Monday, 27 April 2015

Best Laid Plans

Just as you love it when a good plan of your own comes together, sometimes you have to find amusement when the plans of others go awry. Not long ago no doubt Sky et al, having obliged us to get out of the sack at an indecently early hour on Saturday, were licking their lips at the prospect of a hair-raising final round of Championship games, with effectively four teams battling to the last seconds for the two automatic promotion spots, at least four (possibly more) scrapping for the last two play-off places, and two of those games involving teams at the bottom desperate for a last-match reprieve. Now, if Bournemouth win tonight and Rotherham tomorrow, the only remaining issues will be whether we and Middlesbrough can between us conjure up a 16-plus goals turnaround to deny Bournemouth, and whether Ipswich and Derby can get at least the draws they need to cement their top-six places.

Not exactly the stuff of pay-per-view nirvana. Perhaps if Bournemouth and Rotherham do the business they might then relent and switch all the games back to a 3pm start, to allow for normal body-clock pre-match alcohol consumption. I know, I live in cloud-cuckoo land.

For me, all that remains of this season is to enjoy the trials and tribulations of others outside of the Championship, wonder what transgression needs to be dreamt up to dock Palace the points necessary to send them down, be there to give Kermorgant the welcome back/bon voyage he so richly deserves (with respectful applause for Francis and Arter), and to keep an eye out for Lyon Duchere, who thanks to a weekend win have moved out of one of the three relegation spots in CFA Groupe C but still have work to do with six games left.

As for us, dreams of finishing ninth above Blackburn have now gone out of the window (albeit in a noble cause) and it's a case of holding onto tenth (courtesy of Leeds' surprise win at Sheff Wed) or potentially ending up fourteenth. Provided Bournemouth get their victory tonight, surely it's not beyond the wit of captain JJ to get in touch with Kermorgant to sort out an amicable 2-1 win for us to send everyone back to the pub happy (I'm sure the Cherries will be ready to forego their outside chance of the title of champions in return for our assurance that a one-goal victory will be plenty good enough for us, plus a few good bottles thrown in for good measure).

In the greater scheme of things of course finishing tenth or fourteenth is going to mean nothing; we will remember the season for the three distinct phases it contained and overall be a good deal more relieved that a relegation fight was avoided rather than look wistfully at a play-off place that was never in our grasp. In general, with the obvious exception of the Millwall game, I think Luzon and the players have made a reasonable fist of seeing out the season when there has been only pride (and in some cases contracts) to play for.

Understandably, the thoughts of some are turning to ambitions for next season and associated with that who stays/goes, what we need to keep/build on and where we need to strengthen. Equally unsurprisingly, some have been suggesting that after a (probable) top-half finish progress has to mean a real tilt at the top six. In normal circumstances, I might be inclined to join in the speculation. Fact is, what happens come August is entirely down to the goals/priorities/whims (and to be fair the chequebook) of one man - and on that front, as from the start, we're just guessing.

We've been told that Duchatelet's twin objectives are to get us promoted and to break even. We know that those goals are incompatible. We've been assuming that the medium-term plan has been to benefit from the fair play rules creating a more level playing-field as regards finances and for the benefits of the consortium approach to then shine through. We should by now know that, whatever people think of FPL - I'm still in the camp that regards it as well-intentioned nonsense which will end up having little material impact even if not thrown out in the courts; for example if my understanding is correct there is nothing to stop any Championship club racking up whatever loss it wishes as long as there is sufficient fresh investment rather than just accumulated debt on the books, largely to the owner(s) - the former is pretty much a pipe-dream.

That all suggests to me that our owner has a fundamental decision to make: keep the losses within acceptable boundaries (ie pretty much around current levels, with no realistic prospect of materially increasing revenues outside of player sales) and accept that this probably means the main objective being to stay in the Championship (of course you can never rule out more or less), look to cut losses through player changes and by implication at least take a risk in that the chances of a relegation battle increase, or set the stall out to go for promotion and make the increased investment that this implies. Sure, it's not that simple, but the broad guidelines are fairly clear.

Absent some U-turn on communication with supporters as regards the balance of priorities going forward from the one person that matters, we are going to be left drawing inferences from player ins and outs. Even then it probably won't be easy. If for example we end up selling Gomez for a decent price (no doubt we won't actually know the fee if that happens, at least not at the time), it would remain to be seen whether the proceeds go towards strengthening in other areas or to redressing the books (or of course a mix of the two).

Accepting a decent offer for a player from a Premiership club (especially if he wants to move on) wouldn't exactly be new for us, or in itself grounds for criticism. I think I've seen the lot, from fire-sales to pay the wages/keep the club going (Paul Walsh/Paul Elliot, even Robert Lee), through reasonable acceptance of a fair offer for a young player (Jenkinson, Shelvey) to pay the bills and to bring in others. We hardly welcomed but accepted such sales as necessary evils. It is somewhat different now as to the best of our knowledge our owner doesn't have cashflow problems but rather has to judge on his own priorities/interests what level of losses are acceptable. This time around, if it happens, I merely would hope we get an honest explanation, even if that were 'the player was sold to contain losses'.

For sure none of us want to see Gomez, or Berg Gudmundsson (or for that matter Cousins, Watt or Vetokele) get sold, and rejecting any offers would be a very encouraging statement of intent. If we were to start the next campaign with those five still with us, plus Henderson, Solly, Wiggins/Fox, and enough others (Jackson, Buyens, Bulot, at least three centre-backs, plus Diarra), and perhaps an addition or two to replace some that might go, we could I feel reasonably expect to at least hold our own and to have hopes that with good fortune a stab at the top six is possible (depending probably on how the teams coming down from the Premiership and those that miss out on going up this season trim their sails). At this stage of the game, we simply cannot know.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Gudmundsson Comes On, We Win

It was a bright but blustery afternoon for an essentially meaningless game of football, one given a little prior interest by the news that six Leeds players had pulled out of the game at late notice due to apparent injury. Given the backdrop, the news did at least serve as a reminder that we are not the only Championship club with a somewhat idiosyncratic owner. Just how would it affect the game? I can't say how their team lined up and what difference the absentees made. But from their supporters' chants for their manager (and references to Italians in general) I'm assuming that they are less than pleased, just as I wouldn't be if I'd paid for the travel and ticket.

For us? Perhaps it didn't help as we were sluggish, not collectively up for the game, an impression strengthened by Luzon's decision to rest some players. Poor first half, no complaints about being behind then, a change at the break, Berg Gudmundsson comes on, he's involved in two goals, and that was it, with Leeds unable to muster a threatening response. It really is time for the season to end, at least as far as we are concerned and there's little point griping about what that means as we play out games.

The team saw Ben Haim brought in alongside Gomez in central defence, with Solly and Fox the full-backs in front of Henderson. Diarra took one of the central midfield berths, partnering Buyens, with Bulot and Eagles the wide men, and Watt and Vetokele up front. That meant rests for Johnson, Cousins and Berg Gudmundsson, who all sat on the bench. I can't say what the thinking was, or how the players were feeling after the recent run of games, but I don't think anyone would have thought that if fully fit our strongest starting line-up would not include Gudmundsson at least.

No matter, we had the better of an inconclusive early phase, without troubling their keeper as we lacked precision in the final third. Good situations were worked, but Bulot when well positioned hit one of those that wasn't a shot on target or a low cross that anyone could get on the end of, Vetokele having cut inside well overhit the ball and lost it, while Eagles picked out the right pass but just underhit it. Things just weren't quite coming off, and there was early disruption as Diarra pulled up and hobbled off after only around 10 minutes, ensuring that Cousins' rest was short-lived.

After that generally encouraging start, we went off the boil and Leeds came more into it, and went on to create better actual chances than we had managed. First, a ball in was flicked on twice to find one of their guys coming in at the far post. With all the goal to aim at he hoofed it over the bar. Then Henderson got a bit too smart with a back-pass and with the forward closing him down attempted the clearance only for it to be blocked and end up going just wide of the post. The next chance went our way, as a corner was punched out by their keeper not very convincingly, Ben Haim ran onto the loose ball from outside the box and put in a shot, and I thought that Vetokele tried to deflect it goalwards only for the ball to hit the post.

But in general we were too sloppy in and out of possession and after about 35 minutes almost paid for it. Ben Haim was caught out by a ball forward and chasing after their guy going into the box slid in, only to make contact with him and not the ball. It seemed a pretty clear-cut penalty, the only relief being that the ref didn't seem to consider whether it was a goal-scoring opportunity and produced no card. The spot kick was hit firmly to Henderson's left, but he dived the right way, got fingertips to it, and diverted the ball onto the post and out.

Having been let off, you hoped we would raise our game. Instead we went behind not long after as a Leeds corner produced what looked like a training-ground routine, with the taker putting it into a place where their guy ran onto it, having lost his marker. He connected well and this time although Henderson got something on it the ball ended up in the roof of the net.

At the break things were not looking good. Watt seemed more interested in various tussles with their defenders and their number 4 who was protecting the back four, Vetokele continued to look short of both confidence and full fitness, Eagles had contributed well early on but hadn't made a telling contribution, while Bulot flattered to deceive on the other flank and Buyens seemed to be going through the motions. It looked like a case for a few words from Luzon in the dressing room and/or a change. Don't know about the former, but we did get the latter, with Gudmundsson replacing Eagles. A bit tough on him, but one way or another, if we were to get something from the game, he needed to be on the pitch.

Attacking the Covered End we started the second half well enough, as we had the first. But the only chance of note came early on, as Watt managed to set up Igor in a good central shooting position. He should have at least made the keeper work but hit it wide. By now, as reflected in the time-wasting, you had the impression that Leeds were reasonably happy to hold what they had and to try for what might had seemed ahead of the game, given the absentees, an unlikely victory. That was not to be, as Gudmundsson took it by the scruff of the neck. He may not be much good in the air, may not be able to tackle, but he can pick out the right cross and with about 15 minutes of the regular time left he floated one to the far post to find Watt, who hit is crisply on the volley into the far corner. It wasn't exactly a goal out of nothing, but wasn't exactly in keeping with our approach play and finishing that had gone before.

About five minutes later, Henderson managed to find Gudmundsson in space, he took it forward and inside and hit a reasonable shot. Their keeper parried it but didn't make it safe, Vetokele nicked it past him and took the contact. Whether or not he would have made it to the ball is another matter, but he had got to it first and been brought down, so penalty it was. Buyens may have been having an indifferent game, but he knows how to convert them and once more duly did.

Now the onus was on us to run down the clock, which we did to reasonable effect. Leeds had to chase it and tried, but I can't remember Henderson being called into anything more than routine action. The only event of note in the final stages was Vetokele taking an accidental knock to the head and groggily going off, being replaced by Church. And we managed to see out five minutes of stoppage time without a real scare.

Did we deserve the win? Over the 90 minutes probably not, but we scored a decent goal and converted our penalty when they failed with theirs. They may feel a little hard done-by, but couldn't muster a real threat in the second half, either to make the game safe or to square things up. And when the dust settles the chances are that neither sets of supporters will remember this one for long, both being more concerned about how the whims of their owners will translate into prospects for next season.

Player Ratings:

Henderson:  8/10. Superb penalty save, and this time we'll gloss over the moment when his dallying before clearing almost cost us.

Solly: 7/10. No real complaints, just didn't see much in the way of him bombing forward. In the second half I guess it was more a case of being available to support Gudmundsson.

Fox: 7/10. Solid enough, at the moment he's keeping Wiggins out on merit.

Ben Haim: 6/10. Coming back into the team he didn't seem to have the assurance we saw earlier in the season. Over the full game was decent, but was badly caught out in the move that led to the penalty and made the challenge that led to it.

Gomez: 7/10. Continues to impress.

Eagles: 6/10. Impressed early on and a little unlucky to be the one to be withdrawn to get Gudmundsson on the pitch.

Diarra: 6/10. Not really on long enough for a proper assessment.

Buyens: 5/10. For the most part he looked like he was playing well within the boundaries of what he can do. Some decent passes, a great penalty, but overall lacklustre.

Bulot: 5/10. Also lacklustre, generally peripheral today.

Watt:  6/10. Took his goal very well, more involved in the second half, but overall below par compared to what we have seen before.

Vetokele: 5/10. I really hope he recaptures the vibrancy and verve that he showed earlier in the season. No shortage of effort, but something, physically or mentally, isn't the same at the moment.

Subs:  Cousins (7/10 - almost a full game, not great but OK); Gudmundsson (8/10 - he obviously changed the game); Church (6/10 - just a cameo at the death to help see out the game).

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Fair Result

After a lazy long holiday weekend and a balmy afternoon, and given our position in the league (before heading back to Lyon today my partner Suzanne asked me if we would go higher than 11th if we won, and it seemed we could go up a place if we won by an eight-goal margins, or drop a place if we lost by four), there was an unavoidable end-of-season feel ahead of tonight's game, intensified by the prospect of giving a decent welcome back to both Curbs and Scotty Parker and even the thought that having failed to deny Millwall the points the only decent thing to do was give some to Fulham, just to keep their heads above water for an obvious reason (except that, while having no ill-will whatsoever towards Fulham and not being one to bear a grudge, I struggle to draw a veil over that equaliser in the Premiership). Question was would the players feel the same, or give us a decent evening's entertainment.

In the event it was a reasonable enough game, albeit one that failed to turn into the goal-fest that looked possible in the first half, when both sides looked highly likely to notch more than one on the night. If anything the second half petered out rather tamely, which did tend to highlight the mystifying, and embarrassing, booing of Parker. I was ready to give him a standing ovation, he deserves no less. I hope he has better memories of The Valley than the late exchange with some fans after he nearly crocked himself in the boardings after a challenge by Fox.

The team was fairly predictable. With Solly unavailable, Gomez took his spot, with Ben Haim returning to partner Johnson, while Bulot came in for Eagles on the left side. Diarra, Cousins and Berg Gudmundsson completed the midfield, with Watt and Vetokele paired up front.

After a fairly even start, Fulham showed they had the ability to pull apart our defence, creating space between the two banks of four and getting joy especially down their right side, where Fox seemed to find himself without any protection. In the space of about 15 minutes they created four decent openings and, with Johnson and Ben Haim during that period seemingly chasing shadows, might have put the game beyond reach. The one they did score came from a fairly routine ball into the box which their tall centre-forward headed square and McCormack read faster than our centre-backs, stealing a march to head the ball over a stranded Henderson.

The space Fulham were finding/creating at that stage of the game threatened more, with Henderson called into action a few times. But at the other end it was becoming apparent why only Blackpool have conceded more goals than them this season. A bit of pressure applied and they were equally all at sea, especially when the ball was kept on the deck. The equaliser nevertheless had a tinge of controversy about it, even though I think the officials got it right (according to the offside rule as I understand it). Fox got in down the left and put in a low cross, which saw a clearly offside Bulot (I am informed) stretch to try to convert it only to fail to get a touch, with the ball running on to Gudmundsson, who had come through from a clearly onside position and who managed to divert it into the roof of the net. There may have been a case for Bulot having distracted their keeper and interfered with play, but said keeper was never going to claim the ball or get near Gudmundsson's effort.

That proved the catalyst for probably our best period of the game, when we should have added to our total. Watt produced one sublime turn to wrongfoot their defenders, only to just overhit the pass to Vetokele. But the next time they combined Watt prodded the ball forward for Igor, with Fulham again looking in vain to the linesman for a flag. He played it across the goal and Gudmundsson came onto it at the far post. There was a defender's leg coming towards him and the angle was a bit tight, but from only a couple of yards out he put it into the side-netting. It was a bad miss and, though it didn't look likely at the time, that was to be the best chance for the remainder of the game.

Just before the break a McCormack free-kick from outside the box produced a decent save from Henderson, who dived to his left to turn it away. And at the break it really was anyone's game.

The surprise was really that in the second half both teams failed to produce consistently the forward threat that had been evident in the first period. Perhaps both managers made adjustments to tighten things up, but for us Gudmundsson, who had run them ragged, featured less, while Vetokele seemed to be carrying an injury and struggled to get past their defenders when he had a yard of space. At the other end Fulham had their chances, but they were more the result of something falling in a crowded box - one clear opportunity was hoofed over the bar - than the movement they had shown before. There were shots and near misses at both ends, but nothing clear-cut.

After the hour Fulham made a double-substitution and shortly after Eagles came on for Bulot, who had shown a couple of deft touches but was largely peripheral. With about 10 minutes left Church came on for the tiring Vetokele but the game was really petering out to a rather tame draw when the referee decided to inject some possible late drama by awarding Fulham another soft free-kick outside the box. But McCormack curled it over the bar and that was pretty much it.

Over the 90+ minutes we may have just about shaded it, largely on the grounds that having equalised we had the best chance to win the game. But Fulham could point to that early period when defensively we looked disorganised and might have conceded more than one, as well as a couple of second-half shots. A draw was probably a fair result.

Player Ratings:

Henderson - 8/10. Couple of excellent saves, dealt well with any high balls in the box, and no chance with the goal (although he was off his line and perhaps made it easy for McCormack to see the opportunity to loop his header over him into the net).

Gomez - 7/10.  Another assured performance, defensively sound after the collective failures of the early period and seems to have the ability to stroke in some delightful, testing crosses.

Fox - 6/10. Not sure it was entirely his fault that most of their threat in the first half came down his side, he seemed to be left on his own a fair bit and they exploited the space.

Ben Haim - 6/10. Along with Johnson got more to grips with their forwards after the first 20 mins, but during that time we were vulnerable.

Johnson - 6/10. Much the same, can't say why we were seemingly easily pulled apart early on.

Berg Gudmundsson - 8/10. Ran them ragged in the first half in particular, would have been a clear man-of-the-match had he converted his second chance (which he should have done).

Diarra - 7/10. Neat and tidy, did a job. Decent addition for next season.

Cousins - 7/10. Seemed to struggle a bit in the first half but more effective in the second, some timely interceptions.

Bulot - 6/10. Threatened a few times down the flank, but nothing telling came from them.

Watt - 7/10. Once again was able to produce almost out of nothing a few moments that almost turned the game, couple of shots that went narrowly wide.

Vetokele - 6/10. Didn't look fully fit to me tonight and without the extra bit of pace struggled.

Subs - Eagles (6/10: nothing dramatic and was caught in possession a couple of times); Church (6/10: no great impact on the game in the final 10 minutes or so).