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More Awkward Than The Time Your Stepdad Scored Backstage Passes To Hootie & The Blowfish

Fiorentina / Belgium – 2047/48 Open Thread

July 2047.

We are forced to begin our pre-season training camp in Turin. Without Zlatan.

Yes, you read that correctly. A double-blow to the lads’ morale.

Giggsy is running the rule over the budget, and has demanded that we save money this year and not travel overseas. I tried to argue that our trip Stateside last year was an unqualified success, but Ryan was having none of it. “There are perfectly good football pitches in Turin, Nico.”

Of course there are. But it’s Turin, of all places. I suspect that this has more to do with the opening of yet another Hotel Football, the respective merits of the nightclub scene, and dodgy sponsorship deals, than anything else.

Zlatan’s absence will also be felt. His unique motivational techniques simply cannot be replaced. I’m hopeful that his jury service in Florence will short. The sooner he returns to the training ground and locker room, the better.

“It is an outrage, Boss. The Zlatan, sitting on a jury?! The Zlatan is the jury, Boss, you know this. No one else need apply. Just go home, everybody. The Zlatan will take care of all this legal-ness.”

“I can’t believe they’d choose you, mate. Must be some kind of mistake.”

“Wait, Boss…Why shouldn’t the Zlatan do jury service?”

“Well, because your…critical faculties… I’m not being rude, Zlatan, but you’d be the first to admit that you’re not a very logical thinker.”

“No, the Zlatan would not.”

“Zlatan, you still don’t properly understand what happened in Ocean’s Eleven, do you?”

“It’s a complicated film, Boss.”

“It really isn’t.”

“Whatever, Boss. The Zlatan will karate kick jury service, just like Mister Danny did. Because whatever it is, the Zlatan will just let them off.”

“Zlatan, you can’t… You have to… Look, don’t try and upset me. I’m trying to plan a few training sessions.”

“It is probably some young child, who has been accused of stealing a bun to feed his starving family. The Zlatan is going to set him free, Boss.”

“Don’t you think you should wait until you hear the details?”

“That is just what they want you to do, Boss, listen to the details which will only confuse you. The Zlatan is definitely going to acquit.”

With sincere apologies to Messrs. Mitchell and Webb.

July 2047 – Odds & Ends.

The 2046/47 campaign saw us establish a new record average attendance, which in turn prompts the Board to approve an expansion of the Artemio Franchi even if we’re unable to have a training camp abroad. But, come on…by staying in Turin we were able to schedule a friendly against the likes of Cenaia, so we’ve got that going for us.

Early in the transfer window, I’m tempted by a few possible moves, but initially decide to keep the squad as-is. The players I could bring in are intriguing, but none are an obvious upgrade on the current squad in terms of current ability or potential…

…but my resolve is tested by Marin Pilipovic, a seventeen year-old forward who could be retrained as a libero. He doesn’t have the pace I want to play up front, but we saw in The Fourth Glass just how dangerous a player like this can be, attacking from deep as the libero in PM Haaienkanon.

Rijeka aren’t wildly unreasonable with their demands, so I take the plunge for $12.75M. Pilipovic will take over as the libero in our 2nd XI, with Laniyonu shifting to play as a centerback and Lammers going out on loan for the year.

Though Pilipovic will be my only incoming transfer business of the summer, I’m pleased. He gives us something different in possession, a lethal attacker from deep, with buckets of potential.

July 2047.

“So, Zlatan. First day in court, tell me everything.”

“Boss, the Zlatan has taken a solemn oath. The Zlatan knows that doesn’t mean a lot to you, but the Zlatan takes it very seriously.”

“I could get us some pho for dinner, and from a properly-franchised shop, not that one that gave you that fever.”

“Alright, for the pho. It’s murder, Boss. And it’s a woman. Six counts, four in the Giardino di Boboli, two in Soffiano. Not just murder, ritualized sex murder. The best kind.”

“The best…kind…of… Which one? Sex or murder?”

“Yes, boss.”

“Ok…I guess… That’s pretty incredible. Multiple counts of murder, there must be all sorts of intrigue.”

“Oh, sure. Ritualized sex murder sounds incredible… For the first three hours. After that, by the Holy Word of urCristiano it is the boring, Boss. ‘Are you guilty?’ ‘Blah blah blah.” It is obvious to the Zlatan that this is joke, she’s obviously guilty”

“Why?! Has she taken the stand?! What’s her alibi?!”

“Dunno, Boss. She might take the stand in a few months according to the guy wearing the robe, which did nothing for his figure.”

“A few months, Zlatan?! ”

“Yes, Boss. The Zlatan understands that this could drag on for months. Years even. But do not be the worry. The defendant is the guilty. She looks shifty.”


“Yes, Boss. You know the type. Dress up all nice for court but wouldn’t look out of place sitting in the San Marco, with yoga pants, a cappuccino and trainers.”

“I thought you were going to acquit.”

“Boss, the woman is no child stealing for her starving family. Plus, the Zlatan was talking to another bloke and he thinks the same. Basically…you know, Boss. No smoke, no fire.”

“No smoke, no fire, Zlatan? Is this what a thousand years of the Italian justice system comes down to?! No smoke, no fire?!”

“Be the relax, Boss. She is going down like Murphy Brown. And if she didn’t do it, so what? She would probably just do something else.”

August 2047.

Suffice to say that the bookies aren’t particularly impressed with our performance last year and summer transfer activity. We’re predicted to finish 8th. 8th.

I would write a snide, sarcastic Tweet-storm about it, but Zlatan is using the laptop to “research” ritualized sex murders. We’re also out of disinfectant, so I’m not touching the laptop until I can get to the store.

Trust me, though, that Tweet-storm was going to be epic.

I’ll just go back to planning for the Serie A curtain-raiser against Konstantinos Mavropanos’ Genoa instead.

Random fun fact: our pre-season friendlies included a Testimonial for Javier Diez, a Bilbao and Spain legend. During his tenure, Athletic won the 2033/34 La Liga Champions and have been constant fixtures in European competition, the high-water mark being the 2042/43 Europa League where they finished runners-up. I’ve long hoped that Diez would lead Athletic to eligibility in the save, but that seems like it might be a bridge too far. What a player. Shame we were such rude guests.

August/September 2047.

The day after our win in Belgium over the Faroes, I return to Florence to find Zlatan morose. He’s impossible when he’s like this. I don’t want to, but know that he’ll be in a funk until I drag it out of him.

“Zlatan, how’s the trial, brother? The media are all over it.”

A disgusted look crosses his face as he rolls his eyes. “The jury is boring, Boss. Why couldn’t the Zlatan get on the jury for an interesting case, like a cat-strangling or … the Zlatan doesn’t know, a corruption case that goes right to the heart of government!”

There really are no words. I just wait. There has to be more. If there’s one thing I know about Zlatan, ritualistic sex murders are right up his alley. After all, I’ve seen his Internet search history.

Even after all these years, Zlatan has yet to embrace the use of “incognito” mode. He takes it as a personal challenge — it’s the same reason he won’t use an antivirus program, or use public transportation.

“Boss, the Zlatan is just glad that you and Jesse are home, the jury is soooo boring. All they want to do is talk about the case.”

I nod and wait. That can’t be all of it. Zlatan hates silent pauses more than anything, even more than he hates penguins. (I can’t count how many times he’s ranted to me about “the snide little ****s, always dressed like they are going to an opera, as if they could even comprehend the emotional impact of the Nessun Dorma, Boss?! the Zlatan he does not think so!”)

Slowly, the story comes out. He went for a coffee last weekend and ran into the defendant. They’ve been texting. I know it’s more than that, though. I can see the look in his eye.

“It’s really… Honestly, it is the nothing, Boss. Anyways, it does not matter, she is definitely innocent.”

“Is she?! Why?! What came out?! What happened?!”

“Oh, nothing, Boss. Nothing came out. It is just… The Zlatan got to know her a bit, and it is obvious she wouldn’t do something like…that. She is very good with the ropes and knives. Safety first!”

“You got to know her… Ropes and knives, Zlatan?!”

“Yes, Boss. We just text a bit and…well…”

“Zlatan, you’re on the jury. You’re not even supposed to speak to the defendant, much less text and…you know… The knives…”

“The only seat in the cafe that day was next to her, Boss! What was the Zlatan supposed to do?! Blank her?! That’s against the law. The law of social niceness.”

“Zlatan. I’m telling you three times, you’ve got to break this off. You’ve got to stop. You can’t meet her again.”

“Oh, right. Suddenly the Zlatan can’t engage in ritual sexual intercourse with the defendant… Well, why not?!”

“Well, I supposed people might think it would make you less impartial if you’re trying to bone the woman you’re meant to be judging!”

“Trying?! Have you not been listening to the Zlatan, Boss?! There is no trying. And why can’t the Zlatan be trusted to judge the woman he’s sleeping with but…but… Boris Johnson can!? Yeah?!”

“Zlatan. It’s contempt of court. You’ll go to jail.”

“Look, Boss. The Zlatan is a musician in case you’d forgotten. The Zlatan answers to a higher law, the law of ‘if it feels good, do it.'”

“Oh, that’s a great law, Zlatan! What’s that, Neymar’s law?!”

“It’s the footballer’s law, Boss. Neymar couldn’t lay down a bass hook. That should be clear, even to you. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Zlatan. You’re not a musician. You’re going to spend the rest of your life in jail.”

“No, Boss. Is not happening. The defendant and the Zlatan are meeting tonight for more fun, with the judge, for a little ‘ex parte’ party, if you know what the Zlatan means…”

“Zlatan, you can’t…”

“Boss, have you seen the new judge? The Zlatan would let her ritual sex murder Him every day of the week. If it is the Zlatan’s time to go to the Great Cup Final in the Sky, Zlatan will go shouting screams of joy and pain.”

This is all my fault, really. I bought him those urCristian videos for Christmas last year. They put a lot of ideas into his head. And it isn’t like he needed the encouragement.

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Zlatan’s continued absence at the training round hasn’t hurt our prospects thus far. We hit the September international break at the top of the table on goal difference.

The trouble being that we’ve drawn an incredibly difficult Champions League Group, and will face 3 of my former sides — Baptiste Santamaria’s Gladbach, Matthias Kaltenbach’s Stade de Reims who will be looking for revenge after last year’s humiliation at our hands, and Thitiphan Puangjan’s Partizan.

I’ve clearly offended RNGeebus, somehow.

Advancing to the Europa League knockout rounds would be a solid result, in my book. This is a brutal draw.

The Belgians had an easier run of things, knocking off Hungary 3-nil in Budapest, before a straightforward 5-nil win for our 2nd XI over the Faroes.

There’s a lot of football to be played, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves. But this is a solid start to the campaign.

October 2047.

We reach the October international break sitting 2nd, 1 point off Inter at the top of the table. We’ve been poor in front of goal, domestically, but defensively strong. With any luck we’ll start seeing an improvement in our commercial revenue in the next year or two.

In Europe, we’re stumbled. A hard-fought, scoreless draw against ze Germans was followed by Stade de Reims claiming some measure of revenge with a 2-1 win in France. Meaning that, barring something strange happening, the battle for a Europa League knockout round spot is about to commence, with matches against Partizan on Matchdays 3-4.

The Belgians continue to roll towards Euro qualification, as I try to sort out who will replace the aging members of the squad at the Euros and beyond. The September fixtures were likely the last hurrah for a few folks, with the upcoming matches against Wales and Ukraine a chance for the new lads to impress.

October 2047.

Two matches with the Belgians. Both Wales and Ukraine look to park the bus, with barely any effort to meet us on level terms.

Maybe I shouldn’t have called them cowards in the pre-match press conferences. But with Zlatan otherwise engaged for the time being, I am temporarily handling the media.

The Welsh manager’s attempt to prove his bravery did not go over well with the media.

In all fairness, their approach may have been wise. We have yet to concede in this qualifying campaign, and are lethal in transition. We have talent in spades. If they try to play us straight-up, we will destroy them.

They don’t bother trying. We still emerge victorious. 1-nil in Brussels. 1-nil in Kiev.

Qualification for Germany 2048 is secured. While this tournament is important, our planning is focused on the World Cup 2 years later, in Brazil. Vengeance is a dish best served cold.

Like gelato…****. I could really go for some gelato right now.

November 2047.

There’s nothing quite like Torshavn in November, no. Something you have to experience.

Jesse and I arrive back in Florence, tired but content. We’ve completed a near-perfect our Euro qualifying run. 8 wins from 8. 30 goals for, none conceded. With a 10-nil win over the Faroes in our final match, having dispatched Hungary 4-nil a few days earlier in Brussels.

We find Zlatan in the living room, a thousand-yard stare in his eyes as he gazed into the fire cracking in the fireplace, the only light in the room, a box of cheap Chardonnay in his hand, muttering to himself inaudibly.

Jesse and I exchange a look. This can’t be good.

Without turning his head, Zlatan offers congratulations on the end of the qualification campaign. But his heart isn’t in it.

We thank him and wait for the deluge to come. Zlatan needs to talk, but needs to do so on his own terms. If we push him, he’ll just keep it inside longer.

The silence lingers on. A nod from Jesse, who goes to pour each of us a glass of Chianti. None of the boxed swill Zlatan is drinking. I can only think of two reasons to ever drink that, and neither applies tonight. Ok, three reasons.

We wait. As Zlatan stares into the fire, a solitary tear runs down his cheek.

Still, we wait.

“She just wants everything to go on as normal, yeah?! After what she just did to the Zlatan?!”

Still, we wait.

“The Zlatan likes edgy sexy time, but… Where was the humanity?!”

Jesse rolls his eyes. I am not inclined to be so judgmental.

“Tomorrow, the Zlatan must go vote on the verdict, Boss.”

“How do you feel about that, Zlatan? Conflicted?”

“She is the innocent, Boss. Of these ritual sex murders at least. But is this the Zlatan’s life now? The Zlatan is a sex-er?! She goes free and I have to have horrible, evil sexy time forever, spending weekends in Genoa carjacking tourists?! The Zlatan is not… The Zlatan… I… He…”

An existential crisis, indeed.

“If she’s innocent, Zlatan, she’s innocent. Isn’t it that simple? We’ll just have to deal with what happens next, when it comes. Stand up to meet the new day on our own two feet, yeah?”

A dark laugh emanates from Zlatan’s throat. A wry grin, that never touches his eyes.

“Is the easy for you to say, Boss. The Zlatan… He has… Done things… Seen things… Things that cannot be unseen.”

“If you’re talking about the electric toothbrush, Zlatan…”

“Ehhh… You might want to give that a bit of a rinse, Boss.”

I nod, and make a mental note to get a new one. There is no other response. Clearly, whatever is eating at Zlatan is far worse that what was done to…or with…my toothbrush.

Still, I wait. I can see the thoughts turning in Zlatan’s head.

“The problem, Boss? She is innocent. Technically. But morally, she is totally gulity. Plus, women’s prison is probably like one long hen’s night. She would really like it there, the Zlatan thinks.”

“Zlatan, you can’t do this. It’s grounds for a mistrial.”

“Ok, sure. Say it’s a mistrial, go crying to Mommy the judge. She actually makes the Zlatan call her Mommy. Is weird, yes? So maybe the Zlatan didn’t play by the rules this time, with the sexy times with the defendant. Maybe the Zlatan is a bit of the maverick, but the Zlatan thinks He has got this case pretty much solved. And, yes, the Zlatan can apologize for how He has done that, but the Zlatan could never apologize for telling the truth. And the truth is that this woman is evil!  And if the Zlatan lets her go tomorrow… Well, the Zlatan is going to be responsible for whatever she does next, so help me urCristiano, and let the Midget Beast be my witness.”

“I’m pretty sure that Leo’s status as a notary has expired after all the ugliness with Bartomeu and Tebas, Zlatan.”

“Justice must be done, Boss. Not actual justice, but what the Zlatan wants to have happen, which is basically the same thing.”

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The Euro qualification run is over. Near-perfect is about the only way to describe it, despite winning all of our matches without conceding. We struggled to break down a tightly-packed defense which, in all fairness, can be something of an issue on this ME. But I wish we’d had a bit more success in doing so, in a few matches. Either way, we’re off to Euro 2048 with our heads held high.

With Fiorentina, our domestic form has hit a bit of a rough patch. We sit 5th, 3 points off Inter at the top of the table, after dropping points against SPAL and Sampdoria.

If the matches against Partizan prove decisive in the battle for 3rd and a spot in the Europa League knockout rounds, we’ve stolen a march. A massive 5-nil win at the Artemio Franchi — a match where everything went right — was followed by a frustrating 1-nil loss in Belgrade. The next match away to ze Germans could prove decisive.

December 2047.

We hit the holiday break on a high. Back-to-back wins over Gladbach (3-1) and Stade de Reims (2-nil) propel us into the Champions League knockout rounds for the second year running. And, after facing 3 of Nicolaj Bur’s former teams in the Group Stage, we will face a 4th in the next round — Joris Chotard’s Panathinaikos.

Groups A-D | Groups E-H

The Greeks are no pushover, for obvious reasons. But they’re likely the “best” draw we could have hoped for. If we can put together a solid 90 minutes in the first leg, we’ve got a chance.

Back on the domestic front, takeover rumors seem to have ceased, but with a dismal youth intake preview I can’t say I’d mind if it were to happen. Nicky Butt isn’t doing much for us as our Head of Youth Development.

On the pitch, we’ve moved up the table thanks to consistent, solid performances from both the 1st and 2nd XIs. If we can maintain some level of consistency, my goal of mounting a challenge for the Serie A title isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

January 2048.

Zlatan’s jury service has ended after a mistrial was declared. The Italian conspiracy theory machine is running overdrive right now, refusing to accept the simplicity of the story, confident that there’s another level. Further depth to the depravity.

They’re wrong. It is Zlatan. Depth isn’t his forte.

I, for one, am glad to have him back full-time. His presence is invaluable. We host Panathinaikos in a few weeks’ time, and we have two new lads who will benefit from his guidance.

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The futures of Oussama Ben Belgacem and Mattia Rizzi at Fiorentina hang by a thread. Neither has impressed over the last 18 months. I had hoped that Ben Belgacem could turn into a 1st XI player, but he’s not developing. Rizzi had seemed to be a capable backup, but he’s struggled. They’ve both gone out on loan for the remainder of the season.

Their replacements? Samuel McNamara, a Belgian youth international who can attack from deep ($8.25M, Club Brugge), and Thomas Larsson, a quick winger who recently earned his first Swedish cap ($4.2M, IFK Goteborg). McNamara and Larsson are immediate upgrades, and both seem to have the potential to play in our 1st XI, in time.

Other than dropping points carelessly away to Cagliari at the start of January, but otherwise continue to play well domestically. Losing on penalties to Juventus in the Coppa Italia hurts, but isn’t the worst result. We simply need to find a vein of form, to solidify our position in the top 4.

February 2048.

Juventus are in danger of running away with the Serie A title again, but we’ve got the advantage in the battle for 2nd.

Up next? Panathinaikos. A chance to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals.

We’re well-rested after our Serie A match away to Udinese was postponed due to excessive snow at the Dacia Arena. All to play for.

February 2048.

An emotional night at the Artemio Franchi. The first 30 minutes are dire. Neither side can get a look at goal.

But the match comes to life in the 35th, when Borrello gives us a 1-nil lead. Comisso then saves a penalty from Eremija in first-half injury time, but we do not lose heart. We come out for the second half with a sense of purpose, as Hernandez immediately smashes our 2nd.

When the Greeks are reduced to 10 men in the 62nd minute, it looks like we might have a chance to run away with the match…

Only for 10-man Panathinaikos to immediately pull one back. 2-1. Is this a nightmare, unfolding…?

We continue to push forward, and are rewarded in the 87th minute as Marco Donnari smashes home from an oblique angle. In the 90th minute, substitute Thomas Larsson opens his account for Fiorentina with a thunderbastard, high to the near post. 4-1.

An epic first leg. We have one foot in the quarterfinals. If we can hold our nerve in Athens.

March 2048.

Athens. I cannot step foot in the city without thinking of her. Selene.

About what we had. About what she’s done.

Even after all these years, my heart aches for her. After all that’s happened, I know that if she were here and asked… I would forgive her.

It may not be logical. Matters of the heart rarely are.

Zlatan interrupts my reverie with a late scouting report on the Panathinaikos squad. There’s work to be done. The second leg will kick off in a few hours’ time.

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The second leg is a dull affair, which is fine by us. Panathinaikos have two goals called back for offsides, but otherwise cannot find a way through. In the 70th, Abdullahi buries a header from close range to finish the tie. The Greeks pull one back in the 81st, but the fat lady is already singing. We’re through, 5-2 on aggregate.

There are no easy draws at this point, although I’d personally like to draw one of the English sides.

Meanwhile, Juventus have been relentless in the league. If we don’t take points off of them in our next match, the Italian FA might as well start engraving their name on the trophy.

March 2048.

We draw Ognjen Vranjes’ Sevilla, who have won 10 straight La Liga titles and currently sit atop the table.

Ouch. We held our own during the Group Stage in 2046/47, but this is a big ask.

April 2048.

More than anything, we need a good result in the 1st leg. And we’re met with a dream start, as Eremija pokes home from close range in the 12th minute. We’re granted a penalty minutes later, but Eremija can’t make it 2, as Croatian international Stefulj denies him. An opportunity missed.

A stalemate ensues until the 42nd, when Borrello fires home a loose ball from point-blank range. But our concentration lapses, and Sevilla immediately strike back. From brilliant to a disaster in a matter of moments. A cheap goal, that our U14s would be ashamed to concede.

Fortunately, we’re not the only side gifting goals on the night, as Stefulj goes from hero to zero, letting a 20-yard shot in from Domjan slide through. An absolute horror show, but I won’t complain. Our two-goal lead, restored.

The match opens up, with both sides gunning for another goal. We hold firm, and hit our fourth through Borrello, who is played in Eremija on a quick counter.

We drop into PM Haaientand, to (theoretically) protect our lead and hit the Spaniards on the counter. We come close, repeatedly. There’s a reason why this tactic has proven solid over the years, in-game.

The final whistle blows. A massive 4-1 win in a European quarterfinal.

April 2048.

The 2nd XI hold the fort against Virtus Entella over the weekend. I also take a few moments to finally look over our 2048 youth intake. Utter garbage. The “best” player is Tomasso Garofalo, and I use that term in the loosest possible manner.

The draw for the Euros is also in — we’ve pulled the most straightforward Group possible. Lovely.

But it is nothing more than a momentary distraction. All eyes are on the 2nd leg.

We know that Sevilla will attack from the first whistle. We will start the match in PM Haaientand, looking to park the proverbial the hyper-aggressive tank in front of goal. The reality is that they’re a far better team than we are. But we can be lethal in transition.

If ever there was a match tailor-made for PM Haaientand, this is it.

Proverbs 4:1, a reading from the Book of Zlatan, by Jose Mourinho.

It’s a roll of the dice, perhaps. It’s time to be tactical. I just have to hope I’m not overthinking things, and about to pull a Pep.

Our gambit nearly pays off in the 8th minute, after Borrello intercepts a wayward pass in the back, racing forward only to smash the post, Stefulj well-beaten in the Spanish goal.

We reach halftime, having smothered the match effectively. We gifted the Spanish one chance on goal, but Magnusson was more than equal to the task. We’re 45 minutes from a European semifinal. If we can hold our nerve.

Sevilla finally break through in the 68th minute. We made it all too easy.

But we regain our focus. We are resolute. In the 93rd minute, Borrello again breaks free behind the Spanish lines, and this time he makes no mistake. He buries it. 1-1 on the night, 5-2 on aggregate. Sevilla push forward in waves, and grab a 2nd on the night, off a corner.

But it is too late. The final whistle blows. We’ve done it. We’re through to the semifinals.

A match plan executed to near-perfection.

We will face Marco Rose’s West Ham for a place in the final, after they eliminated Matthias Kaltenbach’s Stade de Reims 4-2 on aggregate. Florian Martin’s Everton will face Roque Mesa’s Aston Villa in the other semifinal.

Meanwhile, Juventus have drawn two straight Serie A matches, such that we’re only 2 points off the pace. If anyone mentions a Double, they’ll be sacked.

April 2048.

The Serie A title is all but lost. It was narrow with 5 matches to play, but our 2nd XI stumble away to Venezia while Juventus throttle Milan, 4-nil. They would truly have to bottle it now. And my focus is on the Champions League.

We face Marco Rose’s West Ham in the first leg at the Artemio Franchi without Hegedus and Magnusson, who recover from a pulled thigh and food poisoning (respectively) to be on the bench, but neither will start. Laniyonu and Jarju will deputize on the biggest night La Viola supporters have witnessed in decades.

We kick off the match in our preferred PM Haaienkanon, but switch to PM Haaientand after West Ham threaten to take us apart in the first 15 minutes.

Almost immediately, the tide begins to turn. We find our footing. Within minutes, our relentless harrying in midfield leads to a misplaced backpass, spied by Davide Borrello who rounds the Hammers’ keeper and fires into an empty goal. 1-nil. We’re living a dream.

West Ham look to get back into the match, but every attack is like a wave crashing on a purple shore.

Until the 39th when a lightning-fast counterattack finds Borrello in the channel, swiftly behind the West Ham lines. He buries it. 2-nil.

West Ham cannot find the answer. We will head to London with a 2-nil advantage.

May 2048.

London. The Big Smoke.

No matter how many times we’re in this situation, it never grows old. The tension hanging in the air. The anticipation.

Even Zlatan is on edge. He knows that sitting here, tonight, a two-goal advantage with 90 minutes separating us from a return to the Promised Land… We’re playing above our heads. We’ve earned it. But no one expected this from us.

Our plan for the match should come as no surprise. Just like in Sevilla a few weeks ago, we will deploy PM Haaientand. Soak up the pressure, looking to hit the Hammers in transition and overrun them in possession.

Magnusson and Hegedus return to the XI, welcomed by the traveling support singing the Barney theme song, in full voice, verse after verse for the entire squad.

They know that the prize tonight is a chance to return to this very ground in a few weeks’ time, for the final. And while we are here against the odds, we will not listen to those who say we have no chance, that the English league leaders will overturn the first-leg deficit.

West Ham control the opening moments, with Zimmer finding Guerriero open at the back post in the 13th minute. A vital, early goal for the hosts as young Mihoubi is caught napping. West Ham continue to press for an equalizer, leaving gaps at the back…if only we can exploit one.

But before we can find a gap, West Ham find their 2nd through Rodriguez. Level on aggregate. All to play for.

We shift gears, pushing Hernandez forward into our preferred PM Haaienkanon shape. West Ham find a 3rd, through Gibraltar legend, Adrian Harrison.

These are the moments where men must stand tall. We do not crumble. We stand on our own two feet and fight. And in the 62nd minute, we strike. A counterattack sees Hernandez take possession on the left wing, he beats his man and drives with purpose, slotting home from 15 yards. 3-1, on the night. 3-3, on aggregate. A vital away goal.

Our goal rattles the hosts, who seem befuddled. Unable to find an answer. Their momentum shattered.

In the 77th minute, a Hernandez corner finds Hegedus rising from the crowd to head home. 3-2 on the night. West Ham need two.

But their will has been destroyed. They have no fight left. We finish out the match with ease.

A 4-3 aggregate win. West Ham, who sit atop the Premier League and won the Champions League title in 2046, have been eliminated. Scalped.

Improbably, we will return to London at the end of the month to play for it all. We will face Roque Mesa’s Aston Villa, who eliminated Everton 4-3 (agg) in the other semifinal and have a number of familiar faces, including Ivorian legend Orlando Kante.

May 2048 — Champions League Final.

This is what is all boils down to. More than 10 months of blood, sweat and tears. (Although, for Zlatan, other bodily fluids may have been involved.)

90 minutes. We finished the campaign in good form. The oddsmakers have made Aston Villa favorites, but truth be told we’d rather be the underdogs. It is only our second Champions League final. If the oddsmakers knew anything, we wouldn’t be here.

We’ll start the match in PM Haaienkanon, with PM Haaientand in reserve. 90 minutes. Leave it all on the pitch, lads.

First blood to La Viola, as Mihoubi intercepts a cross-field pass and plays Hernandez, who in turns lays off for Eremija who is bursting forward behind the Aston Villa line. He slots it home. 1-nil.

Villa fight back, and equalize as former Partizan defender Bogdan Nica rises to meet Fabrizio Rigamonti’s corner. (I’ll appreciate the service in a few weeks’ time, when the Belgians take the pitch. But for now all I can do is shake my head. Fabrizio can do one.)

Our advantage is restored in the 23rd, as Villa’s keeper flaps at a cross, allowing Borrello to head home uncontested. Echoes of Loris Karius, that.

At the half, we’re in dreamland. So close to Ol’ Big Ears as we head off the pitch, we can touch it. The lads can see the Villa players as the walk off, a steely determination in their eyes. That same motivation exists for both sides.

Magnusson denies Andre Lucas in the 50th. We cannot give Villa chances like that.

Minutes later, Eremija hits the post with the ball falling to Domjan, the keeper prone and beaten…but Domjan fires into the side netting. That should’ve been 3.

In the 73rd minute, Hernandez is set loose behind the Villa defense, only for Rosenlocher to bring him down. It’s his second yellow. Villa are reduced to 10 men. The Fiorentina supporters’ singing grows louder with each passing moment. Is this our moment?!

Villa are not done for yet, as they push forward en masse for a corner in the 77th, only for Hegedus to clear off the line.

Zlatan cannot watch. His nerves, frayed past the point of breaking after a year that has, both literally and metaphorically, wrung him dry.

10 minutes to play. The atmosphere is electric at the London Stadium. We push and push, but cannot find a third.

Villa win a free kick in the final third, in the 89th minute. They push forward, once again. As the ball is swung in, Nica goes down in a heap as he and Langer leap for a header. The referee does not hesitate. Penalty to Villa.

Rigamonti will take the penalty. Echoes of the World Cup semifinal ring throughout the stadium, as Fabrizio missed Belgium’s first penalty of the shootout against Portugal.

This time, Fabrizio buries it in the bottom right corner. Unstoppable. 2-2 in the 90th minute. A lifeline for Villa. A disaster for Fiorentina.

We’re headed for extra time. Donnari replaces Eremija in the 101st minute. Villa are playing for penalties. We cannot find a way through their massed defense. Tired, heavy legs.

The match will be decided by penalties.

Rigamonti buries Villa’s first. Larsson responds in kind, to draw us level. 1-1 after 1 round.

England international Robbie Harrison fires home. Donnari fires to the bottom corner, but Pereira is equal to the task. He saves it. Villa lead 2-1, after 2 rounds.

Bilal Merle calmly finishes Villa’s third penalty. Hernandez, ice in his veins, puts his penalty into the roof of the net. Villa lead 3-2, after 3 rounds.

But Villa remain calm, as Johann Axelsson finishes his penalty, leaving Magnusson no chance. Davide Borrello, the tournament’s leading goalscorer in 2047/48, must score to keep us in it. He holds his nerve. Villa lead 4-3 after 4 rounds.

Maceda steps forward…the chance to win it all for Villa. But Magnusson denies him!!! Joseph Abdullahi can draw us level, forcing sudden death…but he fires wide.

The dream is over.

June 2048 — Season Review.

The next few days pass in a haze. I’m gutted.

In my head, I know that we vastly over-performed all expectations in reaching the Champions League final.

Yet, in my heart, I know that we should have won that match. It was there for the taking.

Zlatan is speechless. He hasn’t said a single word since the final whistle.

Jesse, for his part, left. We woke up this morning and he was simply gone. Without a word.

Under normal circumstances, I would worry. But these are not normal circumstances. I, too, would like to disappear. But whereas Jesse has no role with the Belgians, Zlatan and I must finalize our preparations for the Euros.

There is only one thing to do. The only thing we can do. Ok, after going on a 48-hour-vodka-and-Mario-Kart binge. After that, there’s only one thing to do.

For I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one.

Goals for 2048/49: Win the Serie A. Make a run in the Champions League knockout rounds.

Squad | League Overview | Transfers

Finances | Income | Expenditure

European Review

The Champions League is covered rather thoroughly above, and I’d really rather not re-live Villa’s triumph. I’m proud of our accomplishments but utterly and completely gutted at losing this match.

Champions League: Overview | Knockout Rounds

In the Europa League, Sandro Schwarz’s Atletico defeated Miguel Beaza’s Schalke, 3-2.

Europa League: Overview | Knockout Rounds

In the Europa Conference League, AI-managed Athletic beat Gonzalo Villar’s Villarreal, 1-nil.

Europa Conf. League: Overview | Knockout Rounds

In the active leagues, Marco Rose’s West Ham claimed the Premier League title. Baptiste Santamaria’s Gladbach won their third straight Bundesliga title. Ognjen Vranjes’ Sevilla won their 11th straight La Liga title. Ivan Peresic’s Lyon reclaimed the Ligue 1 title as Matthias Kaltenbach’s Stade de Reims’ “always the bridesmaid” routine continued. Marcelo Gallardo’s OH Leuven won their fourth straight Belgian title. Joris Chotard’s Panathinaikos won their 24th straight SuperLeague title. Thitiphan Puangjan’s Partizan won their 16th straight title, a remarkable 40 points clear of Ognjen Mudrinski’s C*** Star. Finally, Dries Wouter’s IFK Norrkoping won the 2047 Allsvenskan title.

Save/Challenge Overview

If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are finding yourself a bit confused… Don’t worry.  The basic concept behind the Nearly Men save is explained here.  Just need to catch up? Each installment in Nicolaj Bur’s story can be accessed through the Nearly Men Archive.

And if you just can’t get enough…join us for The Ballad of Toothless Bob, a series that explores the world of Nicolaj Bur, away from the pitch. What is Project Arcturus? What lies beyond the twisted redstone door, deep in the bowels of the Santiago Bernabéu?

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