After a September which brought us six wins from six, I’m hoping we can carry our momentum into October.
The one major caveat that is casting a shadow over our season so far, is the lack of goals we’re scoring; after two months of football Dwight Yorke is my top scorer with just four goals. Our results have been decent, but there have been too many one-nils and scoreless draws for me to feel really confident about our prospects.
And with just £10 million of my transfer budget remaining, we’re unlikely to be able to sign a striker of the calibre necessary to make a real difference, so we press on.
First up this month is a trip to Villa Park to take on John Gregory’s Aston Villa. The Villains may be utter trash in 2016, but back in ‘99 they were a very solid side, and even sat at the top of the Premier League table half-way through the 1998-99 season, only to fall away to sixth-place in the end.
So I am not taking this one for granted. Villa line up in a 3-5-2 formation with their strikers instructed to pull wide — a tactic that seems to be incredibly popular in this game. Juan Pablo Sorin, a £9 million summer signing, has been excellent in the left-wing-back role for Villa, averaging a rating of 7.83.
In respect of the threat the opposition pose, I go with a 4-3-3 to match their numbers in the middle of the park, with out-and-out wingers tasked with pegging back the Villa wing-backs.
We start brightly and Yorke rattles the post after some great work by Ludovic Giuly. But with 17 minutes on the clock, Roy Keane gets himself sent off for a second yellow card. It’ll be an uphill battle from here. I switch to 4-4-1 and hope for the best. Sorin, Dion Dublin and Paul Merson all force saves from Massimo Taibi as the half draws to a close. If we can make it to half-time, we can re-group and formulate a plan. But three minutes before the break Ugo Ehiogu heads Villa into the lead.
At half-time I bring on David Beckham and Michael Silvestre for Phil Neville and Denis Irwin, and I push Giuly up behind Yorke. But nine minutes into the second period another English defender scores to double the home side’s lead, this time it’s Gareth Southgate. With 20 minutes to play, I roll the dice and bring on Andy Cole, but the game peters out without incident. Full-time: 2-0. Our first defeat of the season.
Keane will be banned for two matches, and Giuly has picked up an injury that’ll keep him out for a couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid have forked out £15 million for a legendary Argentinian defender.
Next up, we’ve got Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. In contrast to Villa, Spurs are nowhere near as good as their real-life 2016 counterparts, so this is a good opportunity for us to bounce back from defeat.
Tottenham play a 4-4-2 and so do I. Let’s get on with it.
A dull half hour is followed quickly by a goal from Keane (his suspension doesn’t kick in until the next match). Then three minutes later, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer makes it 2-0. We go in at the break with a comfortable lead.
The second half brings little drama: Solskjaer misses a good chance to score his second, and a Chris Armstrong header is saved by Taibi. Full-time: 2-0.
Current United under-21 coach Warren Joyce was player-manager of Third Division Hull City back in ‘99. "Was" being the operative word...
A mid-week trip to Italy to take on Parma in the Champions League awaits us next. We managed to scrape a narrow victory in the reverse fixture last month, but I’m less hopefull of shuttinhg out the likes of Hernan Crespo, Amoroso and Ariel Ortega on hostile territory.
They line up in a 4-4-2 and I match their shape, but I use two defensive midfielders in Keane and Nicky Butt.
For the first 20 minutes Parma lay seige to our goal; Ortega shoots wide before hitting a sweet volley which is well saved by Taibi, Crespo also forces out keeper into action. But we make it to half-time level: 0-0.
We give a better account of ourselves in the second-half as York goes close, and I bring Paul Scholes on with 20 minutes to play to see if we can nick a goal. With three minutes remaining Crespo hits the target but Taibi saves well. We go straight up the other end on a counter-attack. Solskjaer slips it through to Yorke who shoots... but Gianluigi Buffon makes the save and this one ends goalless.
On to Newcastle United away. In the corresponding reserve fixture this week, 18-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a hat-trick; the kid might be ready for his first-team debut soon.
Newcastle play a 4-4-2 and there is no doubt whatsoever as to who their danger man is: Alan Shearer has scored nine goals in 13 games so far this season, so I instruct Jaap Stam and Alessandro Nesta to man-mark he and Duncan Ferguson. I’ll be without Keane for this one as he begins his two-match suspension.
Right from kick-off Newcastle are flying, and in the 37th minute, Shearer puts them ahead. Five minutes later, the England forward nets his second. In stoppage time at the end of the half, only the crossbar prevents Shearer from claiming first-half hat-trick. Half-time: 2-0.
I bring on Giuly and Silvestre to inject some pace, and we start to impose ourselves a little, with Ryan Giggs going close after a trademark slalom run. Then Stam pulls one back for us with a header from a corner. I bring on Andy Cole after 65 minutes, and as soon as the former Newcatle player steps onto the field, Rob Lee fires in a 30-yard rocket to make it 3-1. Cole scores with 11 minutes to go to give us some hope of a comeback, but Newcastle come close to scoring again as Taibi denies Shearer. It finishes 3-2. A fantastic game, but there’s no doubt the better side won. Shearer was outstanding; perhaps a future bid for the 29-year-old might be in order once I’ve raised some more funds.
Back to Champions League business next as we travel to Greece to take on Olympiakos. We only need a point to secure our place in the quarter final. They use an extremely bizarre 5-2-1-2 formation.
A strong start sees Solskjaer hit the post after nine minutes, but that’s about as good as it gets for us. Keane picks up a booking which will see him suspended for the final group game. After 37 minutes Kiriakos Karataidis scores from a rebound after Taibi fumbles a free-kick into his path.
In the second-half I bring Beckham on to see if his quality can provide a breakthrough, but little changes. Full-time: 1-0.
In the other game in our group, Partizan Belgrade beat Parma. We are still top of the group, but we’ll need a point against Partizan to be sure of our place in the quarters.
And after such a great start to the season, Taibi’s recent form is a bit of a concern.
We finish the month with the visit of Derby, who play the same 3-5-2 as Villa, with young Seth Johnson taksed with bringing the ball out from central defence.
Concerned with the under-performance of Yorke, I decide to give Ibrahimovic his debut — he couldn’t do any worse than the rest of my strikers.
After 18 minutes Ibrahimovic wins a penalty which Solskjaer scores. Then, three minutes later, the young Swede puts a chance on a plate for Solskjaer, who makes it 2-0. And on 34 minutes, the Baby-faces Assasin claims his hat-trick, another Zlatan assist. Half-time 3-0.
We cruise through the second-half and see out the 3-0 win. Solskjaer’s hat-trick makes him my top scorer with five goals. But the biggest positive is the performance of Ibrahimovic, whose three assists earn him the man of the match award and a rating of nine out of 10.
If you missed last week’s edition of the CM 99-00 Challenge, you can find it here.
And if you’d like to check out the series that inspired this feature, click here.