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SUNDAY April 1st, 2018
Vitesse is in fourth place, while we languish in seventh. An obvious April Fools joke if I’ve ever seen one. They’re four points ahead of us and really offer us the only thing to aim for in the league this season. They’ve only lost one game this calendar year. Their next two games are against PSV and Groningen, two of their top four opponents. They finish the season hosting us. Oooh, do I see an upset game?
Van de Vaart signed a new contract. He’s done everything I could have asked for. He’s a passing machine and his experience has been well shared and well appreciated. I think there’s one more year in those legs – two more if he plays more than 10 games as his contract will be extended.
THURSDAY April 5th, 2018
Game day. Leverkusen v N.E.C. Europa League Quarter Final Leg 1.
The rain was persisting down at the BayArena, but my guys were raring to go. We were a bit threadbare, so Bai Kamara and Marengo were on the bench. The first team was as strong as it gets these days, but I had to hope they weren’t going to get too tired. Leverkusen started with Chicharito up front, which was plenty worrisome.
We started with the possession-based, patient, probing approach and it worked well. Leverkusen were struggling to get close to our goal and we, correspondingly, were doing little in front of theirs. That was, until Van der Vaart got a free kick close to the half way line. The centre backs went up for it, but it was a quick-off-the-mark Vela at the far end of the mobbed players who ran behind the play and volleyed home between the post and the keeper. An away goal at 37 minutes! We kept the lead to the half time break. This was as good a start as I could have hoped and I told the boys so.
Within a minute of the restart, Vela sent the ball into Guedioura who was sitting outside the box. Noticing that the keeper had started moving to his right to re-centre himself, Guedioura wasted no time in blasting the ball to the space the keeper was leaving. Wrong-footed, Leno had no chance to stop it and we were up 2-0 away in 46 minutes.
The boys visibly relaxed, which was a bit concerning, but there wasn’t much I could do other than yell out to those who passed by me on the sideline. Jimmy Smits made a strong, high grab from a hopeful cross in the 53rd minute. He started play back up again and Vela managed to slide the ball into Sylla who shot straight at the chinny Leno who took it easily. After that, it was clear that Leverkusen were getting themselves into better shape. They were pressing all over the pitch, but my guys were holding their nerve.
In the 67th minute, they scored from a clear header from a corner. There’s not much you can do about that, so it was frustrating. It still felt good to have been keeping them out from open play. One minute later, they did it again. More frustrating. Still no goal from open play. It was tied up 68 minutes in.
In the 89th, Van der Heijden took a balanced shot from distance that beat the keeper, but bounced off and up from the crossbar. In the 92nd, Sylla got a great ball over his shoulder from Van der Heijden and sped to the keeper for a one-on-one, but Leno kept his chin up and beat the ball away.
We probably could have won, but I feel 2-2 away is a pretty good place to be right now. The Germans can come to the Goffertstadion and try to beat us. I dare them. I double dog dare them.
SUNDAY April 8th, 2018
Game day. Fortuna Sittard v N.E.C.
Vitesse lost in the earlier game, giving us a chance to pounce. Naturally, we let Bib Fortuna score two goals in the first half and spent the second half chasing a win. Vela got us a goal near the end of the game, but it wasn’t enough. Is the European hangover a rule? We had nine shots on target and 59% of the possession, but still lost.
THURSDAY April 12th, 2018
Game day. N.E.C. v Leverkusen. Europa League Quarter Final Leg 2.
We lined up to defend again. Plan A was to keep them from scoring. Plan B would be to match them in goals scored if Plan A didn’t work. Plan C was to throw a hissy fit if Plan B didn’t work.
Unsurprisingly, they had a shot from their first possession. Perhaps also unsurprising was that it was from distance. That was our plan. Sándor Szűcs was injured thirteen minutes into the game (out for four weeks, by the way), which was not part of the plan. Christian Santos came in with his beautiful head of hair.
Sylla had his own shot from distance in the 18th minute, but it went way over. Shortly after he drove into the box, then sent it out wide to Vela, who shot into the side netting. Nothing Leverkusen had sone so far caused me concern. The gameplan was working. Jimmy made an acrobatic save at the end of the first half and we were half way to progressing to the semifinal.
In the 49th minute, Sylla started another lonely, slow run toward goal. His support on the flanks was staying way back to minimise counter attacks, so he just kept moving forward as the Leverkusen defenders backed off. Their two central defenders, basically holding hands, walked up to stop him and he juked right, creating a sudden chase. Six steps later he shot and beat the keeper at the inside post! We were up and now the Germans needed two goals to progress.
Smits repelled Chicharito in the 58th minute, but a minute later, Rios gave them a gimme by sticking his foot in at the wrong time inside the penalty area. Their Turkish striker stepped up to take it and slammed it left, but Jimmy Smits was up to the task, incredibly saving the penalty! When this guy is on, he is on.
We spent the last three full minutes of the game owning the ball. They needed two goals, but we didn’t let them even touch the ball. So proud. I could have kissed all of the boys. Especially Santos. No, not like that. But anyway, Jimmy Smits was man of the match and now we’re off to play Monaco in the Europa League Semifinal! In two weeks. I’m not sure I can handle the stress. I kid – of course I can handle it.
SATURDAY 14th April, 2018
Vitesse won. We’re screwed.
SUNDAY 15th April, 2018
Game day. N.E.C. v SC Heerenveen.
In the 22nd minute, Vanderson Luan sent the ball long and pretty clearly away from anyone in an N.E.C. shirt. One of the Heerenveen defenders left it for the other and then that defender left it for the keeper. Unfortunately for them, Nagasawa had decided to chase the ball from the first second and got it before the keeper who quickly back-pedalled. Nagasawa took a touch to the right and blasted it past the keeper inside of the far post. A glorious goal that showed tenacity and technique. It made my heart sing.
In the 30th, we conceded one of those annoying “cross to an inward darting midfielder who taps into the net between a couple of defenders” goals. They’re annoying when another team does them. When we did it two minutes later, it was obviously the result of a talented group of players and a visionary tactician on the sideline. Sylla continues to score important goals for us and every time he does it I worry more about who will do his job next season.
No goals for the rest of the game. Hilariously, the Heerenveen players accused Djurdjic of wasting time during injury time. That’s not how my guys play. We’re honest to a fault. And humble. Probably the most humble players in the league and I’m even more humble than any of them. Humble and fair. It’s a curse, but it’s the only way we know.
THURSDAY 26th April, 2018
Game day. N.E.C. v Monaco. Europa League Semi Final Leg 1.
The squad was raring to go before the game. Eleven days off was plenty of time to prepare. I was feeling confident of scoring against the Liverpool retirement club. Monaco came to town with Balotelli, Emre Can, and Lovren. This would be a good test for us for when the inevitable clash with Liverpool comes.
We began the game by injuring El Shaarawy in the first few minutes. He was subbed out in the fifth minute. I’d sent the boys out in our attacking formation, hoping to get a quick advantage in this home tie. I wasn’t expecting the bonus of forcing them to use up one of their subs so quickly. Perhaps as some sort of payback, the ref gave Monaco a penalty for a debatable touch on Moutinho in the 16h minute. Balotelli put it away. Thanks ref.
At the 22nd, Breno was left alone on the flank for reasons unclear to me. He took his time to scope out the activity in the box and sent over a ball that landed (not in the sense that it touched the ground) right with Djurdjic who drove it home. Wow. Top drawer stuff.
Six minutes later, Balotelli scored again, though he shouldn’t have. He went up to head the ball and Smits dove to save the header that didn’t come. Thus Jimmy was on the ground when the ball trickled across the goal line after limply bouncing off Mario’s stomach. I was starting to think we might be cursed to lose this one. So far they had 2 out of 2 undeserved goals.
In the 35th minute, Sylla got onto a Schlupp ball into the box and smashed it right into their keeper. The ball came back to him and Balotelli cleared the ball before the shot could be taken. Somehow the ref awarded us a penalty against Mario. Thanks ref. Djurdjic missed the penalty. Cursed?
At the half I asked if anyone had a chicken to sacrifice. No luck, so I just told them to keep going and maybe Balotelli would stop being so involved in the game and our luck would change.
From the kickoff, we held possession for nearly a minute before Vela passed the ball back to Breno and ran directly toward the box. Breno took the ball down the sideline, supported by Diarra, and darted the ball to an unmanned Vela who shot straight and somehow beat the keeper. Game on. No chicken sacrifice required. Vela sprinted over to Breno after the goal and they saluted the crowd together.
For the next fifteen minutes Balotelli repeatedly skinned Breno down their left flank, but we held strong. I wasn’t too keen on going to Monaco with a 2-2 draw. I was even less interested in a 3-2 loss. We had to step up and Golla, in particular, was doing so.
In the 62nd, the ref called ANOTHER bad penalty call. For us again, luckily, so obviously I was adamant that it was a good call during and after the game. Djurdjic took the ball to the spot and I quietly wished someone else had intervened. Luckily for him, and numerous inanimate objects around me, he scored. We were up and only needed to not lose in Monaco. That was something I could handle.
We stole the ball away after their kickoff and nearly grabbed another goal, but their keeper was able to deflect it wide. With 75 minutes gone, they started shooting from distance. Nothing troubled us though. It wasn’t until the beast named Balotelli muscled out of a tackle and in a rare moment of non-ego, lobbed it across the face of goal to a waiting winger who struck it home.
In the 90th minute, Fabinho was sent off for a second yellow card and that was all she wrote. Three minutes of peppering the goal from us couldn’t change the score. What a game. Now we have to go to Monaco and win. Or draw 4-4, but that seems a bit of a stretch.
SUNDAY 29th April, 2018
Game day. PSV v N.E.C.
Danny Graham was back from injury and straight into the starting lineup after the leg-burning 3-3 on Thursday. While I would have liked to play a full strength team in order to finish higher up the Europa League playoff places, I actually had a Europa League still to play for. So, it was the replacements team that traveled to Eindhoven.
Hovering at the edge of the box, Rios took a ball from Breinburg and buried it into the net across the face of goal. It was his first of the season, which would have left the opposition manager fuming, considering this is the second last game of the season. Just before the end of the half, we doubled our lead when Zimmermann ran the length of the pitch and Graham won the ball out of the scrum in the box to poke it home.
Bruma scored for them after a broken up corner routine, giving them some hope, and me some heartburn. We kept pressing and Nagasawa sealed the deal with an amazing ball on the run that cleared three defenders and landed in the path of Christian Santos who was making an inside run. He was unopposed and shot true. We just upended PSV away from home with the backups and suddenly fourth was no longer a dream. Well, technically it is probably a dream, but it’s at least feasible now.