Seeing the unlikely reunion of Scott Parker and Denis Odoi in the Champions League
It was just before half-time at the Jan Breydel Stadium when the storytelling gods conspired for a moment of perfection.
Noa Lang took a deep breath and swung his right shoe on a free kick. It was flown perfectly, right at the back post where Denis Odoi of all people was lurking.
The former Fulham defender, 34, had peeled off the back post and nailed the ball firmly. His header bounced into the back of the net via a deflection or two.
The ground broke. Odoi rolled away. This would be his second goal for the club he joined in January 2022 and it was a big moment for his manager Scott Parker on his Champions League debut.
But then the assistant’s flag was raised. The celebrations were short-lived. Parker’s hopes were dashed. Odoi was just offside.
Those were the cruel fine margins that can decide any tie, to use a favorite Parker phrase.
No Fulham fan could have predicted that Scott Parker would be managing less than two years after Craven Cottage Odoi’s blunt defeat in the Champions League knockout stages. It’s one of those great incredible probabilities that only football can create.
In part, it’s because they barely worked together when Parker departed in the summer of 2021. Odoi wasn’t exactly enjoying his final year under Parker, which saw Fulham relegated from the Premier League. He hardly appeared. In fact, following the England manager’s departure, Odoi told Fulham’s matchday program that it had been the most difficult year of his career. “Everything was fine from Monday to Thursday,” he said. “But on Friday and Saturday I wasn’t there, I trained alone or with two or three others with the under-23s. That’s not funny.”
Odoi landed at Brugge in January 2022, a deadline-day arrival after playing his part in Fulham’s championship-winning season under Marco Silva. Since then he has thrived, winning the Belgian title, asserting himself in the Champions League and then calling up with Ghana for the World Cup.
Parker, meanwhile, joined Belgium a year later after being sacked at Bournemouth after a 9-0 defeat and some unhappy words about his players in the press.
Brugge turned to Parker after a poor title defense saw them sack coach Carl Hoefkens despite his impressive results in Europe. Brugge have qualified for the knockout stages for the first time after just four games in a group with Leverkusen, Porto and Atletico Madrid. They kept an impressive five clean sheets in six of those games, with Odoi featuring in all but one.
Parker inherited a Champions League opportunity following his appointment on New Year’s Eve. But also a team that is fourth in the table and 12 points behind leaders Genk. Things haven’t improved all that much on that front since then – Parker has seen just one win in their first eight games and they’re now 20 points behind – despite only losing once.
Since their unexpected reunion, Odoi has featured in all but one of Brugge’s games under Parker. And that includes Wednesday night. It was a big moment for Parker, who became only the fourth England manager to coach in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
But the game would also mark another fresh start, which only added to the surreal nature of the night – at least from a Fulham perspective.
Odoi played the game as a defensive midfielder.
To be fair, this wasn’t a new role for Odoi. He previously played as a defensive midfielder for Brugge. Last season, when Alfred Schreude’s team rose to the title, Odoi played mostly in midfield. He has only repeated that role once this season, instead playing at centre-back or right-back where he has spent much of his time at Fulham.
But this was a news factor that would only be amplified when his night shifts began. It started… on purpose. Odoi was booked for a tough fight against Chiquinho with just nine minutes left. Hold him back, didn’t.
Brugge started quite well, with a counterattack that created a few chances. Tajon Buchanon had the best of them, charging down the left wing only to see his attempt blocked by goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos. Odoi, who organized the defensive effort, covered much ground. Brutally, his night took a painful turn when he was left in a heap twenty minutes into his booking after Chiquinho decreed his revenge with a thunderous shot into an area where it really hurts.
After that, the game seemed to be going in Benfica’s favor, who had several chances. But Brugge weren’t out and they bit back, with a moment that will forever be lost to the great cannon of the what-if – a cornerstone of Parker’s tenure at Fulham. Lang’s cross, Odoi’s header and oh what could have been.
In another universe, Parker and Odoi party the night away.
Unfortunately not in this one. Benfica took the lead from a Joao Mario penalty which they would later double through David Neres. Odoi’s story lasted until the 65th minute when he was replaced by Casper Nielsen.
Unfortunately defeat for Parker and Odoi at the beginning of their Champions League odyssey.
In three weeks they need to pull together again as they may need a miracle to turn that draw in Lisbon.
(Top Photo: KURT DESPLENTER/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)
https://theathletic.com/4207355/2023/02/16/denis-odoi-scott-parker-champions-league/ Seeing the unlikely reunion of Scott Parker and Denis Odoi in the Champions League