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It’s The Hope That Kills You

Fiorentina / Belgium – 2048/49 Open Thread

June 2048 — Euros Preview, Belgian Squad Review.

The morning after. The walk of shame.

It’s as if everyone I see on my morning commute knows. That guy? His Fiorentina side utterly bottled it last night. On the heels of the epic Belgian bottle job at the World Cup, no less.

There’s nothing to be done but push ahead. This Fiorentina squad is destined for greatness. (At least, that’s what I tell myself when I’m not sobbing uncontrollably.)

The reality is that Euro 2048 kicks off in 10 days’ time. We don’t have time for self-pity.

The Belgians enter the tournament as the top-ranked nation in the world, unbeaten in 66 matches — a streak dating back to March 2043, which includes our 2044 Euros title. Our only “losses” during that time are the 2046 World Cup semifinal against Portugal, and the 2047 Nations League semifinal against France. (Ok, now I’m getting emotional again…)

We will be playing 2 tactics. Our primary tactic will be PM Haaienkanon, the Nagelsmann-inspired inverted strikerless tactic detailed in Those Who Do Not Move, Do Not Notice Their Chains. We will also deploy PM Haaientand on occasion, the strikerless 3610 tactic I devised in collaboration with Guido and Gareth, detailed in The Dirty Half-Dozen.

The Belgian squad has not changed substantially since we last reviewed the squad, on the eve of the 2046 World Cup, so we’re going to keep this relatively short. This should be the squad that is brought to Brazil for the World Cup in 2 years’ time, with one exception.

We will face Poland, Austria and Scotland in the Group Stage — progression should not be in doubt.


Luca Bertini and Lucas Iket remain the only two goalkeepers worth thinking about. Bertini remains the starter, with Iket the trusted deputy. Matheo Martin has been part of the squad for years but has yet to win a cap — that’s how much I trust him.


Our starting back 3 will be Sam Lambrecht at libero, with Guy Vervoort and Brent De Coene at centerback.  Yves Buisson is the libero in our 2nd XI, with Friedrich Mangala and Robert Olive the backup centerbacks. Mangala is the only new face here, an exceptional player who plies his trade for Aston Villa.

At wingback, the 1st XI features Kevin Bakaert and Arthur Bruyere, with Roeland Denis and Wilfried Willems in the 2nd XI. Denis continues to hold his spot in the squad, even though I remain less than impressed — he seems to be a case study in untapped potential, and I’m really not sure how he’s accumulated 40 caps. He is the only one whose position is in jeopardy for the World Cup.


We continue to have difficult decisions throughout our midfield.

Our starting roaming playmaker will be Pierre Simon, who continues to narrowly edge Lars Tant for the spot. They’re both extremely solid.

At mezzala, Fabrizio Rigamonti and Davy Maes will carry the mantle, even though I’m tempted to bench Rigamonti out of spite. Maes is probably the best pure player I’ve had in the FM 20 cycle. If he has a big tournament, anything is possible — mezzalas are utterly key to our tactics. While we have bags of depth in central midfield such that various players could fill in, the designated mezzalas in our 2nd XI are Thomas Borremans and Xander Tanghe — the latter a brilliant player who has been on the fringes due solely to our immense depth.

Attacking Midfielders / Pressing Forwards.

Up top, Mamadu Fati and Hans De Boeck will lead the line. Both are incredible versatile, and De Boeck has been immense as a pressing forward despite the fact that he stands a mere 5’4″ (although he would note that he stands a full inch taller thjat Tanghe).

The backups here are Hicham Benali and Jens Janssens. This is the last time Janssens will be called up, so he needs to make it count.

Final Thoughts.

This side is brimming with talent and exceptionally versatile. We’re favorites for the title, and with good reason.

Oh, **** me. I have, haven’t I?!

Euro 2048 — Group Stage.

Before the Group Stage kicked off, we received confirmation from the Board — the expansion would take us to a capacity of 57,957. We’ll still only be the 6th largest stadium in Serie A, but it is a step forward.

The Euros begin with Dominik Kedzior’s Poland, who put up little resistance in a 3-1 win that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the scoreline suggests. Austria followed, and the 1st XI again dominated…but we couldn’t find the back of the net. A scoreless draw. Not good. But not cause for concern. The 2nd XI were tasked with Scotland on the final matchday, with Jens Janssen and Roeland Denis popping up to claim the goals that gave us the Group title — a 2-nil win over yet another side who didn’t even attempt to play us straight-up.

We will face Ukraine in the Second Round, with a potential match against France in the quarterfinals.

The biggest casualty of the Group Stage? Rick van Drongelen’s Netherlands, who are eliminated.

Group Stage Overview: Groups A-C | Groups D-F

Euro 2048 — Second Round.

As I will often do at major tournaments, I decide to gamble. Knowing that we’re likely to play the French in the quarterfinals, I decide to deploy the 2nd XI against Ukraine. Win this one match, and then the rest of the tournament is in our 1st XIs’ hands.

Benali rewards our trust with 2 goals in the 1st half. We run out 3-1 winners, the match well in-hand.

The French manage to avoid an upset (unlike Spain, Croatia and Portugal), but are still taken to penalties by Norway. Advantage, Belgium? Perhaps. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That’s what I thought at the World Cup 2 years ago…

Euro 2048 — Quarterfinals.

A chance for revenge. But one that looks almost certain to pass us by as we concede in the 12th minute, and concede again in the 34th. We reach halftime, barely hanging on.

In the 2nd half, however, we begin to grow into the match. Davy Maes pulls one back in the 52nd minute, and then steps forward to take a penalty after Fati is taken down in the box in the 73rd. He buries it. 2-2.

Neither side can find the winner, which means we’re off to extra time. But, again, neither side can break through. We’re off to penalties.

After losing a World Cup semifinal, a Nations League semifinal, and a Champions League final on penalties, I’d be lying if I said I was confident.

But Bertini saves France’s first penalty. And then he saves their second. We hold our nerve, and Hicham Benali seals our progression when he slots home our 4th penalty of the night.

The curse is broken. We’re through. To face Etienne Capoue’s England, who defeated Bulgaria, 5-1.

Euro 2048 — Semifinals.

A tough match ahead, to say the least. The English are a highly competent squad, more than capable of winning it all.

In the other semifinal, Dominik Kedzior’s Cinderella-side Poland will face ze Germans, led by manager Marc Hornschuh. But we need not worry about that match. We have business to take care of, first.

A tremendous start, as De Boeck gets around his man in the 16th minute, looking to cut the ball back for 3 of his teammates bursting into the box, only for Manchester United’s David Hall to turn the ball into his own net from point-blank range. Lady Luck is a Red Devil tonight, but of the Belgian variety.

We reach the half in control. England are maintaining possession, but have nothing to show for it. 45 minutes to play.

We continue to control, but need to find a second. We aren’t taking our chances, which leaves England with an opening. Bertini saves from point blank range in the 67th…it should be level. Fati is denied by Morris in the 82nd, a brilliant save from the Huddersfield veteran.

Our inability to put the game to bed comes back to haunt us in the 87th minute, as Robbie Harrison slips the ball past Bertini to finish off a brilliant counterattack. Extra time feels inevitable.

Neither side can find the killing blow. Extra time it is. Again.

In the 97th minute, Willems drives into the box only to have his feet taken out from beneath him. VAR confirms. It is a stone-cold penalty. Maes steps forward, but Morris guesses correctly, denying our talismanic midfielder. We are not disheartened, and on the ensuing corner De Boeck smashes the post, Morris well-beaten.

Something has to give. Benali finds the back of the net in the 119th minute, but the flag is raised. Offside.

The whistle blows. The match will be decided by penalties.

Bertini, hero of the shootout against France, denies Boro’s Mark Cole. Davy Maes, having missed his penalty in extra time, goes the other way, finding the bottom corner. Advantage, Belgium.

Latif Asante finds the back of the net for England, and Morris denies Simon to restore parity. 1-1 after 2 rounds.

Robbie Harrison and Mamadu Fati both bury their penalties. The tension, rising with each passing moment.

Cornell sends Bertini the wrong way, followed by Hicham Benali burying his penalty into the bottom corner. Level. 3-3 after 4 rounds.

Everton’s Jordan Harvey steps forward, the 23 year-old in only his 7th match for England. He looks to send his penalty into the top corner, but Bertini is more than equal to the task. Majestic. Poetry in motion.

Sam Lambrecht, our libero, will take the 5th kick, the Wolfsburg man a long-time fixture in our XI. Morris guesses correctly, but Lambrecht has found the bottom corner. We’ve done it.

The ghosts of the World Cup and Nations League are well-and-truly banished. The Belgian knockout-round curse, broken. While England are left licking their wounds after a shootout loss.

We will face Kezdior’s Poland in the final, after they tear ze Germans apart in Dortmund, 4-1, on the back of utterly ruthless finishing.

Euro 2048 — Final.

Things have come full circle. 4 weeks ago, we kicked off the Euros against Poland. Now, we face them in the final.

Euro 2048 is a flat circle.

We’re the obvious favorites, on paper. But that means absolutely nothing, as the Poles themselves showed only a few days ago. They also opened the scoring in our prior match.

The lineups are in. The anthems have played. 90 minutes pays for all.

In the 14th minute, Maes dispossesses Lapinski in our defensive third, before launching an 80-yard incursion into the Polish box, cutting the ball back for Hans De Boeck at the back post, who finishes calmly. Exquisite. Clinical. 1-nil.

Before the Poles can catch their breath, Maes nearly makes it two, spying a wayward pass in midfield and launching forward at pace, a 40-yard run that deserves a goal at the end, but Fratczak stands tall to keep the Poles in the match.

Rigamonti snatches at a shot in the 18th minute, which finds its way through the crowd to hit the base of the post as Fratczak can only watch in horror. Another goal is coming, lads.

Indeed, Poland clear their lines but not far enough as we switch the point of attack, only for Tant to take a touch inside and curl the ball to the back post, finding De Boeck free 8 yards from goal, rising with every inch of his 5’4″ frame to meet the ball and head home. 2-nil.

Poland are in danger of being steamrolled.

We make it 3 in the 30th minute, as Lambrecht rises to flick a header past the onrushing Fratczak.

The halftime whistle blows. On the one hand, I am elated. All of our hard work is paying off. On the other, I cannot help but hurt for Dominik Kezdior, who has led his men to new heights and deserves every plaudit coming his way.

Maes makes it 4 in the 51st minute, again intercepting a wayward pass inside our half, launching forward into space before delivering the coup de grace while the defenders twist themselves into pretzels trying to track the shadow runs of De Boeck and Fati. A captain’s goal, well-deserved given how he has played tonight.

With 20 minutes to play, we signal substitutions. I’m not one for sentiment, but the moment calls for Jens Janssen to take his final bow for Belgium. He replaces De Boeck, claiming his 112th cap while also granting the dimunitive Juventus man a much-deserved standing ovation for his performance tonight. Pierre Simon also replaces Lars Tant, to ensure that both take the pitch in the final.

A comprehensive 4-nil win is our just reward on the night. Champions of Europe.

We are the first nation to successfully defend their European title since the all-conquering Spanish sides of 2008 and 2012. Fittingly, 9 players are named to the Euro XI, led by De Boeck and Maes.

Zlatan and I return to Florence, not to celebrate. But to prepare. For the coming Serie A and Champions League campaigns… For the 2050 World Cup… Because we know what we want. And we don’t mind being alone.

July 2048 — Odds & Ends.

The Euros may be over, but we’re immediately heading into the heart of Fiorentina’s pre-season preparations, with a US tour imminent.

But before we get much further, we need to talk about everyone’s favorite topic — transfers.

One could argue that, after the 2047/48 campaign, we have no need for reinforcements. But the reality is that I was frustrated with: (1) our options at left wingback, given Mattia Balzano’s contract demands and Ryad Mihoubi’s developmental track; (2) the salary demands from starting roaming playmaker, Nunzio Bonato, who was entering the final year of his contract, coupled with the glacially-slow development from Pacome Bayo; and (3) the salary demands of Mattia Rizzi, our 4th-choice mezzala.

And if you’ve followed my saves before, you know what happens next.

Balzano (who was dropped to the 2nd XI last year) has been transfer listed. Bonato and Rizzi have already already been sold.

We’ve signed Kai-Norman Müller-Römer to play as a left wingback for a $44M from Gladbach — a club record. This kid is going to be utterly brilliant. He’s worth every penny. He may not start right away, but he will take over for Mihoubi in due course.

Albanian youth international Bleron Halili joins from Sassuolo for $21M, and will step in as the roaming playmaker in our 2nd XI. Bayo will fill the Bonato-shaped hole in the 1st XI. Halili is pure potential at this point, but if my scouts and coaches are correct, he’s going to be immense.

Finally, Koby Piers arrives for $16M from Club Brugge. Another player with immense potential, Piers will play in our 2nd XI alongside Samuel McNamara, another Club Brugge academy graduate.

August 2048.

The bookies clearly think that our progress over the years (and run to the Champions League final last year) isn’t worth much, predicting that we’ll finish 5th. 5th. Clearly, they were dropped on their heads as children.

If we finish 5th at this point in my tenure at Fiorentina, I’d probably have to resign from sheer embarrassment.

Oh, crap.

September 2048.

Excellent news as we kick off the campaign — we’ve sold out our season ticket allocation. Lovely stuff, especially with the expansion in progress.

In May, we were minutes away from winning the Champions League. In September, we’re a 3rd seed. Which means we draw Ivan Perisic’s Lyon, Miguel Beaza’s Schalke, and the Anderlecht Kiwi Farmers:

A tough draw. But it is what it is.

And now I hate myself for typing those words.

But before signing off, let’s take a quick look at Fiorentina’s early-season form, which has us sitting joint-top of the table with Julian Nagelsmann’s Juventus and Bologna. That’s the same Juventus that just spent $295M in the summer transfer window…although even they were eclipsed by Baptiste Santamaria’s Gladbach, who spent $299M.

October 2048.

We kick off the Nations League at Wembley, with Steven Berghuis’ men looking to avenge their Euro exit at our hands on penalties. But we showed these men of will, what will really was. A comprehensive 3-1 win on their hallowed ground. We followed that up with a comprehensive 5-nil win over Austria in Brussels.

A good start, one might call it.

Speaking of good starts, Fiorentina are undefeated as we enter the October international break — 7 wins from 7 matches, level with Nagelsmann’s Juventus on points.

We began the Champions League Group Stage with a 2-nil win over the Kiwi Farmers before suffering a disappointing 2-1 loss away to Lyon. There’s plenty of time to make up for the slip, though, and we’ll be in good shape if we take care of business against ze Germans.

November 2048.

The Belgians continue to roll on, a 1-1 draw in Belgrade merely a speedbump in the grand scheme of things. We get things back on track by trouncing England 3-1 for the 2nd time in a month, a result that all-but guarantees our progression to the semifinals next summer.

Meanwhile, Fiorentina have come unstuck domestically. We’ve had a few poor performances, which hasn’t been helped by my tactical tinkering. Nevertheless, we sit 2nd even if we are 10 points behind a rampant Juventus. In the Champions League, we claim back-to-back wins over Schalke — 3-nil and 2-1 — to set up a big finale at the Artemio Franchi on Matchday 6, which should determine who wins the Group.

December 2048.

The Nations League campaign has run its course, ending with a 3-nil win over Serbia and a 2-nil win over Austria. After the Serbia match we get a news item, announcing the extension of our unbeaten streak to 78 matches in all competitions (obviously excluding our elimination at the semifinal stage of both the World Cup and Nations League on penalties), and 23 Nations League matches; thus, streaks of 79 and 24 after the Austria match. Surreal.

We will face ze Germans in the Nations League semifinals next summer, in the midst of our World Cup qualifying campaign, which should be rather straightforward.

Fiorentina have regained their footing domestically, even if Juventus look unstoppable this year.

In the Champions League, we conspired to lose at the Vincent Kompany Arena in Anderlecht, setting up a tense final matchday where we would either win the Group or face elimination. Fortunately, we play Lyon off the park — a 1-nil win meaning that we leafrog the French to win the Group, with Lyon falling to 3rd as Schalke defeat Anderlecht. A nightmare for Ivan Perisic and the defending Ligue 1 champions.

But not quite as big a disaster as that facing Leandro Bacuna’s Atletico, who finish 3rd in Group A behind Frank Lampard’s Wolves and Young Boys, the reigning Swiss champions. Unfortunately, we have no choice but to smash Young Boys in the First Knockout Round.

Group Stage Results: Groups A-D | Groups E-H

Festivus 2048 Fun Fact: I only recently realized that Nicolaj Bur has a son, in-game. In my head, Nicolaj hasn’t mentioned this before because he’s ashamed of how utterly crap Claus is, and shunned him for years.

Nicolaj and Claus’ relationship is strained, at best.

With any luck, this year’s intake will be better. It looks like a mixed bag, at best, though.

January 2049.

Son? I have no son.

As if one match against Juventus’ U20s would be enough to change my mind. No. Not good enough.

Even when the news filtered through that he was negotiating with Torino, I was half convinced that this is all a wind-up by Zlatan. I certainly don’t remember going to that fertility clinic to donate, even if Zlatan claims we went for laughs after an all-night drinking session.

No, this is all an elaborate scam. A nefarious plot of some sort. It has to be.

If he was really my son, he’d a libero.

February 2049.

In the midst of shunning a youth academy prospect who may (or may not) be his son, Nicolaj Bur celebrated both his 1,500th match as a manger and the completion of the Artemio Franchi expansion, to a 57,957 all-seater.

This is my 5th year at Fiorentina, right in the wheelhouse for when I would expect to be challenging for the Champions League title. And we’re close to that level, as demonstrated by our run last year. We’re also through to the Coppa Italia final (against Juventus, naturally), and sit a mere 6 points off of Nagelsmann’s men in Serie A.

The crazy thing is…we have yet to win a trophy at Fiorentina. Is this the year, or is Fiorentina cursed just like they were on the FM17 Nearly Men?

There’s only one way to find out…

March 2049.

The Torino coaches are beside themselves with frustration. Having stolen Claus Bur away from Fiorentina in January 2048, they had high hopes that the young man would blossom away from the incessant media scrutiny in Florence, the expectation that he live up to his father’s legacy.

Instead, they’ve found themselves saddled with an angry, petulant young footballer. One talented enough to be capped by Denmark at the youth international level (even though doubts have been raised about his parentage), but struggling to break through to the next level, held back by his own demons and the crushing weight of trying to earn the affection of the man he believes to be his father.

Claus opened his account for the Torino U20s last week against Lecce’s U20s, but celebrated by taking a swing at the kitman who made a casual, offhand jibe about whether Nicolaj would finally take notice of his “son.” Understandable, but not acceptable. Something has to change.

Desperate to bring out the best in Claus, the Torino coaching staff have insisted that he attend anger management counseling. Perhaps, they think, if he can slay his demons off the pitch, he can lead Torino to glory on the pitch?

It is the kind of morning one dreams of in Northern Italy. The sun, bright and warm. The air, cool and crisp. The Alps, dusted with snow on the horizon.

A triple mochachino sitting untouched in his hand, Claus Bur waits in a parking lot adjacent to a non-descript office building on the outskirts of Turin, the stereo of his “Atomic Tangerine” Fiat Panda playing Coldplay’s “The Scientist” on repeat.

This was not his idea. But he knows that if he doesn’t go inside, there will be repercussions. The fear of failure propels him. The knowledge that any sign of weaknesses could be used against him. The need to prove himself. If not to the man he calls his father, to the rest of the world. To anyone, really.

With a resigned sigh, Claus steps out of the car, a numbness deep within, growing with each passing moment. He knows that if he can simply dissociate himself from the moment, it too shall pass. And that later in the day he will find himself back on the training ground, the sounds of the beautiful game surrounding him. The only place he can find inner peace. His true self.

The receptionist ushers him inside quickly. They’ve been waiting for Claus.

Claus enters the musty office to meet his fate, declining the offer of a seat on the comfortable sofa, preferring the cold, hard, unforgiving feel of solid wood beneath his backside. Cushions are for winners. They must be earned.

Claus nods in what he perceives to be an affable fashion to the older man sitting nearby, who smells vaguely of day-old cheese, glasses perched knowingly across the bridge of his nose like a wizened sage of old.

Claus doesn’t need, or want therapy. He simply needs to push through this. After the banal niceties of two strangers meeting in such an intimate situation have passed, the real work begins.

“I want to make it absolutely clear. I’m not here for therapy.”

“Not therapy. Ok, Claus.”

“What are you trying to say, eh?”

“Nothing, I’m just interested in why it is you feel–“

“Look. I don’t want to talk about any difficult feelings I may or may not be experiencing, my mother, my father, or my so-called ‘childhood.'”

“Fine, fine. Well, Claus, often I like to kick things off with a bit of… Word association. It’s kind of a fun way to–“

“Is it therapy?”

“Not really, no. I’ll just say a word, and you tell me the very first thing that pops into your mind.”

A skeptical look crosses Claus’ face. He isn’t buying it. He’s trying to therapise me.

Nevertheless, Claus nods.

“Okay, Claus. Let’s start with some obvious ones. Work.”

Snake pit. “Snake… Uhh… Charmer.”

“Just say the first thing that comes to mind, Claus. Money.”

Everything. “…not everything.”


Blind. “Uhh…short.”


Führer. “Football.”


Zlatan. “Fuck! No…not ‘fuck!'”

An awkward silence ensues.

“Look, Claus, I really get the feeling you’re resisting something here.”

“Can I change any of those? What score did I get? It wasn’t good, was it?”

“You don’t get a score in word association, Claus.”

Bullshit. He just doesn’t want to tell me. “Right, sure you don’t.”

“Maybe we should try something else. Have you ever done a Rorschach test?”

The therapist holds up a card.

“Just tell me what you see, Claus.”

A hairy twat. A hungry, devouring twat. “…uhh… A kitten?”

The therapist sighs, a disappointed look crossing his face. But Claus does not notice, a thousand-yard stare in his eyes as the walls in his mind slowly break down, one by one. Birthdays, missed. Christmases, spent alone. His stern German nanny, the only one who ever truly loved him.

As a tear falls slowly from Claus’ eye, the therapist knows this isn’t going to be easy. We’re just getting started.

March 2049.

A shockingly-poor first leg, as we are reduced to 10 men and have to rely on a late goal to finish off Young Boys at the Wankdorf. Not good enough.

In the return leg, we left nothing to chance. We went after Young Boys with a renewed sense of vigor and purpose from the very first whistle, and were rewarded with a comprehensive 4-nil win. 5-nil on aggregate.

Juventus’ lead in the league is down to 4 points. While catching them is theoretically possible, I’m not counting on it. Our primary focus is on the Champions League, where we’ve drawn Frank Lampard’s Wolves in the quarterfinals.

April 2049.

Our youth intake was frustrating to say the least, as the three “best” players were extremely disappointing — Salvatore Panza, Jes Borup Johanssen, and Michelangelo De Luca.

World Cup qualifying kicked off in style, with a comprehensive 3-nil win over Lithuania and a less-impressive 1-nil win over a hyper-defensive Israel.

Finally, before we can take on Lampard’s Wolves, we have one Serie A match — against Juventus at the Artemio Franchi. A chance to reduce their lead to 1 point and truly put ourselves in contention for the title…and we take it. 2-1.

April 2049 — Champions League Quarterfinals, 1st Leg.

The first leg in the Black Country is a nervy affair. A sombre atmosphere. Dark. Thick fog. The air, heavy.

Hernandez finds the back of the net in the 34th, pouncing on a loose ball in the box. And we hold firm. Lampard left frustrated, his combover blowing in the light breeze.

A massive advantage to take back to the Artermio Franchi.

April 2049.

In a desperate attempt to win his father’s approval the night before the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals, Claus Bur was arrested lurking in the hallway outside Frank Lampard’s hotel room in Florence. Claus had nothing in his possession other than a can opener, 8 tins of expired tuna, and a crusty sock full of nickels.

Although Claus initially refused to identify himself, he did not have the constitution to withstand interrogation. He’d cracked before they even reached the carabinieri station. Instead of a grand gesture winning his father’s approval, he’s done nothing but bring shame upon himself and his family name.

Claus’ future with Torino hangs by a thread. They will not tolerate such impropriety.

At an emergency therapy session the following day, Claus is confronted over his plans for the future, should Fiorentina rescind his contract.

“You keep talking about a plan, Claus…what is it? I can’t begin to describe how much you jeopardized, last night. Just when I thought we were beginning to make progress.”

A bitter smile crosses Claus’ face, fading into shame. Regret.

“Well, just in case, I sent in my application to the Real World this morning. I’m hoping to hear back from that soon. I’m putting a lot of my eggs into that basket, the MTV basket. I’m also thinking about getting a gun… Dealing crack. Being a crack dealer. Not like a mean crack dealer, but like… A nice one. Kinda friendly like, ‘hey, what’s up guys?! Want some crack?!’ I guess I’m just waiting on those two things to flesh themselves out.”

A long, drawn-out silence ensues, punctuated only by the scratching of the therapist’s pen, as he takes a note.

April 2049 — Champions League Quarterfinals, 2nd Leg.

Back at the Artemio Franchi for the second leg, a wide-open affair ensues. Both sides look dangerous. But we strike first through Davide Borrello, who smashes one past Gallego in the Wolves goal after a near-perfect execution of series of interlinked third-manning running passes connect to spring him loose behind the English lines.

Wolves pull one back in the 70th minute, Rodney sliding a low shot past Magnusson after we lose possession in midfield. Squeaky bum time.

But we hold firm, denying Wolves another meaningful look at goal.

We will face Ognjen Vranjes’ Sevilla, who we eliminated in the quarterfinals last year.

Julian Nagelsmann’s Juventus will face Florian Martin’s Everton in the other semifinal, after they eliminated West Ham and Gabriel Jesus’ AC Milan, respectively.

April 2049 — Coppa Italia Final.

One for the ages. Julian Nagelsmann’s Juventus, the biggest side in Italy, versus our Fiorentina, the precocious upstarts looking to disrupt the status quo.

Separated by 1 point in the Serie A table. Both sides having reached the Champions League semifinals.

An epic showdown. We start sitting deep, in a version of PM Haaienkanon that utilizes shadow strikers, and are rewarded when Borrello hits the seam at pace in the 12th minute, tucking the ball gently into the back of the net.

A stalemate ensues in midfield. Neither side can break through. We’re content to let Juventus possess the ball, miles from our goal, launches forward to threaten occasionally.

It is a moment almost 5 years in the making. Our first trophy at Fiorentina. It may only be the Coppa Italia, but we have our sights set higher, with all to play for over the next six weeks.

May 2049 — Champions League Semifinals, 1st Leg.

The biggest match of the year. And we start it in utter disarray, as Davy Maes steals the ball, centering for Pere. The visitors take a 1-nil lead before we’ve even broken a sweat…and then promptly make it 2-nil, less than a minute later. [Editor: we at FtCS apologize sincerely for the lack of a screenshot of Sevilla’s 2nd goal. Seattle Red had to be physically restrained to avoid destruction of the laptop.]

Fiorentina were not done, however, as the enigmatic KNMR burst through the Spanish defense minutes later, only to be taken down. Larsson buried the ensuing penalty. We’re not done for yet, lads.

We continue to battle, and are rewarded in the 83rd minute when Carlo Ruppert threads a delicate pass to Davide Borrello to tap in an equalizer. 2-2.

We do not give up, and continue to push forward. This is our chance. In the 91st minute, Andras Hegedus flicks on a near-post corner, finding Renato Eremija free at the back post, who heads home. 3-2. An epic comeback.

We will have it all to do in Sevilla.

May 2049 — Champions League Semifinals, 2nd Leg.

Sevilla have it all to prove tonight. They’ve already claimed their 12th straight La Liga title. But for all their domestic dominance, they’ve only reached the Champions League final once, in 2027/28 when they defeated Nicolaj Bur’s Panathinaikos in Vienna.

For our part, we need to prove that reach the final last year was not a fluke. And that our comeback 6 days ago wasn’t a fluke, either.

We take an early lead through Davide Borrello, who drives the ball just inside the far post, beyond Stefulj’s outstretched hands. A vital away goal.

Sevilla control play, but Magnusson keeps them at bay. Until the 67th when Sevilla equalize through legendary English forward, Dan Cornell. Davy Maes is pulling the strings in midfield. We need to shut him down, and adjust our tactics to PM Haaientand.

It does the trick. We shut down the match, fully. We’re through to the final at the San Siro.

We will face none other than Julian Nagelsmann’s Juventus, who defeated Everton 4-3 (agg) after a wild second leg that saw 3 goals scored in/after the 90th minute, each one of which swung the aggregate lead.

Meaning that the Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League titles all come down to a battle between our two clubs.

May 2049 — Serie A finale.

With 3 matches to play, we sit atop the table, 2 points clear of Juventus who have a game in hand.

We need help. We could finish on 100 points and still be runners-up. We face a trip to Udinese, followed by matches against Atalanta and Lazio at the Artemio Franchi. Juventus will host Perugia and AC Milan at the urCristiano, travel to Bologna, and then finish the season back in Turn against Venezia.

We put the pressure on Juventus with a 2-nil win over Udinese. We’re 5 points clear. Juventus will play both of their in-hand matches before we take the field in one week’s time.

They romp to a 10-nil win over Perugia. There’s a reason the Grifoni are relegated. Gabriel Jesus’ Milan are made of sterner stuff, but Juventus still prevail, 2-1. We fall to 2nd, with 2 matches to play. 1 point off the pace.

We smash Atalanta 3-nil in the Friday night match, to restore our 2 point lead. Juventus’ trip to Bologna is our last real chance, as we cannot expect Venezia to take points off of them in Turin… But Nagelsmann’s men are prepared, claiming a 5-1 win, taking their goal difference to an immense +92.

The odds are long on Matchday 38, but we never give up hope. We claim all 3 points through a 93rd minute Jorge Hernandez goal, but Juventus have won, 3-nil. We finish 2nd, on 100 points.

It’s hard to begrudge Juventus winning the title after the year they’ve had, but I’ve placed that chip on my shoulder.

We’ll be gunning for them in a week’s time at the San Siro.

May 2049 — Champions League Final, San Siro.

I haven’t been able to sleep all week. Running over matches in my mind.

Finishing 2nd with 100 points and a +71 goal difference… I can’t wrap my head around it.

I’m thankful that we have the chance to exact some revenge on Juventus… But I’m also fearful of falling short after last year’s disastrous end to the campaign. We will start the match in an in-house variation of PM Haaienkanon, with our pressing forwards dropped into the attacking midfield strata, deployed as shadow strikers. This allows us to stay more compact, with all 10 field players harrying in the defensive phase.

Juventus are favored. Obviously. The familiar faces on the other side of the pitch are immense — De Boeck, Borremans, Niamke. Nagelsmann is even there, in his ridiculous, over-patterned suit, and shoes with no socks. The bastard doesn’t look a day over 24, still.

The early minutes are all Juventus. But we don’t mind. They have yet to truly threaten. We’re biding our time…but we push Hernandez and Borrello higher up the pitch.

We continue to stand firm in defense, but break out in the 35th minute. The best chance of the match for either side, but Auger is equal to the task.

Scoreless at the half. Something has to give.

And just one minute after the restart, something gives. Corner to La Viola… Juventus fail to clear, with the ball falling to Borrello wide right. He lashes it into the far corner. 1-nil. We’re in dreamland.

Nearly an hour gone, Borrello heads just over off a free kick. Cappelli replaces Larsson, with Abdullahi on for Eremija.

With 15 minutes to play, we remain in control. But the margins are thin. With 10 minutes to play, we shift into PM Haaientand, to further clog the midfield while remaining aggressive in transition and possession. McNamara replaces the tiring Domjan.

Minutes later, the young Belgian shows the arrogance of youth by shooting direct on goal from distance, forcing a brilliant save from Auger. Juventus counter from the ensuing corner, with Borremans feeding Mulet…who equalizes. 1-1 in the 88th minute.

Echoes of last year’s epic collapse against Aston Villa. Chaos ensues, and both sides muddle through. We’ll head to extra time. We push forward, in the standard PM Haaienkanon, in search of the winner… But again, neither side can break through.

For the second straight year, we will contest penalties for the Champions League title.

I can barely watch as Mihoubi steps forward to bury Juventus’ first penalty. Hernandez does not blink, drawing us level.

De Boeck and Borrello each calmly finish. Level after 2 rounds.

Francesco Cunha, ever the arrogant ****, attempts to smash it straight down the middle, but Magnusson denies him. Abdullahi is not fazed, finding the bottom corner. We lead 3-2 after 3 rounds. We’re so close I can taste it. The tension, almost unbearable.

Mulet finishes calmly, sending Magnusson the wrong way. Langer steps forward, smashing his penalty into the roof of the net. We lead 4-3 heading into the final round.

Belgian midfielders Thomas Borremans steps forward for Juventus. He shoots left, but Magnusson guesses correctly, parrying the ball to the flank. Vengeance is ours.

You can have your Serie A title, Julian. We’re bringing Ol’ Big Ears back to the Artemio Franchi.

June 2049 — Season Review.

The champagne, wine and Sizzurp are still flowing when the news spreads. It comes as no surprise.

With the Champions League title firmly in our grasp, the time has come to move on. To pastures new. To a club where my day-to-day life will be less directly impacted by Gary Neville’s Sizzurp addiction.

As we say our goodbyes, Gary promises to text. But, seeing has how the near-empty gallon jug in his hand has the same purple hue as our home kit, I suspect he won’t even remember our conversation, much less our departure.

We leave the party to finish packing as the sun rises behind the Catherdral of Saint Mary in the distance. We are due to meet up with the Belgian squad, who face Germany in just roughly 72 hours. The Nations League semifinals.

We’ve been down this road before. We’re well-practiced at saying goodbye. It doesn’t take long to gather the things we need for the immediate future.

“That’s all, isn’t it? Nothing left behind?”

Zlatan slowly looks around, patting his pockets, running through his mental checklist one last time.

“No, Boss. We’ve got it all. Everything important, anyway. Anything the Zlatan is be forgetting, we can just have Mister Gary ship to the hotel in Brussels.”

Jesse nods.

We all climb into the waiting car. It’s time to move on from our lives in Florence. One day, we’ll undoubtedly return to Italy. But that’s a day far off in the distant future. For now, we’re moving on.

The car pulls away, slowly exiting the gate and turning the corner at the end of the street.

The end of an era.

Moments later, a beat-up Fiat Panda pulls to a stop in front of the stately home, approaching from the other direction.

A young man sits inside the vehicle, the engine running, taking deep breaths as the emotional climax of Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ pours from the stereo.

The young man — Claus Bur — steels himself for what he imagines will be an emotional reunion. A chance for father and son to bridge the gap between them — at the very least, a chance to begin doing so. A picture-perfect moment that he can see in his mind’s eye — a warm embrace in the early morning sunshine.

He steps out of the car, nervous. He rings the bell at the gate and waits patiently. The last notes of the song ringing in his ears. He waits.

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Well, that ended up being far more grim than I intended it to be when I started writing. Nicolaj has some work to do to repair the father-son relationship here, to say the absolute least. That’s assuming it can be repaired, of course.

Looking forward, the only eligible club side who doesn’t have a manager is Leeds (who must be prioritized under the rules of the save). Leeds are currently in the inactive English Championship, though, so we won’t know for a few weeks if they will promote and, if so, whether they will automatically appoint a manager before I can throw Nicolaj’s hat in the ring.

Other than Leeds, Club Brugge, OH Leuven, Valencia and Malmo are high on my list. Frankfurt would also prove tempting. Other clubs are less interesting at the moment, for different reasons. We’ll have to see what opens up.

Goals for 2049/50: Wait for the right club job to open up. Challenge for the Nations League title. Qualify for the World Cup.

Squad | League Overview | Transfers

Finances | Income | Expenditure

European Review

The Champions League is rather thoroughly detailed above, as Nicolaj Bur’s Fiorentina defeated Julian Nagelsmann’s Juventus on penalties.

Champions League: Overview | Knockout Rounds

In the Europa League, Matthias Kaltenbach’s Stade de Reims smashed Aleksander Dragovic’s Tottenham, 4-1.

Europa League: Overview | Knockout Rounds

In the Europa Conference League, Nico Elvedi’s Burnley beat Samuel Yepie-Yepie’s Dortmund, 1-nil.

Europa Conf. League: Overview | Knockout Rounds

In the active leagues, Frank Lampard’s Wolves reclaimed the Premier League title. Baptiste Santamaria’s Gladbach claimed their fourth straight title. Ognjen Vranjes’ Sevilla won their 12th straight La Liga title. Matthias Kaltenbach’s Stade de Reims won their first Ligue 1 since the departure of Nicolaj Bur. Marcelo Gallardo’s OH Leuven won their fifth straight Belgian title. Joris Chotard’s Panathinaikos won their 25th straight SuperLeague title. Thitiphan Puangjan’s Partizan won their 17th straight title. Finally, Shkodran Mustafi’s Hammarby won the 2048 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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