victory whips the ball into the face of Teddy Lucic and he bundles home to make it 5–2 with about 25 minutes to go.
Stelea then makes several more saves from Dunwell, Sestelo, Victory and Moukoko when he’s introduced, and then, with all my subs made and just a couple of minutes left, Zegarra goes on one of those runs that sees him motor past four of our players before blasting a shot into the top corner to leave the final score Los Coladeros 5–3 Salamanca. The Ultras have gotten their money’s worth today, that’s for sure.
On the one hand, we’ve absolutely battered Salamanca going forward there. So many chances created, excellent pass completion, and five goals to go along with it. However, something is suddenly wrong with Jorge Campos, who has gone from unbeatable to conceding practically everything over our last couple of games. It’s a head-scratcher that I may need to also consider rectifying with the judicial use of the winter transfer window if things don’t improve. Then again, I do have Antonis Voulgaris already here… maybe he can make his bow if Jorge gets three 5s in a row.
And we’ll get to find out pretty bloody quickly because, after some superb calendar ignorance from me, it turns out that no sooner have I finished celebrating our win in D2’s highest-scoring ever game than we are forced to welcome newly top of the league Valladolid to La Cartuja, who sadly conceded their first goal of the season three days ago against Oviedo in what was otherwise a routine 4–1 win. They were relegated from La Liga last season in 18th place, so by all rights, they ought to be the Segunda Division’s best side — and so far, they’re living up to expectations.
Disappointed we can’t be the first to penetrate Albano Bizzarri but excited at the prospect of slaying Valladolid in front of the Ultras, I set about organising my team. It takes very little time since it’s exactly the same one that went out last time; they’ve still got their kits on, and there’s no time to change them anyway. All evidence from this season suggests Valladolid are on for a 1–0 win, but I’m in the mood to defy the bookies. It’s clobbering time.
Valladolid are unbelievably dangerous right from the first whistle, and spend the opening 15 minutes lurking in and around our penalty area. My defence largely hold firm, with Lucic and Tobros repelling Ciric and Pizzi after they get into dangerous positions, but eventually a clearance drops to the edge of the box — Juan Peña is there, and hits the dropping ball!! Ooohhhh, what a save Campos, who does his trademark barrel roll as Bergtoft completes the clearance by smashing the ball downfield. But what’s this? His clearance has dropped right into the path of Maxim Tsigalko, who takes the ball down and shoots! OFF THE POST! An electric opening 15 minutes at La Cartuja!
Sadly, after that it’s pretty much all Valladolid, and I’m made acutely aware of why they are top of the league. They’re just pounding us with wave after wave of attacks, and although my defenders are doing a reasonable job of keeping them at arm’s length, we’re doing nothing to trouble them at the other end — we only manage an Abreu header on target that Bizzarri saves and holds without too much trouble. Valladolid also only manage one further effort on target themselves… Alberto Marcos beats Ung and crosses into the box, where Sergio Pachón is waiting, and his header powers past Campos and in for 1–0 to the visitors on 37 minutes.
We can pretty much only survive until half-time, not managing anything else of our own, and the break is a difficult time for me. We need to change something, but it isn’t clear what; they only person I’d definitely change is Ung, but without anyone on the bench to replace him, I’d need to put Lucic at right-back and bring the Greek lad into the middle, which doesn’t feel like the right idea. I decide to give the players until the hour mark to change the game in our favour, and send them back out.
It comes quickly, and after two more Campos saves and very little going the other way, it’s time to make some changes. Today’s unpredictable underperformers are Tobros and Alonso, otherwise two of our best players so far this season, but by god we need an equaliser, so the Greek lad and Moukoko come in and we go a little more attacking — basically I switch Sestelo into centre-mid and tell him to get all the way up front.
Unfortunately, Valladolid are just… a bit better than us. That’s the hard truth of today’s game. Nothing I do makes any difference to the game; they simply keep coming at us, Campos makes a few more good saves, we can’t do anything to test Bizzarri, and eventually, as it has been for most of the season so far, Valladolid win this game by a goal to nil.
More great news in the aftermath as Chania reject my improved £1m bid for Skalidis, and — having already accepted £500k from Aris — he quickly agrees to go there, and my chance to sign one of the world’s most impressive wonderkids is gone, for now at least. It’s an utterly absurd set of circumstances, as if Chania were deliberately trying to foil me specifically, but never mind. Our winter reinforcements are already looking good, even without him.
I’m doing all this business from Chugger, of course, because the games are coming thick and fast at the moment and it’s already time to head out. I’d gotten a little too comfortable with just having games every Saturday, but this week we’ve got three matches, including the previous two — and now we’re off to see if Levante will be a bit more accommodating of my desire to win a game 4–0 with no need for me to reach into Susan’s backpack. Bingo, the dog I adopted after the Nástic result, is barking at Maxim Tsigalko at the back of Chugger as we roll towards Valencia, and you know what, boy? I agree. He’s had good scores in the last two games, but overall, the Belarusian’s knack for troubling corner flags more often than opposing goalkeepers has finally gotten to me, and as such I decide it’s time for him to sit and watch from the side, with Michael Dunwell, last season’s goalscoring hero — in the playoffs especially — returning to the fold to partner Abreu. It’s a gamble, but I’m taking it. You don’t get paid the big bucks to play it safe. Away from home, we aren’t creating many chances; a habit that’s starting to leak over to our games at La Cartuja as well. When we do get in front of goal, I need snipers, not bazookas. December can’t come soon enough.
Dunwell slaps the crossbar with a header in the second minute and I already feel vindicated, but my heart returns to my front teeth minutes later as I watch Levante score with their first attempt on goal. However, our outstanding referee decides that Amato, the goalscorer, was fractionally offside, and with no televisions or robots to prove otherwise, the game returns to 0–0 and we continue to look the more likely. Home goalkeeper Rafa saves twice from Victory free-kicks that accidentally land on target, before beating away rangy strikes from Abreu and Sestelo.
The half time whistle is fast approaching as Jonas Lundén decides to have a go at humiliating the entire Levante team with a winding run past them, which is actually going pretty well until he’s ended by Jofre as he approaches their penalty area. However, Michael Dunwell is there to gather the scraps, and when he looks up for someone to clip a cross to, would you believe who he sees? You’re absolutely right, Sergio Sestelo, and in a moment of almost orgasmic beauty, our one-two partnership from last season combine for the Spaniard to head past Rafa and in to give us a deserved 1–0 lead at the break. It’s just like old times.
The second half starts well, with a single Campos save from a long-range Amato drive, but otherwise we are in complete control. Lundén and Abreu have shots pushed away by Rafa, Bergtoft is playing the midfield general role to perfection, Nikolaos Tobros has almost killed a man — everything is going beautifully. All we need is a second goal, and we’re surely safe. I reach for a celebratory bottle from Susan’s backpack just as Bergtoft destroys Luismi Loro with a tackle wide on the left and is booked for his endeavour. I chuck on Conceição and Tsigalko for Alonso and Dunwell as Loro lines up the free kick, surely preparing a cross. He runs up, strikes… and the ball sails over everyone, including Jorge Campos, and drops into the far post to tie up the game at 1–1. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing.
Fortunately, my most maligned striker uses his time on the bench as motivation, and just eight minutes later, he’s pushing to get his starting place back. A corner is won from Jonas Lundén’s shot being tipped wide by Rafa, and when Victory’s cross goes all the way to Daniel Ung, the Swede gets the ball out of his feet and whips a cross into the box that Maxim Tsigalko stoops to head past Rafa and in for 2–1, finally, to the Rainmakers. It’s been a tough old slog, with Victory and Alonso playing their parts as today’s underperforming regulars, but in the end, thank goodness — we’ve won.
I’m exhausted in the wake of this result. We’re up and down with our performances and results, I don’t feel like we have enough consistency, and while Abreu is consistently good up front, he’s only a temporary addition — and when he goes, I don’t know if I’ll be able to rely on Tsigalko. Papadopoulos will be a good addition, but I do feel like we might need a bit more firepower in December. I slump down into my seat on Chugger, my phone buzzing furiously in my pocket, and briefly lament the loss of Skalidis. He could have been the answer to my problems. As it is we remain third in the league, which isn’t a total disaster, but we’re now eight points off the top with Valladolid looking menacing after 12 games.
I answer the call — it’s Jacek Kolodziej… Kolijdz… it’s that Polish scout I ordered a couple of months ago, who’s been in England looking at prospective transfers for the winter. He hasn’t yet learned English or Spanish so I can’t understand most of the words he says… except for two. Two glorious words. I can’t believe I’m hearing them, but there’s no doubt. I check, I see, I offer, I accept, and within hours of that first call, the deal is sealed. I can’t believe I missed the fact that he’d been released on a free transfer, but it doesn’t matter any more. It doesn’t matter. He’s moving into my spare room. Everyone — prepare for greatness.
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