Before kicking off our new season, I thought I would take a look at our fixture list, to see some of our upcoming contests could could decide whether any form of European challenge would be possible once again. It was extremely sobering, but in a very good way, to see fixtures against the likes of Fiorentina and Real Madrid right around the corner, as it proved just how far we had advanced as a team in just a single campaign.
However, before these high-profile European clashes we had to kick off our Premier League campaign. A home game against Stoke City awaited us first.
The Potters had finished sixth last season, and proved tough to break down under Mark Hughes’ shrewd stewardship. I believed that it would be tough to beat Stoke, and I was proved correct – Mame Biram Diouf’s early setback piled the pressure on, but thankfully Harry Arter and Jermain Defoe fired us to three points.
Next up was an away fixture at Manchester City. The Citizens had endured an underwhelming season last time out, and had even sacked Pep Guardiola. Carlo Ancelotti was brought in as his replacement, and managed to steady the ship. After scraping for a fourth place finish, City once again splashed the cash and brought in Paulo Dybala, Dries Mertens and Manuel Lanzini for a combined total of £126million.
As it turned out, City’s firepower was just too much for us, as we fell to a 2-0 defeat. Surprisingly, Dybala didn’t make an appearance and instead Sergio Aguero scored a brace.
With two games remaining before our showdown with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, it was important to pick up two more wins. With clashes against Newcastle and Tottenham, I was confident we could produce two positive results.
Thankfully we managed to ease past Newcastle. This had all the makings of a potential slip-up, but a confident, attacking performance from our attackers propelled us into second place. Max Gradel, who returned from his loan spell at Toulouse in the summer, performed superbly after creating two key chances and landing himself a well deserved assist.
Our game at Wembley against Spurs last season proved to be a thriller, but, frustratingly, we let our lead slip twice in an eventual 2-2 stalemate. This season, things went much smoother.
Goals from Callum Wilson and a late penalty from Harry Arter helped settle any nerves, and, judging by the full-time stats, we deserved to pick up the three points. Our defensive performance was also excellent, with our two centre-halves superbly marshalling any attacking threat that Spurs had.
But after that, attentions quickly turned to our first ever Champions League clash. In a group made up of Fiorentina, Krasnodar and Real Madrid, our first fixture was the toughest possible: a trip to the Bernabeu. I altered the usual tactic to become more defensively-minded, with an emphasis on spreading play out wide and breaking with speed.
And, to my utter amazement, the plan worked brilliantly!
A 1-1 draw against Real Madrid was far beyond anything I could have hoped for. Cristiano Ronaldo put the Spaniards into the lead in first half stoppage time, at the end of an opening period which we failed to gain any sort of foothold in.
But, miraculously, Sergio Ramos was shown a straight red card on the half hour mark, and I decided to encourage the team to attack more in the second period. Two minutes after the interval, Juan Bernat’s raking pass over the Madrid backline found Wilson, who calmly slotted past Keylor Navas. And after that, we created even more chances to gain all three points in our opening Champions League clash.
However, it wasn’t to be…not that I would have turned down a draw if it had been offered to me before the start of the game. An opening draw was extremely welcome, and placed us second in our group after Fiorentina and Krasnodar also played out a draw!
In the next episode, we will continue with our Premier League campaign and aim to, rather ridiculously, qualify for the next round of the Champions League!