Saturday 11 April 2009

So Near And Yet ...

So near, and yet. We all know a point is not enough, even from a game against one of the top two. But it would be churlish to start on that note as there was no questioning the commitment and at times skill of the team today. With a little luck and/or more composure in front of goal we would have won a contest which developed into an excellent game and tactical battle. As it was, whatever deity Birmingham’s keeper Taylor worships I want his name, because he managed to combine outrageous luck and excellent keeping to deny us a win which, on balance, was merited.

There were no surprises in our line-up, with 4-5-1 retained, Shelvey tending to play in the hole rather than Zhi, and Sam getting the nod ahead of Ambrose. Birmingham chose a similar set-up, with Jerome playing the lone striker – but with Phillips, McFadden and Bent on the bench. The result was a congested midfield in the first half and generally scrappy play, with neither side able to impose themselves. In the centre Zhi and Racon struggled to gain an advantage, while Sam played poorly and seldom found space. My abiding memory was a lack of precision on the part of both teams. Both had some promising moments, but either the final ball was poor or the delivery from corners and free kicks was below standard. The best chance came when Bailey and Youga worked the left side and a low cross found two Charlton players against one defender. Lack of precision ensured it was goalless at the break.

At half-time I was wondering which side/manager would blink first and change the formation in a contest that both felt they had to win. In the event it was Birmingham. They took off a midfielder to bring on Phillips and immediately the game changed. Many around me were screaming for Parkinson to bring on another forward, seemingly oblivious to the fact that in an instant we were finding more space to exploit. Keeping 4-5-1 was just as ambitious as another forward, with Sam suddenly instrumental and Charlton looking far more dangerous than before. Of course, the other side of the coin was that Birmingham threatened more too, so for the neutral it evolved into a very entertaining game.

Chances started to materialise at both ends, but we were getting the better of them as the game wore on. Nothing clear-cut, but Zhi was more influential breaking forward, Sam was putting in threatening crosses, and various shots from Shelvey and others tested Taylor. Birmingham turned the screw further by bringing on McFadden and Bent, for Jerome and the unwanted Bouazza, who put in the sort of performance he used to do for us – greedy, selfish, usually ineffectual, and primarily interested in getting his name on the scoresheet.

Parkinson switched too by bringing on Dickson for Racon, going to 4-4-2, and in the closing stages the game was so nearly won. A through ball looked comfortable for Taylor until he slipped, only to be able to reach behind himself to grab the ball before Dickson could pass it into an empty net. Then a curling shot from the left side took a deflection and was surely looping into the goal for the winner before Taylor, on his backside, stuck out a paw and turned it away, only for the ball to be delivered back in and for Taylor to save smartly. And in the final minute Zhi was put through by Shelvey only for a poor first touch to take him wide and the chance was gone.

It should be mentioned that Elliot, after another nervy start to a game, made a couple of excellent saves from shots. But for all Birmingham’s forwards they failed to fashion a clear-cut opening – which has to reflect well on our defence, with Hudson and Ward both having good games, despite the occasional conceding of free kicks in dangerous areas, and Butterfield giving in my opinion his best performance in a Charlton shirt. We did, but lack of composure, lack of precision, and Taylor’s deity denied us.

At the finish it was bitter-sweet. If we had played like that through the season we would be in a very different position now. As it it, the fact that we turned in a creditable performance which almost won us the game only drives home the point that many of the players behind it will not be with us next season. So be it. Let’s give them credit today.

Player Ratings:

Elliot: 7/10. It’s happened before that he started the game rather nervously and that created uncertainty in the defence. But in the second half he made smart saves when called upon.

Butterfield: 8/10. I thought he played well today, pure and simple. Didn’t get forward much, but good tackles and covering and never exposed.

Youga: 7/10. Still somewhat on the edge and not on top of his game, but did his job and still gave us an attacking threat down the left, despite the limitations of Bailey playing wide.

Hudson: 8/10. Assured as ever and no obvious mistakes. He often looks so good that it is surprising we have shipped so many goals this season. Fact is we have.

Ward: 7/10. Assured in the air, just about OK on the ground. Dealt well with the high balls in his direction. I think I’m going to miss him.

Bailey: 7/10. No point going over the pros and cons of him playing out wide. A couple of superb defensive plays, including one header.

Racon: 6/10. Struggled more today to impose himself against clearly better opponents than of late. Lost possession a few times in the first half in dangerous positions, but always looked capable of making something happen.

Zhi: 6/10. Was behind a lot of good things, especially in the second half. Only problem was he was in good positions to get that all-important goal and didn’t manage the finish.

Sam: 6/10. Poor first half, but when Birmingham’s formation changed he came into the game and could have won it for us.

Shelvey: 7/10. Gets an extra mark for the superb ball played through to Zhi in the last minute which could have won us the game. How many could have beens?

Kandol: 6/10. Worked hard as the lone striker for most of the game, against a mountain of a centre-half, but let himself down with silly pushes and nudges to give away free kicks.

Dickson: 6/10. Tried some tricks, but Birmingham have good defenders and they read most of them.

Bouazza: 0/10. Didn’t score.

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