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When last we spoke, I'd emerged on the far side of a meat-grinder fixture list with my Randers team relatively healthy, 4th in the league, and through to the semifinals of the Danish Cup. I take advantage of the international break to watch the USA friendly as they visit my new home in Denmark, and I'm spotted in the stands by the keen-eyed commentators. Virtual Bob runs out a stock 4-4-2 that the Danes in their 4-2-3-1 exploit mercilessly, gunning for the weakness on the flanks of the US defense and filing the gap between the two lines of four with three attacking midfielders. They're up within two minutes and go into the half at 2-0 and looking comfortable, though wouldn't you be if you were facing Virtual Bob's experimental strike force of Casey-Rolfe?
In the second half, the US goes to a narrow diamond and immediately starts bossing the game. Twellman, on as a sub for Casey and having an otherwise miserable time of it, draws a PK, and Donovan finishes it. Donovan and Eddie Gaven both go close from the edge of the area, but the Danes regain control with fifteen minutes to play, finally icing the cake with a 90th minute goal on the counter to win 3-1. It must be noted that the Danes played their best lineup while Virtual Bob experimented and was without Howard, Altidore, Dempsey, Edu, and Bradley Junior, all suffering from short-term injuries. Unfortunately, it looks like Virtual Bob is just as enamored of Kljestan as his real-life self...
Other notes of interest regarding the USA squad? Donovan is with Chelsea (he always seems to go there in my FM2010 games), where he's predictably only featured a handful of times. Conor Casey is being pursued by Charlie Davies' Sochaux; Chad Marshall is banging around Greece; Jimmy Conrad landed in second division German soccer; and United fans will snort in their coffee to find that Perkins and Quaranta are both in the mix (though neither made the 18 for the Denmark match).
Back to league action with three games remaining until the winter break...
Danish Premier - Randers 1:1 FC Midtjylland
5th v. 6th battle at the edges of the Euro-spots. Midtjylland are a more technical and athletic side than we are, so I ran out the 4-2-2-2 counterattacking formation that sent AGF packing in the cup. Within 15 minutes, I knew I'd screwed up. The visitors had most of the possession, and we were struggling to get the ball into dangerous areas. So I shifted the formation to a 4-2-3-1, pushing Zhou up from d-mid to central mid and pulling Sane back from a forward spot to his natural a-mid role. Within minutes we were stringing together passes and starting to control possession. Near the half-hour mark, Nygaard was fed through near the edge of the box. He held the ball up, fought off two defenders, and laid the ball off to Sane, who blasted into the top corner from the edge of the box.
We only grew in confidence from there, creating a handful of good chances while the opposition had few clear glimpses of our net, mostly from set pieces. But then they produced a moment of quality from nowhere on the hour, a long through ball picking out their right winger cutting inside. He beat one defender, then cut back in front of another and fired home from an acute angle. Disappointing. I can't help but wonder what a better keeper or quicker center back might have been able to do in that situation. Movsisyan came on for the tiring Zhou, and we went to an asymmetrical 4-4-2 with one winger advanced and one central mid dropped deep, sort of resembling a check-mark. The remaining half-hour was ours. We hit the bar, created any number of chances, but couldn't find the breakthrough. Then, in the 90th minute, Nygaard was fed through, and their defense were tracking back desperately. Nygaard bore down on the area, only to be hacked down from behind on the edge of the box. Red card. But the resulting free kick went wide and our only chance in the three minutes of stoppage time went wide.
Decent result and the fans are pleased, but I view this as an opportunity missed to push closer to the Euro spots. As it stands, AGF are well out in front, followed by the trio holding the Euro spots. I'm at the head of a five team chasing pack that hold a sizable lead on the bottom three. And hey, rock-bottom Køge finally picked up a point! Our next opponents, Brøndby, are currently third, meaning a result against them would put us right in the thick of the race for Europe.
Danish Premier - Randers 2:1 Brøndby
Looking for a change of pace, and knowing that our opponents almost always play a wide diamond 4-4-2, I decided to run out a 4-2-3-1 from the start with the two d-mids crowding out their a-mid and our own a-mid harrying their d-mid, thereby creating a big possession advantage at home. 15 minutes in and things didn't seem to be working as planned. They had all the chances and all of the ball. Rather than abandoning the plan, I refined it, setting Karlsen to man-mark their a-mid and having Sane (our a-mid) man-mark their d-mid. Then I set the wide men to close down their wide midfielders and fullbacks.
Success! With our opponents marked tightly and harried, thus starved of any useful possession, we started coming into the match more. Zhou, freed from his holding responsibilities and pushed into the vacant central midfield, became our hub. He fed Beckmann for a storming run down the left. A deep cross found Movsisyan charging in off the right wing. His header was saved, but he buried the rebound. Sadly, despite the turnaround, we were pegged back immediately by a free kick curled around the wall with our pathetic keeper nowhere to be found.
The boys responded in style, Zhou threading the needle for Nygaard to pound home...only for the flag to be waving on the far side. Controversial call and my guys were surrounding the ref and linesman. Fortunately, we kept our cool and Nygaard took advantage of their keeper's mishandling of a long, lofted through ball to slot home our second just before the break.
While the first half was noted by the commentator as "really exciting," the second bored to tears, and that was entirely my fault. I stifled, I man-marked and hacked their creative big guns, I played on the counter. Result? Neither side created much of anything. They made a big run at an equalizer with about 20 minutes remaining, but I shifted to a 4-1-3-2, packed the middle (where they weren't), and sprayed balls to my athletic forwards to win and hold up. Not pretty, but it worked...and credit our crappy keeper for making the one save he really had to make down the stretch.
Still doesn't mean I won't be shopping for a replacement.
Speaking of shopping, the Randers fan and board consensus is that I got a steal with Zhou Haibin. He's been shortlisted for Autumn Player of the Year in the Danish League and is among the five favorites to take home the prize.
In the wider world, the World Cup draw for 2010 just took place. Virtual Bob's USA are in a strangely familiar group alongside a top Euro side (Holland instead of England), Algeria, and Euro-slavs (Slovakia instead of Slovenia). Eerie, ain't it? And somehow, the Mexicans ended up in South Africa's group again (this time alongside Chile and Bosnia). Group of Death? Easily Group A: Paraguay, Italy, France, Ghana. Though Group C are close contenders: South Korea, Denmark, Spain, Ivory Coast.
And while we're traveling abroad, let's take a peak in at MLS. The Supporter's Shield race looks to have been the best ever, with San Jose winning on goal difference over the Fire (both on 52 points) and trailed closely by the Red Bulls (51 points) and Sounders (50 points). DC United finished six points shy of the playoff places. In the playoffs, Houston followed the RSL route to the Cup, nabbing the 8th and final spot as the fifth placed team in the West. Switching brackets to the Eastern Conference, they took out the Fire and Red Bulls on their way to the final, where they beat a Seattle side that disposed of both LA sides on their way to the final. In the Open Cup final, Columbus beat Chicago after the two MLS sides disposed of lower division opposition in the semis (Rochester and Miami FC respectively).
Right. Back to Denmark...
Danish Premier - Silkeborg 1:1 Randers
Disappointing way to end the Autumn season. We probably did just about enough to win, but one lax moment at the back and wasteful finishing denied us all three points. The first half was extremely dull as we negated their diamond with an anchorman behind a staggered four in midfield. The only bright spot looked to be Movsisyan, but I pulled him at the half when he picked up a knock (dumb move in hindsight, as we'll have three months off to recover after this game).
The second half continued to un-inspire until Nygaard took a through ball from Zhou and powered it home on 70 minutes. I resorted to my normal 4-1-3-2 "kill the game" formation, but they managed to find a gap and slip through for the equalizer 9 minutes later. We dominated the last 15 minutes, but stoppage time saw a tremendous save from a powerful Zimmerman effort and Ahmed heading over from short range on a free kick. Opportunity missed as our middle-of-the-pack rivals all lose or draw.
And that brings us to the end of the Autumn season. Here's a look at the table (click to enlarge)...
...where we see that I've got the club positioned as part of a trio chasing down København and AGF. We've opened up a slight gap on the rest of the table with a little over half of the season in the books (33 game season). We don't lose many games, but our biggest problem is those draws. We're tied for the league lead on 6. I'm hoping that a little winter break shopping will net me the goalkeeper and center back that solidify the defense. Anything else will just be shopping gravy. Stay tuned to see if I get my men...