If we’d contrived to lose this one, there’s no question who would have been to blame. Last season we were able to rely on any sort of downpour to get a game called off if things weren’t going our way, or if we weren’t really up for the challenge. Now with a bright, shiny new surface we had to play it out. It was a case of two points lost rather than one gained, not because we deserved to win (we didn’t) but because too many on the pitch had below-par games when you felt the game was there to be won. Having taken the lead, we didn’t have it in the tank to go on and win well against vulnerable opposition, or to go again once they’d equalised. Perhaps the most telling fact was that we failed to create a single opportunity after the first minute of the second half. It seemed as if after the magnificent win at Norwich we wanted to just get through this one and get to the break. Not enough on the day.
The team was much as expected in that Solly came back in for Gomez and Morrison had his first appearance due to the unavailability of Ben Haim, with Bulot continuing to provide support for Vetekole up front and Cousins and Wilson in the wide midfield slots. The view of some Birmingham fans before the game was that they carried a threat but that defensively they were all over the place, and early on it looked as though Vetekole might win it on his own.
We didn’t exactly dominate possession in the opening minutes; rather we kept the ball exclusively, albeit to no great effect until a rather ordinary ball forward to Igor saw him do all the hard work – controlled it, turned inside his marker to make the space – only to curl his effort wide when there was the whole goal to aim at. No matter, the next time we worked the ball down the left a cross into the box saw Vetekole unmarked to head down and into the corner. You did wonder how Birmingham allowed him to get free as he was the only one to mark, but it’s happened before and you have to give full marks for his movement and ability to escape the defenders.
Only problem was having scored really quite easily we seemed to think that we could do so again if necessary. We weren’t exactly on the boil before the goal, but after it were decidedly off it and just got sloppy, playing as if we believed that Birmingham couldn’t score, given that Norwich hadn’t managed it. They nearly did not long after courtesy of a poor pass by Buyens that was easily intercepted and put us on the back foot, only for their guy to curl it over. Buyens went on to have a rant at the ref, as if that disguised the error.
We continued to amble through the remainder of the first half, with nothing of note coming down the flanks and Bulot peripheral, but just as it seemed we had made it to the break without alarm Birmingham played a ball into the box which seemed to be diverted goalwards, only for a guy in an offside position to give it an unnecessary extra touch. Have to see it again but my impression at the time was that if he’d left well alone it would have gone in and been legitimate.
You hoped that would serve as a wake-up call and that the team would come out with more purpose in the second half. That almost proved to be the case as in the first minute Vetekole played it square across the box to the incoming Wilson only for him to curl it over the bar rather than under it. It was to prove important as a second then may well have killed off the game. Instead Henderson was called into action to block an effort shortly after before the game settled back into its previous pattern: us looking relatively untroubled but not exactly worrying them either.
That relative contentment was upset after about 10 minutes of the second half. It looked as though a Birmingham training ground corner routine had gone wrong as their guy failed to control the ball to him on the edge of the box, but it broke square and their guy running on to it on the left side drilled it into the opposite corner, giving Henderson no chance.
Fair enough, on the balance of play we couldn’t complain, even if the goal had an element of good fortune about it. Plenty of time left, we have to go on now and win the game again. Sometimes it’s just not that easy as when the intensity and drive hasn’t been there generating it isn’t easy. Peeters tried to shake things up with changes but they didn’t result in a better tempo. Shortly after their goal Moussa came on for Jackson, with Cousins again switching inside and Bulot going wider. The skipper seemed to me seemed less than pleased. On the day Buyens was playing poorly and if one of them had to go to inject more life, there was a case, if the legs were OK, for it to be Buyens instead of him.
In any event the change made no material difference and after another 10 minutes or so Tucudean came on for Wilson, with Moussa now pushed wide left. He too was to disappoint, looking short of confidence and finding it hard to get into the game. Birmingham seemed to appreciate that as long as they kept Vetekole under wraps – which they had failed to do early in the game – the threat to their goal was modest.
In a rather subdued atmosphere even the announcement of six extra minutes failed to inject fresh impetus. Instead Cousins landed awkwardly and was stretchered off, to be replaced by Fox, who operated as a central midfielder. The extra minutes passed with no dramas and at the death both sets of supporters were probably left with the feeling of what might have been. On actual efforts on goal they had probably shaded it and, having shut us out for the bulk of the second half, may feel if anyone deserved to win it it was them. We left with the feeling that if we’d played to our potential we would have won, but having failed to do so had no real complaints.
If we’d come away from Carrow Road with a gutsy 0-0 and won today we’d be delighted. We are after all still unbeaten and in the frame. Just could have been a good deal better and that has to go down as a missed opportunity.
Henderson: 8/10. No chance with the goal and dealt with everything else very well.
Solly: 7/10. Much as before, no problems defensively but not quite the storming presence going forward that we’ve seen in the past.
Wiggins: 7/10. With the exception of one occasion getting caught out in the second half perfectly sound; as with Solly, not a lot going forward – perhaps it’s to do with the combinations in front of them.
Bikey-Amougou: 8/10. There was nothing wrong (again) with the defence today, Birmingham scored somewhat out of the blue and otherwise only had two clear efforts on goal.
Morrison: 8/10. My man of the match. He can’t have played much competitive football of late and came in, didn’t put a foot wrong. Very reassuring that he’s not gone off the boil.
Wilson: 4/10. Let’s face it, a poor game. Was unable to get anything going and when he had the chance to put the game beyond Birmingham the shot went over.
Buyens: 4/10. He’s a good deal better than he showed today. I thought against Middlesbrough he was playing a bit within himself and today he got more than a bit sloppy. Poor pass nearly cost us a goal.
Jackson: 6/10. Nothing dramatic or decisive. On the day he was unlucky to be taken off.
Cousins: 7/10. No point in going on about the limitations when he finds himself in a position where a natural winger would thrive. Just hope the landing doesn’t prove to be serious.
Bulot: 4/10. Potential is fine, but today he was entirely peripheral, playing centrally and out wide. Hope for better.
Vetekole: 8/10. Birmingham couldn’t handle him and he nearly won it on his own, although he was better dealt with in the second half.
Subs: Moussa (5/10 – no material impact); Tucudean (5/10 – the same); Fox (no mark as he was only on for stoppage time).