Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Reward For Hard Graft

Have to be fair to Bolton, on the night they did make us struggle. But at the end they’ve become another side leaving The Valley wondering how they didn’t get something from the game and it isn’t coincidence. For all the pressure and succession of corners, aside from their goal and one clearance from just under the bar, they failed to create clear goalscoring opportunities and conceded twice. The credit for that has to go to our defence, which kept its shape under serious pressure. Another case of effort and commitment getting its reward and possession (including apparently a corners count of 14-1 in their favour) ending up counting for little.

We all knew before the game that this was going to be tough, with respective league positions meaning little as they seemed to be getting the new manager boost and we were going to be missing Vetokele, Solly, Gomez and Gudmundsson, as well as coming off the back of our first defeat and playing the second of three games in six days in blustery conditions. The defence was as expected, with Wilson dropping back, as was the midfield given availability, with Bulot returning on the right side. Up front Tucudean and Moussa paired up, with Ahearne-Grant on the bench, along with Ansah and just about all available bodies.

We’ve started games this season with an object lesson in how to keep the ball, but tonight Bolton gave us a taste of it, with Lee Chung-yong in particular giving an early indication of his ability to drift around the pitch and link up play. Once that was over the game settled down, with plenty of probing by both sides but nothing decisive. A couple of shots from distance from Bolton dealt with by Henderson, some neat enough stuff from us but with Tucudean generally getting outmuscled and failing in his attempts to persuade the ref that the challenges were more than robust. There was one superbly weighted pass from Buyens which put Wilson in the clear down the right but his cross came at an awkward height for Cousins at the far post and by the time Jackson was lining up the shot from the knock-down the bodies were in the way.

It was pretty even, with Bolton’s formation causing us problems outside our box but not in it, save for the rather ominous presence of Dervite from set pieces, and our forwards seemingly well contained. Until on the half-hour Tucudean was more alert than their defenders to steal a yard and latch onto a ball played into the box. The control was excellent and nobody could get close enough to him as he drilled the shot low under the keeper and into the net. You could almost see Dervite et al scratching their heads as having seemingly had him (and Moussa) well under control a lapse in their concentration had been well and truly punished.

Bolton came close to levelling matters shortly after but a dangerous cross wasn’t converted. But Tucudean, who picked up a yellow for the celebrations (which was later to almost prove costly as some dissent almost gave the ref the opportunity to produce a second), then seemed to raise his game as the confidence level was upped and it was game on. At the break it had been an even affair but we had the goal.

The second half began much as had the first, with Bolton dominating possession without fashioning any real openings, and as that spell faded we extended the lead. The ball was won back and played down the left and with a quick ball into the box suddenly we had numbers over. Tucudean touched it on and Jackson drilled it low and sure.

You felt then that if we could keep it tight for say 10 minutes Bolton would be forced into changing their shape to chase the game and that might create more space for us going forward. It wasn’t to be as we were pegged back only a few minutes later. A corner wasn’t cleared convincingly and their guy ran onto it and from the edge of the box sent in it has to be said a peach of a strike through bodies that gave Henderson no chance.

Goals as they say change games and we were left in that betwixt and between situation while Bolton had the momentum. Increasingly our play became ragged as there was no effective outlet to relieve the pressure, with Moussa and Bulot struggling to make an impact, leading to an inability to retain possession. The final 20 minutes or so were never going to be pretty from our perspective, it was a case of keeping the shape at the back and trying to hold what we had.

There were moments of minor panic, hardly surprising as the defence was by now under pretty constant pressure and the corners just kept coming. Henderson dealt with most of what he had to but did miss one he came for and then another sat up for Dervite (I think) to loop in the header to just under the bar, only for Wiggins to stretch and get enough on it to prevent it going in, with Henderson mopping up.

It was a fair sign of our needs that Bulot was replaced by Fox, who played in front of Wiggins with Cousins switching to the right. Later Ahearne-Grant came on for the ineffective Moussa. But through it all Ben Haim effectively marshalled those around him and kept his calm, while Bikey Amougou was, well, immense. He even gave a fair demonstration of how to deal with Lee Chung-yong by running the ball forward down the left and simply brushing aside the challenges. Five minutes of stoppage time, Harriott on for Tucudean, and just a case of getting across the finish line. That was just about done.

Some games you win with a sublime display of attacking intent and some you find yourselves having to fall back on endurance and resilience. There was no shortage of those qualities tonight.

Player Ratings:

Henderson – 8/10. One missed cross but otherwise a reassuring presence. No chance with the goal and plenty of occasions which called for decisive decisions when coming off his line.

Wilson – 8/10. Filled in very effectively, stretched once or twice by a tricky winger but kept the shape.

Wiggins – 9/10. Excellent tonight, saw off his first opponent and stopped the one under the bar from going in.

Ben Haim – 8/10. Didn’t see him put a foot wrong.

Bikey-Amougou – 9/10. Got to give him man of the match tonight, even when he decided that it wasn’t a game for playing it out from the back.

Cousins – 7/10. Excellent work rate. Not great in the final third and some poor choices in possession, but put in a real shift.

Jackson – 7/10. Popped up in the box to score what proved to be the winner and plenty of hard graft in front of the defence.

Buyens – 7/10. Couldn’t manage to control the game tonight but helped keep them at bay and that beautifully weighted pass to Wilson in the first half.

Bulot – 5/10. Struggled to make an impact going forward (he may have played a part in our second) and increasingly peripheral before being subbed.

Moussa – 5/10. Effectively shut out by their defence.

Tucudean – 7/10. Has to get an extra mark for the goal, otherwise well marshalled.

Subs – Fox (6/10, not a game to come on and have a dramatic impact); Ahearne-Grant (6/10, much the same); Harriott (not on long enough for a mark).

Monday, 13 October 2014

Rhone Cup Upset Avoided

Believe it or not, the weekend wasn’t entirely devoid of meaningful football, for me at least, thanks to a quick answer to a question from my French partner Suzanne. I’d booked a trip to Lyon a while back and thought there might be the chance to take in a Lyon Duchere game. She checked; seems they would be playing away in the Coupe de France (an early round), against l’US Pont la Roche, on Sunday afternoon. What about, she suggested, driving south on Saturday, to around Tain l’Hermitage, going to either Charpoutier or another recommended wine outlet and also taking in a visit to the chocolate museum in the town (she has her weaknesses too), staying the night at a farm around Mersez, go to the game on Sunday, then drive back to Lyon (she does like to plan ahead)?

There are some questions which require careful thought; there are others to which a failure to reply in the affirmative before said partner has the option to reconsider having afforded me the possibility of wallowing in plenty of my favourite reds in return for a stroll around a chocolate museum merit a large tattoo of ‘plonker’ across the forehead. So off we duly went, despite a weather forecast which suggested that if we were lucky we’d only get moderately wet.

And wallow we did. The chocolate ‘museum’ (http://www.citeduchocolat.com/fr) was more than acceptable: EUR10 to go in, carrying tasting samples with additional free selections along the way, followed by more freebies in the shop. All very educational. Then on to my kind of shop (http://www.hermite.fr/). On the table as we entered were bottles to taste of Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage, and Cote Rotie. I mentioned that St Joseph was my preferred tipple and their immediate reaction was to take a bottle from the rack and open that to taste too. Even I had the decency not to say that I also liked Cornas, and anything else they might suggest from the area. The first Crozes Hermitage was a perfectly pleasant entre, the sort of unpretentious red that if any pub/bar within striking distance of The Valley were to offer would put an end to all our usual pre-match deliberations. The second one was a step or two up from that, splendid. Have to say that the Cote Rotie is a little too delicate for my peasant’s palate, the Hermitage was a slight let-down (the lady said she had tasted it that morning and it was fine but that now seemed too aerated, perhaps the cold; she added that it did need a few more years to be at its best and was ‘difficult’ to drink, which prompted the appropriate response from me), but then the St Joseph sent me into raptures.

Some of the second Crozes Hermitage and of the St Joseph safely purchased, along with a bottle of sweet white for Suzanne, and it was just a matter of carrying them, plus the chocolate, back to the car to drive east to Marsez and the farm. All perfectly welcoming and agreeable, save for the suggestion that breakfast was to be taken no later than 10.00. Later, despite reservations about my ability to be able to navigate our way back the short distance on dark, French country roads (Suzanne is a very fine driver and has many other splendid qualities, but she would agree that a sense of direction is not among them), we drove to St Donat to a recommended restaurant (not expensive and very friendly, perhaps in contrast to the one in the town with a Michelin star). Starters of foie gras and a mushroom concoction in mushroom puree, then St Jacques (Suzanne knows what she likes) and pork (so do I), followed by an assortment of desserts (the slice of lemon tart was a bit limp but the rest very good – especially for the reminder that while we are close to the Ardeche should get some chestnut sauce, delicious with vanilla ice cream and Chantilly). All washed down with a recommended Crozes Hermitage, Domaine des 7 Chemins, which proved to be all I could hope for.

After breakfast at the ungodly hour and a decent stroll around the area (pour la sante), we drove back west to be in place for the football (ah yes, there was a reason for this post). Just happened to see on the road a sign for Domaine des 7 Chemins, so yours truly the navigator kicked into gear. We found ourselves driving along (I kid you not) Rue de Syrah until we arrived at the vinyard. Now it was around 11.45 on a Sunday, so hopes of it being open for business were not high. Indeed, on the door ‘ferme’. But every problem has a solution, in this case a French one. When you find yourself at a vineyard which declares itself to be closed, but you see a couple of French men sitting around outside, push out of the car an attractive woman to go and talk to them. A couple of minutes later the place was duly opened, ‘by exception’. Not long after that, having admired their various awards (although in France so many seem to be handed out that you have to find a real wine lake-filler for there not to be trophies/certificates lining the walls) and availed myself of another glass, we emerged carrying more bottles. I look forward to reacquainting myself with this one (http://www.crozes-hermitage-vin.fr/domaine-des-sept-chemins) in the days ahead and would heartily recommend you do the same.

The difficulties in finding the location for the game – we thought the stadium might be at Point de l’Isere but it proved to be at la Roche de Glun - were offset by a couple more glasses of red in different locations along the way, plus a quick stop to get a couple of jars of said chestnut sauce/puree (and a little Serrano ham). OK, ‘stadium’ is a little too grand. We were informed that l’US Pont la Roche ply their trade some four divisions below Lyon Duchere (seems that at this stage of the Coupe de France the games are regional and the smaller team is always given home advantage). And more power to them. There was a bar (no wine but a demi of beer for EUR2 a go) and changing rooms, but basically it was a case of three football pitches side-by-side. As the middle one had corner flags planted and a metal rail running alongside the pitch, it seemed to be the one for the day. Admission price? Well, zero. No suggestion of trying to milk the occasion, rather everyone (probably a couple of hundred, players and officials included) enjoying the opportunity for a potential giantkilling.

Not surprisingly it proved not to be one for the purist. The pitch was not exactly flat, and with the corniche that marks the boundary of the Ardeche only a stone’s throw from the far edge of the pitch and storms in the region periodically a gale blew across the playing surface. And one had to add in the fact that the match officials were, well pants (bless them, they tried their best). The linesman in front of us seemed rather confused by his role, keeping his flag down and shouting ‘advantage’ after one agricultural challenge, then turning his back on play to run down the line only to miss the fact that the ball had gone out. The referee was kitted out perfectly and had the air of authority of a minor French bureaucrat (which he presumably was). He was consistent: he gave free kicks for almost all minimal contact outside the box but nothing within it, gave regular lectures to players after ‘fouls’ but kept his card in his pocket (until very late on when presumably he remembered he had a quota to work to), and looked on with indifference when early in the game a home defender went flying in two-footed off the ground. He missed the ball (there was never much possibility of that) and fortunately the Duchere player. As there had been no actual contact, not only was there no red card, he didn’t even give a foul. If the Duchere players were a little circumspect after that, who could blame them?

In truth, whatever the conditions, Duchere played poorly in the first half, seemingly unsure whether to try to pass the ball forward or loft it on the chance that the prevailing gale might spark an opportunity. One botched header from a great position from a corner was all they had to show, while at the other end aside from a moment when the Duchere keeper went walkabout and a sliced shot from a decent position the goal was not threatened. At the break by not taking control of the game Duchere had given heart to the opposition and an upset, while not clearly on the cards, was a distinct possibility.

Perhaps some harsh words were exchanged during half-time as Duchere did begin the second period with more intent. A little more urgency and better passing saw Pont la Roche under pressure and less able to clear their lines. And the breakthrough came in perhaps predictable circumstances. After a genuine hack from behind the free kick was lofted towards the far post. It became gale-assisted and cleared both the Duchere player and the keeper, going on to hit the inside of the far post and drop a couple of feet over the line. Hard lines for the Pont la Roche keeper, but on the balance of play just about deserved.

Duchere then had chances to put the game to bed. Their winger somehow failed to bundle the ball in at the far post, perhaps unsure which part of his body to use to apply the necessary touch, then a driven low cross evaded everyone in a crowded box. After these went begging, it was really a case of whether the late, desperate efforts of La Roche might produce an equaliser and extra time (seems it would be decided on the day, with penalties if necessary, all of which might have delighted the other 198 in attendance but perhaps not us, or at least not Suzanne who was beginning to think about the pork with mustard she was intending to cook back in Lyon). There were a couple of penalty appeals, which were never going to get the time of day from this ref (and to be fair the decisions looked correct), and the La Roche keeper up for a stoppage-time corner. But in the end Duchere safely negotiated passage to whatever the next round brings, the people of l’US Pont la Roche were left to refocus on what they do best (providing greedy Englishmen with lots of his favourite red wine), and we were clear to get into the car shortly before the heavens opened.

Is there a conclusion, beyond the fact that no doubt there are plenty of Addicks out there who were desperate to hear of the cup fate of Lyon Duchere (for the record their start in the league has been less than impressive, although a 4-0 victory in their last game has taken then clear of the relegation zone)? Probably not, save perhaps for the fact that at least now I am better prepared in the event that I end up losing a certain bet, one struck in the wake of last January’s transfer window debacle, one that I was then and will be happy to lose.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Not Enough On The Day

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.

Player Ratings:

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).

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

View From Norfolk

Us Addicks are of course rightly renowned for our fair and balanced assessments of a game. So having not made the trip last night (there are a few things outside of football which sometimes have to take priority), which is a pity as Norwich away is one of my favourite weekend excursions (easy journey, welcoming pre-match pubs, good atmosphere – in my experience), I thought I’d check with some Canaries acquaintances to see if they are of the same ilk.

Sadly it seems as if these ones at least have problems with perspective and an obvious tendency to get carried away with the emotion of it all. I had inquired by email if there was a general sense of relief in Norwich that they had held us to just the one goal and received the following reply:

“I think it’s more like we’re impressed that the bung you lot gave the ref worked so well (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=El4Lj1zekss). How many times did your defender want to handle the ball and the ref not give it? Not to mention your goalie who couldn’t hold the ball and the ref gave that as a foul as well. Other than that, your lot defended really well and were very organised and difficult to break down. You scored at the right time too so we couldn’t get back into it. Probably was the best we’ve played in a while as your lot sat so deep.” To be fair, it was signed off as a ‘bitter rant’.

I did check out the above link for supporting evidence. The first clearly wasn’t a penalty. The second is rather more confusing, but even in slow motion you can’t see a clear handball, so how the officials are supposed to give it in real time is beyond me. I said as much in an email reply, adding that if Peeters feels that the ref got the main decisions correct that’s fine by me, and was later informed that the Norwich guy “has just achieved low earth orbit and will attempt ballistic re-entry soon”.

Ah, there’s none so blind …..