I suppose I should have sensed the risk as I arrived far too early at the Ems for the game with the stadium empty but for the corner of Monaco fans hooting and hollering, decked out in white and red plastic sheets and evidently determined to enjoy their last 16 tie despite arriving as under-dogs.
I suppose I should have picked up the scent, despite a bright opening moment from Danny, we struggled to make any impression on the solid phalanx of Monegasque defenders with its midfield shield for the next 35 minutes. Our passing game not quite “right”, the ball when delivered a little to slow, a little behind, a little too high etc. You saw it, you know. Santi buzzed, Danny ran, Ozil tweaked but it never opened the defence. The keeper never had so much to scramble after the ball, let alone a save to make.
Never mind I said to myself, they have come for the draw, their attacking efforts are sparse and delivered with little conviction. One man pushed up, two men at most. I understand, I forgive them, I can be generous. We will press and press and press, and a crack will appear. We had control, we had the players and the form. When our short passing clicked and they tired it would be our night.
And then on 38 minutes, out of nothing save for a creditably speculative shot and a lack of closing down, a slight but decisive deflection and the keeper distracted, the whole evening turned.
It did not turn in the sense that buoyed by their goal the visitors suddenly moved on to the front foot and delivered a display of scintillating football. No, Monaco played throughout the 90 minutes as they did from the first minute, organised and intelligent. Rather like their fans nothing spectacular, nothing we have not seen before.
Now after the goal went in like me I am sure you thought, “bugger” that was bad luck but with a few minutes to half time and a full second half to go plenty of time and quality on the field and on the bench to put that setback behind us, and set ourselves up for the second leg on a firm foundation. We have special players, a rabbit will be flourished.
What had changed, what had turned was our attitude to the game. From a patient approach, albeit one in which the gears were not quite meshing, we lost our composure. We lost, as Steww referred to yesterday, perhaps our Grace. I sensed that players were looking at one another saying “ what now” ? We took no confidence from the fact that to that point at 38 minutes we had controlled the ball and pressed the opposition.
Half time came and went, Olivier skied one over the bar just before the break, then another as the second half opened which I think marked another watershed in the game. The admirable core that runs through our game, of being willing and able to retain the ball, to pass accurately, to try to tease out an opening was replaced by an increasingly frantic and ever quickening assault on the Monaco goal.
Chances were created and absolutely spurned. A header from six yards out shot off at right angles to the goal. I have no idea how they looked on TV but from the Clock End the two rebounds off the keeper which looked entirely convertible but ended in both cases somewhere about 27 rows back in the lower tier were excruciating. I am not a man given to gesture but after the second I was out in the gangway on my knees. (Alright, I am a man given to gesture but it was so painful.)
And thereafter, for the next 43 minutes or so, calamity heaped upon misfortune. What we tried failed, players who normally are confident and creative looked bereft of ideas. Berby plunged a second dagger which turned a lack of composure to outright panic. Per and Kosc as twitchy as cats at the greyhound derby. Olivier departed, carried out on a metaphorical footballing stretcher.
And then, and then, and then the Ox dangled the lifeline of opportunity in the water, after 90 minutes of discomfort could it be an Anderlecht style revival could be open ? Even if not then to travel to Monaco at 2-1 down was a hill that could be conquered. Yes, Yes YES!
But no NO – not at all – not even that small worm of comfort on a night of frustration and ultimate disappointment. And on cue the Monaco fans kept up their racket to the final whistle and beyond. They may still be there. Good luck to them.
Two faint sparks of comfort to end on.
One, that Monaco players celebrated at the end in a way that showed they feel they have won the tie. The tie is not over.
Second, we travel with nothing to lose. We have done it before against Inter, we may do it again.
I suppose it is plain porridge this morning though.