I tell the lads to throw the kitchen sink at them. And that’s exactly what they do.
“You’re having on Gervais, you’re having me on.” I say with puzzled intonation. Ricardo laughs and holds his hands up in a surrending motion.
“Shep, I would not lie to you. This is how it works, I cannot believe you didn’t know this until now!” He’s got a point because neither can I. The revelation that the knockout stages are not randomly drawn out of a hat is news to me. I know teachers used to say never trust Wikipedia but how many times had it done me right, how many times had it lead me down the right path? Our last away game and penultimate game of the Apetura is Millionarios at the Estadio El Campin which is far from an easy game. This update to my knowledge makes this game so much more important.
“So Ricky” I sigh. “Unless we lose both our of games left, Millonarios will be our opponents in the quarters.” Ricky nods. “For fuck sake. We better get ourselves prepared then.”
I was expecting to have a bit of rotation but as this game has a new level of importance, a strong team is needed. Rolls Royce are leading the line again while Torres and Palacios start as partners for the first time in recent memory. The rest of the side our strongest available.
Millonarios hold the majority of the ball for the first twenty minutes but we’re to happy to sit back and defend. We hit them on the counter in the 22nd minute when Rangel plays a lovely ball to the opposite side for Harold Gomez who passes it first time into Quintero. He tries to backheel it for the 1-2 but Dominguez blocks. Cesar reacts quickly to drag the away, pull out a couple stepovers and set himself on his left but the shot is way too central and the keeper catches.
35 minutes in, a poor pass from our captain means Millonarios can push forward. The first attack is stopped by a great Cardenas slide tackle but the loose ball falls to Carrillo. He passes it up to Rojas who hits a stinging shot towards our goal but Ramos flings a hand out to his left to push out for a corner. It’s lifted into the front post for Ovelar who plants a perfect header to the near top corner but Ramos denies again with a outrageous reflex save. There’s only one more moment of note in the first half when Cufre is played down the left as the fourth official holds the added minutes above his head. Two Millonarios come over to cover so he cuts back and lofts a ball to Quintero. He nods it down to Cardenas who catches the ball just after the bounce with a sweet volley that unfortunately skews a few yards wide. The attempt alone deserves respect but the first half finishes 0-0 and if the second half were to finish 0-0, I’d be happy.
In the 53rd minute, Romero drags out wide to receive a pass and gives it back to our vocal point this game in Quintero. He strokes a pass out for Rangel who lightly flicks it on for Cardenas. He touches and shoots with his left foot but the shot can only dent the far post. In the 70th minute, I make a rare triple substitution with Nunez, Jaimes and Rodriguez taking the places of Salazar, Quintero and Harold Gomez.
In the 83rd minute, Jair Palacios is in space after taking on Jaimes and slides a ball to David Silva. He plays a pass that his namesake would be proud of into Ovelar who hits a shot that perfectly fits the gap between Ramos’ fingertips and the near post to make it 1-0. Nelson is just centimeters away from getting any touch on it and with less than 10 minutes left, I tell the lads to throw the kitchen sink at them. And that’s exactly what they do.
We are relentlessly passing around the blue shirts, working it wide and trying anything we can to draw us level. There’s only 3 minutes of added time but we’re into the fourth minute when Romero spreads it out to Nunez. He chests it down and holds before playing the overlapping Cufre. Braian crosses as he’s level with the 18 yard box and what a cross it is. It’s Benjamin Mendy-esque as it’s powerful and curling, straight to the back post where Romero flings himself towards it… AND SCORES! Elation sweeps over my body and spreads the away following opposite me. Sergio connects with a volley that must be five foot in the air and it flies straight over the head of Farinez before he can think about saving it. Romero shushes the crowd before sliding on his arse and being mobbed by players and manager alike. What a moment.
Millonarios take kick-off but only a few passes are played before the referee calls time and confirms our point. We played really well today and to leave empty handed would have been a poor reflection of our performance. Cardenas and Cufre particularly linked up well down the left side and this was undoubtedly the wing back’s best game since we splashed out for him in January. He is named Man of the Match and rightly so but of course, I have to tip my hat to Romero who saved the day.
Taking into results elsewhere, our draw with Millionarios mean we are guaranteed to play them in the quarter-finals. Essentially rendered our final game of the season pointless. Well if we don’t win, there’s a chance we will drop to 5th and play at home first but in all honestly, I’d rather play away from home first. Because of this, I take the advice of Ricardo and Alvarez and take a short holiday home and leave Ricardo in charge for our final home game against Medellin. I need some time out to relax before the stress of the knockouts arrive so all I ask him of Ricky is for him to field a younger side and give some fringe players a game.
I manage to find a stream of the game when I’m home and spend my Saturday evening assessing how well my assistant manager can… well manage. In the 13th minute, a goal from Rovira of all people gives us the lead and we hold on until a couple minutes before half time, the recently cautioned Ricaurte draws Medellin level with a lovely distance strike. In the 65th minute, he picks up his second yellow for a bad tackle on Neumann but straight from our free kick, they counter and Blanco scores to give Medellin the lead. Ricardo doesn’t bring on Rangel to try and add some more physical presence which is a bold move but it pays off as Steve Morison powers home a header in the 87th minute to make it 2-2 and salvage a point.
Luckily for Medellin, that single point was enough to get them into 7th place. Unluckily for them however, this means they’ll face Deportivo Cali over two legs. Millonarios won their final game and jump above us which schedules another visit to Estadio El Campin first. I can’t help but recall when I spoke about Millionarios and said ‘Anything we can get against these is a bonus.’ That statement still stands.
League toppers Junior face Once Caldas while league favourite Atletico Nacional, who finished 3rd, play Santa Fe who had a late surge into 6th place. All in all, some decent games to be had with our game against Millonarios and Independiente Medellin against Deportivo Cali looking like the tastier ties of the bunch.
Reflecting back for the first time on the Apetura, we picked up 37 out of a possible 57 points and suffered just two losses, one of which was against the league favourites. We more than held our own against some of the bigger teams and while I really couldn’t guess how our quarter-final ties will go, it’s been an amazing start to my professional managerial career where I’ve exceeded my own expectations. I smile as I settle back into my seat and pull down my eye mask for the duration of my flight back to Colombia. Visions of Andreas Neumann setting up Steve Morison for the late winner and Gabby Gomez lifting the Apetura trophy flash through my head. I never thought I’d say this while on an identical flight to one I irrationally jumped on half a year ago; but I cannot wait to be home.