Down the home stretch we come in Season #1 of Yanked Abroad. My Randers team sit fourth in the Danish Premier, holding a slight edge in the race for Euro-spots and still technically alive in the title chase, though it would require a monumental collapse by all three of the teams ahead of us to open that particular door. Silverware is not out of reach however, as we have made it to the Danish Cup final.
Danish Premier - Randers 2:0 FC Nordsjælland
Eleven days before the cup final against this same opposition, so I play my cards close to the vest, running out a team of veteran squad players, benchwarmers, and youth teamers in my usual 4-4-1-1. Because of injury, I'm forced to go with my only two healthy center backs in the middle of defense. I also run out Sane, a usual starter who's lost his place owing to bad form. But the rest are not regular starters, and one, Rune Hastrup, is an 18 year old from the U19's that I've been giving garbage minutes to. I've got another couple of U19's on the bench.
Despite the changes, I still expect to get something from this match, and we start the game pushing forward in numbers. Seven minutes in and Alex Fischer goes storming down the right flank from his fullback position, hitting a cross that curls back across the six for Mikkel Beckmann, our left wing, to nod home with a well-placed header. Nordsjælland respond, earning a series of corners, one of which provides two consecutive chances for American defender Michael Parkhurst from short range, but our backup keeper saves the first before Parkhurst smacks the rebound off the post and out.
We pull back slightly with an eye to controlling possession, and our control gradually returns with the wings, Beckmann and the youngster Hastrup, making a series of dangerous dribbling runs. Beckmann, despite having taken a knock, finishes the half strong, ensuring his man of the match award in first half stoppage time by splitting two defenders on the left flank, cutting back, dribbling across the top of the box, following the arc of the "D", and hitting a laser into the bottom right corner of the net.
The second half is predictably dull. We concede a couple of chances, but have double that on the break ourselves. Nobody manages to score, and I get my kids in for some first team experience. Smiles all around, though one of the U19's gets a facial injury that will see him sit out a week and change. We currently top the injury table in the Danish Premier with four injuries, three defenders (starters Ripson and Gray, plus utility defender/midfielder Mads Fenger) out for the remainder of the season, and the kid, Sørensen, out for 8-11 days.
Danish Premier - AGF 1:1 Randers
Black magic, man. That's the only explanation for the length of this unbeaten run. Okay, so maybe I'm getting the best from a limited set of players, but they are completely overmatched in some of these games, and there has to be a huge element of luck keeping this run alive. True, AGF were without their string-puller in chief, Feilhaber, but they've got the kind of quality throughout their roster that we can only put forward with a handful of standouts. In the first half, things looked true to form, they had an initial flurry of chances, capped off by a fourth minute goal from a corner. Instead of sitting deeper, I trusted to our confidence, pushing one d-mid (we started in the 4-2-2-2 with two deep d-mids and two wide attacking mids) forward. We responded, but the chances were pretty even for the rest of the half.
I laid into the boys at halftime, telling them were were handing our arch-rivals the title and embarrassing ourselves in front of the traveling support. The response was excellent. Man of the match and veteran target-man Marc Nygaard, after issuing a pre-match rallying cry, answered his own bell by getting everywhere, winning innumerable headers. The chances came thick and fast, Movsisyan, Zhou, Nygaard, and Lorentzen all went close. A flowing team move resulted in Movsisyan charging down the left, floating one across that Nygaard powered on frame, only to have it saved. Sivebæk hit a followup, also saved, before Lorentzen came in on that rebound, hitting a low drive that was parried wide. From the resulting corner, Movsisyan took the low ball played to the edge of the box, raced across the middle, and got sandwiched. The ball popped loose to Nygaard, who turned and rifled in a volley that bounced around the middle. In the ensuing mad scramble, an Aarhus defender tried to clear, only to have the ball bounce back and dribble, ever so slowly, across the line. Own goal. You make your own luck.
We dominated the remainder of the match save for one excellent chance when the defense got caught napping. In the final reckoning, the chances were about even, but we had 78% pass completion to their 63% and had 62% of the possession. Though the draw eliminates us from the title race with two games remaining, it also has the distinct pleasure, for our supporters, of damaging AGF's cause in the same race. They were running away with the league before a lukewarm patch allowed København back into the picture. A short recovery put them nine points clear, but they've since gone cold, making it a three horse race with the aforementioned Københaven and a surging Brøndby. With two games left, AGF are on 66, København on 64, and Brøndby on 63. We trail comfortably in fourth on 57, Ondense needing to win both matches remaining (and have us fail to pick up two points) to catch us.
To add to our small-squad worries, two of the kids I've been giving first-team minutes to, Hastrup and Sørensen, have been called up to the Danish U19 side for the U19 Euro Championship qualifiers. They'll miss the next week, meaning we'll be without them for our last two league matches and the cup final. Still, it's good to see our youngsters getting recognition.
Danish Premier - Randers 2:1 Sønderjysk
The scrubs almost gave it away late, but they managed to hang on. With an almost entirely second-team lineup (the center back injury crisis forced me to field one of my normal starters) and teenagers on the bench, I was keeping my powder dry for the cup final in three days. Still, I expected to make a good go of it against the third from bottom team. Likewise, a win would ensure our Euro-qualification for next year and keep the long unbeaten streak alive.
We had a couple of early chances, but the visitors started to come back into it, fashioning a few of their own. In response to their getting too much space between the lines, I pushed higher and dropped one of the central mids to a d-mid spot to fill the space their forwards were exploiting. Control returned, but not completely. We traded attacking sequences, with theirs usually ending in long shots and ours in corners. Towards the end of an unremarkable half, young striker König rose above two defenders and nodded a floated cross home. 1-0 at the break, and I encouraged the boys at halftime, challenging a few of them that I thought were underperforming.
The boys responded initially, creating two fantastic chances that were wasted by König and Sane respectively. Without outlets up top, we were struggling a bit as the half wore on. I pushed Sane up from a-mid to forward, going to a more traditional 4-4-2 with one of the central mids dropped deep. Immediately our possession soared, and all the action was in their end. With 15 minutes to go, Ricki Olsen finally found the breakthrough, racing onto a through ball from a deep midfield position and firing home at the near post. 2-0 and we dropped back to counter. I was so comfortably that I brought on a 16 year old center back to log some minutes out of position at right back (a spot I'm training him for since he's weak and tiny — not exactly center back material).
And it all went swimmingly until stoppage time. The fourth official signaled three minutes to be added on, but in the first minute, a scramble in the box resulted in a ball poked home for them. Still, not too much of a problem, right? Less than two minutes? Almost immediately, the 16 year old, one Nicolai Poulsen, the youngest ever to represent Randers FC at the senior level, dawdles on the ball, loses possession at the edge of the box, and forces creative mid Jonas Damborg to fling himself into a last-ditch tackle, promptly injuring himself with all of our subs used. Down to ten, but we should only have a minute to kill...or so I thought. We had three more scares before the ref finally blew the final whistle after 8 minutes of stoppage time.
In the process, we managed to lose Pedersen and Damborg, our first two options off the bench in central midfield, for the remaining two games of the season. The number three option, Olsen, hit the disciplinary limit for yellow cards as well, and Sørensen, the youth-teamer who's been logging minutes of late, is away with the Danish U19's, so our cup team is going to be thin not just in central defense, but central midfield as well.
Still, Euro-qualification is assured; we will finish fourth, regardless of what happens in the final weekend. And it should be an interesting one in the title chase. København have clawed their way back into the top spot, sitting on 67 points, just one clear of both AGF and Brøndby on 66. Goal difference? København and Brøndby on +37, AGF on +38. My money's on København, who are home to the Sønderjysk side we just beat and hold that slender one-point lead. Brøndby are home as well, to winless Køge, while our rivals AGF are home to Aalborg. It'll be sweet if they finish behind København, because our draw against them in the last match will have been what cost them the title.
Before we get to our own cup final, I note that the team that knocked us out of the Europa League, Roma, made it all the way to the final of that competition before being beaten in extra time by Brad Friedel's Aston Villa. Roma's Daniele De Rossi was, predictably for US fans that remember 2006, sent off in extra time.
A quick peek in at the Danish U19's qualifying campaign saw none of my boys feature in their opening win against Estonia (Hastrup played 90 for us the previous day and Sørensen was coming back from his facial injury), though Hastrup and Sørensen both got on the scoresheet in a 4-0 rout of Scotland, with Sørensen both captaining the side and winning man of the match. His only competition would have been Hastrup, as both finished with ratings above 9. A stiffer test awaits against Russia, though a draw will see them through to the U19 Euro championships.
Danish Cup Final - FC Nordsjælland vs. Randers FC
The current rash of injuries, suspensions, and call-ups limited my choices, but fortunately, my squad rotation policy left me with fresh legs for my starting eleven, which I ran out in a fairly standard 4-4-2 with both central mids detailed as ball winners, the left wing a pure winger, the right wing a defensive winger, and both fullbacks given orders to get forward as wingbacks. We lined up thus...
Lorentzen, Zhou, Karlsen, Sivebæk
Krol, Egholm, Ahmed, Fischer
subs: van Duin (GK), Antón, Beckmann, Sane
Nordsjælland came out in a 4-5-1/4-3-3, so I focused on marking their three front-runners tightly and closing down their d-mid and fullbacks. Inside of a minute, Nygaard was slipped through and thundered one off the post. Inside of ten we had hit the bar again. They were reeling, but rallied, only for Ahmed to rise and head home a corner on 15 minutes. We stuck to our guns, playing the "Standard" wait-and-see approach. But again they rallied, going close a number of times. Despite my orders to close down their d-mid, he was still directing traffic, so I detailed Nygaard to drop off the front line to man-mark him when they had possession. The tide swung back to us, with a couple of good chances spurned before the half.
At halftime I told them that I didn't expect their performance to drop, and I laid into Fischer, who was having a real stinker. The second 45 began indifferently. Both sides had chances from set pieces, but weren't creating much from open play. A series of corners for them had me scared. Could we hold a one goal lead for 35 more minutes against a team that clearly saw this as their one chance at doing anything this year and was threatened with relegation?
I decided to be brave and attacked. I told the boys to get forward and cause them problems, to start dictating the game. And we did. Three chances in quick succession finally led to a corner that Movsisyan controlled near the edge of the box, danced in at a tight angle, and blasted through a pack of bodies, the shot deflecting in off a defender. 2-0 with 62 minutes played, but I kept the hammer down. Zhou and Lorentzen both went close, and Nygaard hit a rocket from distance that the keeper parried with some difficulty.
With a quarter of the game remaining, I pulled back on the reins a bit, trying to keep things tighter at the back. Antón came on for the yellow-carded Egholm, detailed to play as cover while Ahmed stuck tight to their lone forward. With Nygaard tiring rapidly, having been asked to do double duty as target-man and man-marker on their d-mid, I brought Sane in to midfield and shifted the athletic right winger Sivebæk up top with the same brief as Nygaard had been given.
They had two good chances to pull one back before we made our definitive grab for the trophy. Told to sit back and counter, we did just that. Lorentzen picked up a headed clearance on the left wing and raced forward, beating the fullback for pace and crossing low and hard across the face of goal. Movsisyan went near post but couldn't stretch to reach the cross. Sivebæk, who's spurned great chances thus far this spring, finally buried one, darting in front of his defender and bundling the cross home from close range. His first senior goal, and it put us up 3-0 on 77 minutes. After that, it was just keep-away and running out the clock as we shifted to a 4-1-3-2 to counter their move to a 4-2-3-1. I did bring Beckmann on for Lorentzen with a few minutes remaining, both as a reward for Beckmann for having such a quality year and to let man of the match Lorentzen soak in the applause.
Final score - FC Nordsjælland 0:3 Randers FC
Our reward? $29,000. Sigh.
The plaudits are better.
Sadly, the Danish U19's fail to qualify for the Euros, losing 1-0 to Russia in the final group match, with both Hastrup and Sørensen picking up their second youth caps.
Danish Premier - Randers 1:1 Esbjerg
Fitting end to a strange season and a condensation of the whole affair in miniature. I ran out a somewhat changed lineup, holding out some of my regulars in favor of what I might be looking at as a starting lineup next year. We came out in an offset 4-4-1-1 that more resembled a right-leaning 4-3-3. Sadly, the new look wasn't paying dividends. Esbjerg, who will finish just below us in the table, had all of the early running, capping their dominance with a header inside the six just before the half-hour mark. I didn't panic, merely shifted the formation a bit to get the wide men more involved. We had a couple of chances near the end of the half, but nothing clear-cut.
I demanded more at halftime and saw a couple of half-chances early but nothing more. I went to the "swoosh" 4-4-2 and told the boys to attack, trying to get more numbers forward, but nobody was having a really outstanding game. I swapped out the forward line and brought on Sivebæk on the right wing, hoping a transfusion of fresh blood would raise us from our torpor. And we did start to come into it, but, after watching yet another hoofed ball fail as we closed on the 85th minute, it was the switch to a short passing game that began to open up the game. Suddenly we were stroking it about with confidence. A delightful series of triangles resulted in Zimmerman slipping in Beckmann to blast home a powerful equalizer with minutes remaining. And in the three minutes of stoppage time, we must have had five really solid chances. Couldn't finish, but draws have been the name of the game this year. Nobody lost fewer games than us (only the champions, København, who lost 7, were close to our 4 losses), but a rash of draws (our final record was 16 wins, 13 draws, and 4 losses) left us trailing the lead trio.
Still, we finished the spring season unbeaten and managed to land some silverware and a Europa League spot in the bargain. An almost $4 million payout for our final league position more than makes up for the lousy prize money on offer in the cup. I finish second in the Danish Manager of the Year award, just behind København's title-winning boss.
The tale of the tape...
In the next, and likely final, installment of this series, I'm going to look at the tactics I employed, what I'll be looking to change in the offseason if I do continue this game, and an honest assessment of what went right and the little that went wrong.
Why might the next post be the last installment? Well, FM 2011 will be released on November 5. I'm already kicking the tires on the demo and will likely want to have a go at rescuing DC United. My only question now is whether to wait for the December patch to tackle that job. I'll share more when I'm ready to kick off that series, but I think I'm going to be approaching it in a different manner — less detail on individual games and a more long-term approach (3-5 seasons?).