Friday 26 December 2014

The Least We Deserved

Sometimes you get what you deserve. Today we really didn't. Everyone at the ground knows how the script should have ended; and if Vetokele had put away the one-on-one with the last meaningful kick of the game - as we all believed he would - Cardiff could have had no complaints. They might say that they controlled the first half, which they did, and led quite comfortably at the break. But after we changed formation not long into the second there was only one team in it. Cardiff ended up paying for their total lack of ambition against 10 men, not winning a game that seemed to be theirs for the taking. They should be grateful for a point, one they did not deserve (even passing over their disgracefully unpunished timewasting and unlovely long-throw tactic).

The fact is that against 10 men in the second half they failed to fashion a decent attempt on goal and bizzarely seemed to sit back, content to defend their lead despite regularly giving up chances. If I was a Cardiff fan I would be furious with their second-half display. We hit the woodwork twice, had two cleared off the line, forced some decent saves from their keeper, were denied a levelling up of the numbers by a poor refereeing decision (in keeping with his general performance, which was lamentable), and then had that golden opportunity at the end. Peeters deserves plaudits for the change in formation, which basically transformed us from plodding to defeat to all but grabbing a famous win, as do the players for their character and commitment, with a display that veered between the adventurous and the totally gung-ho, with all three centre-halves getting forward. Sure, we had nothing to lose, but with a bit more daring in the play than usual we carved out enough opportunities to have won with something to spare.

Let's start at the beginning. The team news was surprising, with Pope dropped for the on-loan Etheridge, Fox left on the bench with Solly taking that place and Gomez the other full-back, Ben Haim and Bikey-Amougou of course in central defence, Jackson and Buyens holding down the central midfield spots, Cousins and Gudmundsson out wide, and Tucudean coming in to partner Harriott up front, with Vetokele dropping to the bench (whether for a rest or a knock I don't know). It was a basic 4-4-2 - and either side of Harriott's red card it didn't work.

Basically through the first half Cardiff won the battles in the key areas. They pretty much ran midfield while we struggled to get anything going down the flanks, while the front two were out-muscled and failed to provide an outlet. We could knock it around in our half but little more.

Cardiff took the lead with depressing simplicity, albeit with some controversy. A ball was played forward to a guy seemingly in an offside position; I can't be entirely sure as I was replying to a text at the time, but everyone around me (and we are more or less in line) was in no doubt and it was evident that the linesman had not kept up with play. No flag and the ball went out for a corner (or a throw-in near the flag; given their long-throw tactics it made no difference). The ball in was flicked on at the near post and their guy got first to the ball to head it back across Etheridge into the net. The same ploy almost worked again shortly afterwards but this time the loose ball was fired over the bar.

Cardiff seemed content to play at pretty much one-pace and to rely on loading it into the box. That threat seemed to fade, with Etheridge coming off his line to good effect, both to catch and punch clear well. But they were very comfortable, a sense of ease compounded by Harriott's dismissal. It was one of those loose balls and a perhaps rash, certainly impetuous, challenge. We know there's no malice in him and there was no intent, but it might have been a red - and when you see the ref sprinting towards him reaching for his pocket you pretty much know the outcome. At the time it seemed to make an already very difficult task all but impossible.

At the break all I remember of a threat from us was a decent turn in the box by Harriott but the low cross not finding anyone, a surprise shot from a tight angle from Tucudean which their keeper parried, and the one decent chance that probably should have got us level, with Ben Haim intercepting well and taking the ball all the way into their box, turning one defender and then instead of shooting opting to slide it to the left to Tucudean, only to put too much on the pass. And when the second half started in similar fashion you felt that a second for Cardiff and it would have been curtains. That they failed to really try to press home their advantage was, from their perspective, criminal.

The changes came around the hour. Gomez was sacrificed and Jackson went off with him, with Vetokele and Onyewu coming on. We switched to three at the back, with Solly and Cousins effectively becoming wing-backs, Gudmundsson going inside, and two up front, a sort of 3-4-2 or 5-2-2. After that, at times it was more like a 0-4-5. The change really worked like a treat. We controlled the ball and passed it better, Tucudean and Gudmundsson both came much more into the game, and Buyens stepped up. Cardiff seemed unable to deal with it, especially as the centre-backs were comfortable to advance with or without the ball. They seemed content to sit back and despite acres of space in our half rarely threatened to exploit it.

The chances started to come. Tucudean almost converted a corner, only for the ball to clip the outside of the post. The details of how two were cleared off the line and the saves their keeper made are beyond my powers of recollection, then Tucudean was sent clear only to be pulled back. There wasn't a great deal of contact but it was clearly a foul, there was another defender not far away but I doubt that he would have got to Tucudean before he was in a position to get a shot away. It denied a goal-scoring opportunity and should have been punished with a red, not the yellow shown. From the resulting free-kick Gudmundsson's effort cleared the wall and left their keeper stranded only to hit the same outside of the post that Tucudean's effort had.

As the clock ticked down, and the ref went through his pantomime act (occasionally talking to someone for timewasting but doing nothing when each throw-in for them saw them clean it religiously, giving fouls when players/fans appealed, sometimes applying an advantage then bringing things back etc) there was a building sense of injustice. But before the clock reached 90 Gudmunsson was allowed to turn with the ball and line up the shot. This time it proved to be a screamer into the top corner.

Going into four minutes of stoppage time suddenly we weren't sure whether now to take our own time or to go for the win. Whatever, the ball was played forward to I think Tucudean who played in Vetokele running on. He was in the clear and just the keeper to beat. But his first touch wasn't great and he didn't seemed to settle. While his decision to loft it over the advancing keeper may have been good, he really failed to control the ball and it sailed over the bar. Add in Tucudean not scoring the winner against Millwall, Ipswich's winner, Blackpool's equaliser, now this, stoppage time at The Valley has not been kind to us (collectively seven points gone begging). Igor was distraught, the fans quite rightly sang his name, and all that was left was to applaud the players off the pitch.

If there's something deeper to take from the game it's perhaps that when we became less cautious in the second half we were a real threat. Getting that balance right is a task for Peeters. And if there's any real justice tonight the ref will have a very dodgy ruby that might convince him that his contribution to the game was well below par.

Player Ratings (which would have been very different at half-time):

Etheridge - 8/10. No chance with the goal and otherwise was very instrumental in negating their threat from set-pieces; Pope may well have a great future but I suspect he would have struggled today with their threat in the air.

Gomez - 7/10. No complaints, he had to be sacrificed to change the formation and can't shoulder much of the blame for our first-half impotence.

Solly - 8/10. Filled in well enough at left-back then played his part getting forward down the right to good effect.

Ben-Haim - 8/10. He and Bikey dealt very well with the threat of Jones, read the game to intercept, and proved adept at carrying the ball forward.

Bikey-Amougou: 8/10.  One or two rather clumsy challenges but generally commanding and an inspiration; have to mention some superb passes to spread the play.

Cousins - 7/10. Ineffective first half like many others, but played his part in the turnaround. No decisive contribution but kept the left side working.

Jackson - 6/10. Perhaps an unfair mark as he was unable to benefit from our change of formation, but in the first half he and Buyens struggled.

Buyens - 7/10. He too would have had a poor mark at the break, but he stepped up thereafter.

Gudmundsson - 7/10. Almost an 8 given the goal, but he too was below par through the first half.

Tucudean - 7/10. Much more effective when not having to try to win balls in the air against stronger centre-backs. On another day might have scored a couple.

Harriott - 6/10. I'm not going to give him a very poor rating for one rash tackle. He had caused a problem or two in that flat first half.

Subs - Onyewu (8/10 - slotted in very well); Vetokele (7/10 - but he and the rest of us know it was almost a 9).

Wednesday 24 December 2014

That Time Of The Year

'Tis that time of the day and the year that all sensible people have all the cards written, prezzies bought and wrapped, and are breaking into the port. I'm just going straight to the last, there's still time enough for the rest. Christmas morning was made for scrubbing the kitchen floor before heading off for the family lunch, and despite a 1pm kick-off there will be time early on Boxing Day to do the final fumigation of my place to make it as tickety-boo as I can (which ain't saying much) and to get in the bucket-load of lemons (don't ask) that she requires before my French partner Suzanne arrives.

Silly girl knows nothing about planning ahead. She may have all her UK trips for the first half of next year already booked and have done all the necessary for a jolly to Iceland for new year, but she overlooked the need to get here in time for the Cardiff game's early kick-off. Hopefully by the time I make it back from The Valley she will have arrived at my gaff (despite the absence of trains), corrected any minor cleaning imperfections, laid out my cheap(er) cigars from France, and uncorked a decent St Joseph, having lugged both from Lyon (along with other necessities such as a saucisson or two and the good chocolates she gets given each year which j'adore and she doesn't like) with no help from yours truly. Relationships as they say are all about give and take.

Anyway, serves her right, she failed to help me get out of my Xmas present dilemma. The Blackheath charity shops are a source of endless bargains for me - and having gone in one to purchase something for an office Secret Santa thing (happy to say that the teetotaller who received my snakes and ladders drinking game took it in good spirit) I noticed a very good corkscrew (for the record it's called rather immodestly The Perfect Corkscrew). Thought it might make a decent gift and before thinking about the consequences mentioned the possibility to my sister, who seemed delighted to be the beneficiary. It was only after that I took a good look at it. It really is very good, perfect for my use, or to leave in Lyon for when I'm around there. I then came up with a way out: find another corkscrew to give to my sister/brother-in-law and keep the other, they won't know. Only for Suzanne to act as my conscience: "it is not acceptable". Perhaps because of her I do indeed (try to) walk the line, even if one present will tonight be wrapped with gritted teeth.

There ought to be a decent link now to something about football, just to pretend there's some point to the post. But for the life of me I can't think of one, especially as new year is the time for reflection, not now. Other than perhaps to, rather late in the day, wish a Merry Christmas to all Addicks around the globe. Blimey, I must be getting into the spirit(s) of the thing, let's even include fans of other clubs too, just this once.

Saturday 13 December 2014

Points Dropped For Sure

We went home after the Millwall game thinking we might not have deserved a win but had the chance at the death to take all the points, after the Ipswich game thinking we didn't deserve to lose but had, and today we left knowing that this was a case of points dropped. Not that simple for sure. Blackpool took the lead in the first half and the way we were playing another goal for them and it would have been very difficult. But not long into the second half we were 2-1 up and the game was there for the taking. Sure, we didn't actually win because Bikey-Amougou blazed the stoppage time open goal over the bar; for me the bigger question was why we failed to go on and win the game well from a position of strength, against very limited opposition. We made no chances of note in that period and ended up dropping the points that should have been in the bag.

The line-up reflected injuries and the late departure of Coquelin. It was a sort of 4-5-1/4-3-3 with in front of Pope Gomez coming in at right-back, Fox on the left either side of Ben Haim and Bikey, Buyens returning with Solly and Cousins either side of him (and swapping over from time to time), Gudmundsson sort of in the hole, and Vetokele and Harriott up front. The emphasis seemed to be on fluidity but also filling holes with what we have. The notable absentees from the starting X1 were Tucudean, Bulot, Ahearne-Grant/Pigott and Wilson, all of whom were on the bench. Given the unavailability of Jackson, Wiggins, Moussa and now Coquelin, it wasn't far off all available starting or on the bench.

The opening exchanges were mundane, the only features for me being how well Gomez slotted in, the fact that Buyens was head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch, and how well Solly and Cousins tried to do the jobs asked of them. Blackpool offered nothing of note (one shot parried well enough by Pope and a couple of free kicks from possibly dangerous positions not exploited), but quite frankly neither did we. After 20 minutes I think we had a tame shot. Now even if the game goes on for 100 minutes that's 20% of the match. Sure it takes time for a new formation to settle into a game, but we seemed too comfortable to pass the ball with no serious intent - and sometimes poorly (Bikey's first pass going out and then somehow he escaped getting a yellow after ploughing through their guy from behind). There wasn't the space to get Gudmundsson really involved in his position (and a free kick from him on the edge of the box was too close for him to get it over the wall and under the bar), to get Harriott in behind them, or to get Igor on the end of anything.

A poor start was then compounded by conceding a poor goal. A corner saw Pope come for it only to flick it on rather than get a decisive clearance in. Their guy at the far post headed it back and either it went straight in or was converted from near range, I don't really remember or care. If Blackpool had been a better side they could have gone on to press home the advantage. Instead they competed but no more, while we tried to work our way back into it.

Indeed, with one of our best moves we did draw level. For once the ball was moved with more purpose down the left, which stretched their defence, and when the cross came in Vetokele seemed to be getting on the end of it only to be up-ended by a defender's challenge which came nowhere near to getting the ball. A reasonably clear penalty. Buyens stepped up and there's an air about him that left you in little doubt that he would score, which he did by putting it in the corner of the left side.

The remainder of the half passed without real incident (at least none that I remember) and at the break it seemed a case of, OK we should have the weapons to go on and win this, can't see Blackpool really troubling a good defence, let's go out and do it.

We were to find ourselves in front only 10 minutes into the second half. A ball squared from the right found Cousins advancing towards goal. He looked left and right for a possible pass but wasn't closed down and when nothing was on tried his luck. It was a sweet strike that found the bottom corner of the net, although there had to be a question over their keeper getting beaten from that range from a shot that, while well-placed, wasn't struck with that much venom. It was a decent goal, but really one out of the blue, not the outcome of any sustained pressure.

So be it. We're now ahead but with plenty of the game to go, against a team that had already made two substitutions and which had given no indication of being able to really hurt us. Surely a case for upping the tempo and killing off the game. That we failed to do. We continued in the same fashion, probing but not stretching them. A couple of shots went just wide of the post, but I don't recall their keeper being called into serious action.

With 20 minutes or so left Tucudean replaced Harriott. I made a point of watching him, as it's still unclear whether he's the player who so impressed against Derby or the one who missed the chance against Millwall. I wasn't impressed today. When a forward comes on to provide fresh legs and a different threat with enough of the game to go and the outcome still in the balance, you expect (or at least I do) to see someone who wants to prove why he should be starting. Instead he drifted and gave, as far as I could see, no great desire to get the ball or do much with it when it came his way. Harsh possibly, but this was a change made to go on and win the game and that didn't happen.

We were nevertheless still feeling pretty confident of seeing the game out and moving on, with Blackpool not exactly going for broke and Ben Haim and Bikey seemingly in control. But with the clock close to going into stoppage time they won a free kick. The ball was floated to the far post and for some reason our defenders were AWOL. Pope came out to claim it but was beaten to the ball badly and their guy might have picked up an injury but the ball was in the net.

Four minutes of stoppage time to do something about it. Even then we should have done. Bikey was up front by now and after a corner the ball dropped to him around the penalty spot with nobody making a challenge. He had all the time he wanted, perhaps too much time as he seemed to get distracted by prostrate bodies between him and the goal and ended up shooting over the bar. I'll never slate a centre-back for missing a good chance, but this was as good as they come and for the second time in three home games we'd failed to convert the chance at the death to win the game (of course in the third we conceded in stoppage time).

We know Blackpool have had a revival of late and that we are missing key players. But the way the game panned out no question it was two points dropped, points that would have been more than useful with a string of tough (on paper) coming up. The impact is compounded by the fact that the previous two home games had also seen us fail to win/draw games we could/should have done. That raises the question whether we have the devil, the drive and desire, to go out and beat teams convincingly. I saw no real signs today that the players were actually enjoying themselves. Undoubtedly they competed, no shortage of effort, perhaps not enough of a winning mentality.

Player Ratings:

Pope - 5/10. Culpable for both goals, both a failure to come off his line to decisive effect.

Gomez - 7/10. Not perfect but slotted in well after a long period of absence.

Fox - 6/10. Distribution often fell down but did get forward and can't recall any bad errors in defence.

Ben Haim - 7/10. Decent game but where did he - and the rest of the defence - go for their second?

Bikey-Amougou - 6/10. Did most of his stuff well enough, but it was a bad miss and we conceded two goals.

Solly - 7/10. Obviously a different role for him today, born I assume out of necessity, but took it on well enough.

Buyens - 7/10. Dominant in the first half, perhaps less so in the second when we needed to go on and put the game to bed.

Cousins - 7/10. Good goal, decent effort through the game.

Gudmundsson - 6/10. Good touches but not a decisive contribution from someone capable of that.

Harriott - 6/10. Couldn't get in behind them today, couple of shots just wide.

Vetokele - 6/10. They dealt with him quite well but may well have scored from the cross which produced the penalty.

Subs - Tucudean (5/10: has to do more to justify a start or coming off the bench).