A lot is said about the young people of today. Generally it’s negative. But in football, an injection of youth can often provide a spark that is otherwise lacking from the team of older, wiser men (though this spark may be fairly temporary). Ihsan Sacko (DOB: 19/07/1997 – ie, he’s 18) didn’t make an impact goal-wise in Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace’s match against SAS Epinal, after coming on as a second-half substitute, but he nonetheless deserves to be a focus.
Racing did not start the game well. Sloppy, easy passes gave the ball away to the opposition in the opening minutes which, for a team 2nd in the table and hoping for promotion into Ligue 2 this season (after liquidation in 2011), is not good.
Not good went to actually bad in the 11th minute, when a cross from the Epinal’s left was put in by Di Pinto, amidst a throng of 4 SAS players. This was something of a feature of Epinal’s game. They generally attacked with 4-6 players on or around the shoulders of the Strasbourg back 4. While this left virtually no midfield for them, it forced Racing’s central midfielders back, and their two forwards and two wingers generally didn’t seem willing to track back fully or quickly.
Strasbourg were back equal five minutes later, though somewhat fortuitously. They’d already had a shout for a penalty – though not a strong one – and in the 16th minute one was actually given, though the seriousness of ‘foul’ was not much greater than for the claim which had been turned down. Jérémy Blayac (a proper journeyman striker) converted.
The rest of the first half did not feature much more of note. The persistence of Racing to play a 4-4-2 with 5 foot 4 inch Ladislas Douniama as one of the two up top was odd, there being no possibility for him to either win headers or run onto balls in behind. The formation also hindered Strasbourg in defending and build-up play, generally leaving the midfield area too empty.
Jérémy Grimm had a man of the match (in this team’s performance at least) game in central midfield, breaking up Epinal attacks like he was the Hulk and they were smashable objects. Athleticism, however, does not seem to be his strong point, meaning his effectiveness was limited.
With a hole in central midfield, Racing relied on their wings. Dimitri Lienard was average on the left, occasionally offering something worthwhile when he found himself on the other flank and could curl in a cross with his left foot. Denis Bouanga – a new signing in January – is a fantastic dribbler and a tricky winger, but his vision to see a final ball is sometimes lacking, and was this way in this match.
Step forward Ihsan Sacko. Subbed on in the second half for Lienard, he at first looked a little like another Bouanga, driving at the Epinal defence in a similar manner, but soon showed further worth. After having the ball taken off him, in what looked to be a foul, he recovered to win back the ball. The springs of youth.
He continued to be willing to defend throughout the match, his positioning good and promising on the ball when he got it. When Blayac was subbed off with 15 minutes to go, the team switched to a 4-5-1, Sacko moving into the centre of the field. The tactical switch worked well, and the combination of it and the addition of Sacko gave Racing a feeling of dominance that they hadn’t truly enjoyed all match.
Just a few minutes later, they had another penalty. A tackle on substitute Belahmeur which was about the same standard as that of the two earlier penalty claims was followed by a handball by an Epinal player as he brought the ball out of the box to break. For a second or two play continued, before the referee blew the whistle, to much complaining and some confusion. Once this was all settled down, Bouanga put a goal to his name which he didn’t, in truth, deserve.
Strasbourg hung on fairly easily until full-time. Although they were by no means dominant enough for a team looking for promotion, Epinal also didn’t threaten their goal all that much during the game. If they do get promoted (they’re currently 2 points behind leaders Marseille Consolat with 11 games of the season left to go), the 70 minutes makes me worry for them, though the final 20 gives them hope. Also of concern, though, is the fact that in the two games I’ve seen of them they’ve scored 4 goals – and 3 of them have been penalties.
[FT: Racing Strasbourg 2 (Blayac 16′ p., Bouanga 81′ p.); SAS Epinal 1 (Di Pinto 11′)]