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Thus far, my Randers team has had a fairly successful season by the standards of the club and the expectations of fans and board alike. I'm not so naive as to have expected to start winning trophies right off the bat, but my personal targets have been elevated by our recent good form. Whatever happens with the rest of the season, we'll still finish comfortably midtable, having made a relatively deep cup run. That said, there is a significant chance of glory lying on the far side of 8 games in 24 days, a stretch that includes both legs of the cup semifinal. A cup win? Europa League qualification? The pessimistic side of me says that the game is only setting me up for disappointment by allowing my good run to have continued this long...
Danish Premier - Randers 2:0 Køge
Despite resting half of my starters in anticipation of the first leg of the cup semifinal, I expected to win this home match against the cellar-dwellers with ease. The boys didn't disappoint. Within 3 minutes, König, Movsisyan's understudy, showed that maybe he's learning a thing or two from the Armenian, grabbing a ball at midfield and racing down the left flank, outpacing the defense before cutting inside, sidestepping a last-ditch tackle, and slotting home. König was everywhere in the first half, turning in a dominating performance that culminated with a good piece of holding play before feeding in Nygaard for 2-0 near the half-hour mark.
The second half was grind-it-out stuff. We controlled the ball, wobbled a bit on a couple of set pieces, but finished the game missing half a dozen great chances. Man of the match König had to hobble off after an hour, but the greater damage was done when Dutch center back Niek Ripson, who's been the rock at the heart of our newly solid defense since his acquisition in the winter, went off injured. Torn groin. Out two months. And before it's even started, our make-or-break stretch looks to be decidedly tilting towards the break end of the scale. This could get ugly.
Danish Cup Semifinal (First Leg) - Randers 0:0 København
I had some faint hopes for this game, hoping to take advantage of squad morale before it fades with the inevitable collapse in the wake of Ripson's absence. Instead, I pick up an early injury to another stalwart, Kelly Gray, who damaged some knee ligaments and will also be out for this crucial 2 month stretch. Was I tempting fate when I said our good autumn season owed much to a lack of injuries to key players? We're now down two starters for the rest of the season. Ugh.
Back to the game. We shaded the chances in both halves, my Bob Bradley-style 4-2-2-2 counter-attacking formation providing the three biggest opportunities of the game. First, Nygaard intercepted a poor back-pass to go one-on-one with the keeper, but he kicked it right into the keeper's gut. Next, Movsisyan broke through the middle of the defense on 65 minutes only to be caught and brought down just as he entered the area. Sadly, the ref swallowed his whistle on what was a clear-cut penalty and red card. Guess our 7,000-strong fan support wasn't sufficient to intimidate the ref into making the right decision. In the followup to that play, Lorentzen stabbed at a loose ball from a bad angle, only to have it go out off the foot of the post. We also hit the bar twice from long range, but just couldn't find the breakthrough. If it weren't for the injuries, however, I'd be pretty pleased with a 0-0 in the first leg. Our counterattacking against the big boys always seems to work better away from home.
Danish Premier - FC Midtjylland 0:0 Randers
The unbeaten run extends to 14 games in the league, 17 overall, but only just. The gaps are starting to appear in the defense with two of our automatic starters injured and another, Ahmed, unhappy that I didn't let him move on to bigger and better things in the transfer window. We controlled much of the first half and had the better chances, but they weren't really great ones. In the second, Midtjylland poured on the pressure and hit the crossbar three times. There was only ever going to be one winner as I scrambled to keep them out. Fortunately, they never found the back of the net, but it's just a matter of time now. The whole damn house of cards is teetering.
Danish Premier - Randers 1:1 Silkeborg
Damn. We needed this one. Silkeborg were the soft, chewy center of our death march, the three points we really needed to keep pace in the Europa League chase. And we looked to have it in the bag. Just 53 seconds in, Nygaard flicked on for Lorentzen, and the left winger raced in, dribbling right through the keeper and into the net. We were completely dominant in the first 20 minutes, having at least 8 efforts on frame and one that hit the post. Silkeborg mounted nothing. There was a brief flurry around the middle of the half, but we came back into control. The whole time, the "not taking our chances" cliché kept rolling around uncomfortably in my head.
We got off to a decent start in the second, drawing a tremendous save from their keeper that kept them in it. Unfortunately, the tired legs started to tell. Most of the team started the game at 93-95%, and they were suffering as we got past the hour mark. Silkeborg put their foot on the collective pedal and pressed hard, finally getting their equalizer after a defensive breakdown on our right flank, where Kelly Gray's understudy, Alexander Fischer, isn't quite the same quality of defender. We pressed for a winner, but always looked more likely to concede. Damborg had a speculative try from distance that almost crept in, but we went into a shell after Lorentzen had to limp off with 10 minutes remaining and all of our subs used up. He joins the growing injury pile, out two weeks with a bruised shin.
Danish Premier - Brøndby 0:0 Randers
And against all odds, the unbeaten run goes to 19, with a clean sheet to boot, though four draws in succession doesn't bode well for the future. In deference to the brutal stretch of games and the second leg of the cup semifinal in three days, I ran out a mostly second string eleven against a superior side, with a couple of youth teamers called up in desperation. The first half was dull; a couple of chances either way, but nothing to write home about. The second started in perilous fashion for us. They came full bore, though their goal threats came mostly from set pieces. I had run out the 4-2-2-2 counter formation, but quickly pushed one of the deeper lying mids into the gap between the two midfield lines since our opposition were in a wide diamond, leaving a lot of space for that free mid to operate in. To neutralize their d-mid's effectiveness in possession, I told one of my forwards to man-mark and harass him.
They had plenty of chances down the stretch, but we missed a golden opportunity to snatch an unlikely win with a quarter-hour to go. Egholm headed a corner off the bar, and the rebound dropped to our other center back, Ahmed, wide open inside the six with the keeper stranded. At least he got it on frame. But that tame effort, easily saved by the retreating keeper, was the best chance we had outside of a trademark corkscrewing effort by left winger Beckmann from well outside the box that got tipped over.
Danish Cup Semifinal (Second Leg) - København 0:2 Randers
With the semifinals using the away goals rule, I came to attack from the kickoff, hoping to snatch an early goal and then try to frustrate them. We almost succeeded, Sivebæk maneuvering through the middle, only to slip his shot just wide. That initial 10 minute spell ended, however, and they were all over us. I dropped back into my 4-2-2-2 counterattacking shell but was getting almost no service to my forwards. Ellegaard had to come up with three tremendous stops during the half, while Krol and Haibin both cleared balls off the line in the wake of corner kicks.
I sat the boys down at halftime and told them we just needed to find one goal. I also gave the centerbacks (young Mads Fenger and the unhappy, want-away Issah Ahmed) the hair-dryer treatment as they were both playing poorly and the København forwards were running amok. Oh for my injured Dutch giant, Ripson! We came out in the second in much the same manner, under heavy pressure and creating little of note up top.
That's when I made my gamble. I brought on the athletic and in-form König to run at tired defenders, pulled Movsisyan back onto the left wing position with winger orders, pushed Haibin up from d-mid to central mid, and pulled right wing Sivebæk back to right mid to form the "swoosh" midfield. That gave us three forwards on the field, and I went direct with Nygaard as a target man, hoping that we could lump it up for him to knock down for the speedy König or the onrushing Movsisyan. Instead, it was a magical bit of play ten minutes after the change that unlocked them.
After a bit of head-tennis in midfield, we worked a series of short, triangular passes down the left before Movsisyan cut inside and delivered a ball through for Nygaard, who fought off his defender and slotted home to the far post. 72 minutes gone, and we just needed to hold them to one goal. Unfortunately, Ahmed had to limp off, forcing a shift wherein Krol had to go inside to play in a less-favored centerback role alongside the kid Fenger. Neither are the titans in the air that Ahmed is, so it was serious fingernail-assault time.
I stayed with the counter, suffered a couple of scares, then leapt off the bench, fist pumping as Nygaard won a ball deep and played König through on the right wing. With two defenders closing him down, he launched a deep cross. Movsisyan, ghosting in at the back stick, got his head on it and put the ball into the narrow gap between keeper and post. 2-0 with 10 minutes left! We went full-on bunker, had to make another change as our other starting center back, Fenger, went down injured, but survived unscathed with two left backs playing in the middle of defense and a midfielder covering at right back.
Post-match, the media claim a "triumph of tactics for the Randers Football Club head coach." Damn straight! And for making it to the cup final, we're awarded...$3,300? WTF? Is this the US Open Cup? In other bad news, Fenger's late injury was a broken jaw, meaning our fourth-string center-back is now out for a month. That leaves us with two healthy first-team central defenders available for the congested run-in. I knew the injury bug was likely to strike sometime, but couldn't it have spread the damage around a bit?
And that's where we'll leave it until next time. We have just half of a month remaining in the season, but those first 16 days of May contain five matches: four in the league and the cup final. See you next time for the barnstorming finish to my first year in charge of Randers FC.