At 3.40pm last Saturday Blues were technically sitting in the bottom three of the Premiership. That, just over and hour later, they were four points clear of the last relegation place shows how thin the dividing line in football can be.
Make no mistake, Alex McLeish’s men deserved the vital home win against Manchester City. If anyone thinks this may have been the pivotal moment of the run-in so far the twists and turns of the past two weekends matches should serve as a reminder events can turn around just as quickly again. If Fulham beat Sunderland for example and Blues lose at Wigan the gap would only be three points…
It is hard to summarise a match where one team, the visitors, were seemingly already on their post season holidays. It is to the credit of McLeish’s men that they did not sink to the level of the opposition and without the intervention of a referee whose only consistency is his inconsistency the win looked like being far more comfortable than eventually happened.
With Franck Queudrue winning the vote to replace the suspended Liam Ridgewell at centre half and Damian Johnson swapping places with Mehdi Nafti Blues dominated the first half bar one Benjani shot which hit the post. For all their possession, clear cut chances were not forthcoming as often as the approach play suggested. With Queudrue settling into his new role as the half progressed it was the industrious work of Larsson and Johnson that caught the eye and if ever there were two players who have benefited most from the change of manager this season it is the midfield duo. The former now has the consistency to go with his undoubted skill and work ethic whilst the latter has shown he has more to his game than the previous manager allowed him to use.
When Queudrue caught out Richard Dunne with a delightful defence splitting pass just before half time young Zarate showed why the loan fee paid for him has been paid back already with an intelligent lob to give the home team the goal their half’s work warranted. A few minutes later the groans around St. Andrews were clearly audible when news filtered through that relegation rivals Bolton were two goals ahead of ten men Arsenal. So when the second half started quietly and was awoken with another quality strike from the young Argentinian the homes fans relaxed. Enter Rob Styles. The softest of softest penalties later, followed by a red card, eventually given to the correct player (Queudrue) for the “foul” on Benjani and Mr. Styles had shown his view from thirty yards away is as poor as his sight from mere yards away. Hindsight shows technically it may have been a penalty, if the incident had occurred outside the penalty area I wonder if anything would have been given. Mr. Styles hides behind the rules. Remember his is the referee who also gave the infamous penalty that never was at Anfield and Peter Ndlovu will remember him from a few years back amongst others. Fortunately Mr. Styles is the same for all teams as he was later to prove.
With Elano converting the penalty Blues showed the resilience and desire required to withstand any potential Manchester City threat and once Larsson was able to resume his right sided duties, having filled in defensively after the sending off, the shape of the home team was better. With an Arsenal comeback in full swing at Bolton Mr. Styles decided to let his heart rule his head and gave a penalty after the most un-penalty probably witnessed at St. Andrews in recent history. Gary McSheffrey basically fell over after a shoulder to shoulder challenge. Mr. Styles, if he was consistent, should be giving half a dozen penalties per match on that basis. It took footballing courage for McSheffrey to step up and take the penalty. Home fans have not been particularly supportive of a player who is clearly short on confidence yet for me never shirks away when things are not going well. If it was Olivier Kapo who had one assist and one goal and not much else would fans also be heckling him ? Some of the modern fans forgt to support their team and/ or player during the actual match. I wonder how they would feel if someone stood over them in their workplace and consistently shouted down at them. Whatever your opinion on a players abilities the least we can do is back him during the ninety minutes.
With the two goal lead restored Blues never looked again in serious danger. Martin Taylor looks odds on now to be back for the Wigan game. Queudrue showed that a centre half comfortable on the ball gives an extra option. A vital win enhanced with Bolton losing at the end against Arsenal and we have some breathing space with six games to go. Easter may have gone, don’t count those chickens just yet.
The nerves are showing. In the players, in the fans. No matter how hard Blues try three points have eluded them once again. Exciting it may be, with a little more guile and thought Blues have let slip of winnable situations too often for it to be coincidence.
Last night, on a cold evening, it was the visitors, seemingly under the greater pre-match pressure, who rose more to the challenge. Forget the “star” names in the Newcastle team they played to their strengths and could, and maybe should, have won.
Blues can be so frustrating at times. Alex McLeish has bought wisely with James McFadden rising to the challenge of being a bigger name in a less successful team and David Murphy looks every inch a Premiership footballer. The manager though must be tearing his hair out with the unpredictability of his team. After the resounding performance against Tottenham where McFadden and Mikael Forssell were outstanding there were too many long, hopefull balls to a front pairing whose qualities are when the ball is passed to feet. Newcastle’s defence looked shaky when put under pressure yet Blues, in a disjointed performance, failed to use this to their strengths.
Was it really a game of two halves? Admittedly Blues created the better chances in the first half yet over the course of the game how many times did Steve Harper have a serious save to make? Newcastle lacked confidence in the final third initially yet always looked capable of producing chances against a team that has has not kept a clean sheet in the league for eleven games.
Was the enforced substitution of Seb Larsson at half time a turning point? Whilst the Swedish international was missed, why was he replaced by a defender and not an international midfielder in Mehdi Nafti, who in the first half season was arguably our best midfielder and seems to be now falling down the manager’s pecking order? With Johnson able to play wide the balance of the midfield would not have been disturbed as much. Many fans seem to be impressed with Alex McLeish. This writer remains unconvinced. The failure at home to Derby to use substitutes at the right times may cost us. It is these games that carry the greater weight for Blues and once again playing a team in the relegation matter has failed to produce a win.
With McFadden prominent I felt he was outshone by Fabrice Muamba. It is easy to forget his age and relative lack of experience at the highest level yet his willingness to drive the team and his improving skills make him a key player for the last few games. Last season at this stage Muamba rose to the ocassion and at times on Monday he was the only Blues player who looked like scoring. His break up play of the opposition attacks can go unnoticed. Give me a Muamba over a Joey Barton any day of the week.
Blues need to win at least one more away game, probably two. Would you bring Martin Taylor back? Too many individual defensive errors have resulted in us conceding “cheap” goals and we lack a player with the confidence to pass the ball from centre half consistently.
How many points will a club need to survive this season. My guess is thirty eight. When needs must the relegation haunted teams pick up towards the end of a season. It is any two from Fulham, Bolton, us, Sunderland and Reading for me. We cannot rely on Sunderland and Bolton to keep slipping up like recent weeks.
Do Blues play better away? Bar the Sunderland horror show maybe so. The games at Reading and Fulham and to a lesser extent Wigan are going to be tense for all concerned.
Blues failed to grasp the opportunity when in an ideal situation like last night. They will need to show the determination and bravery that Newcastle showed, the forward passing like our strikers showed against Tottenham and the defensive concentration like, dare I say it, Wigan now have. We will only have ourselves to blame. The chances are there.
Any Blues fan who thought the 100 year old curse on St. Andrews had been lifted must now wonder what else is left that can plunge the club into a bigger mess than which it currently resides in.
The only consolation is fans can watch Premiership football. How long that will be for is debatable. Like many fans I am fed up with everything. Today’s match was same old same old. I do not blame Eric Black, he can only work with the tools given, though I was puzzled why Seb Larsson was an unused substitute. The football was rubbish, the atmosphere was rubbish, the weather was rubbish and the excuses from the club are rubbish.
Did you know Blues have created the least number of chances this season bar Derby? Today was no exception. Bar one Mikael Forssell effort in the first half and a Liam Ridgewell attempt in the second David James could not have had a more comfortable afternoon. Blues simply aren’t going to score if they don’t create. I have felt Steve Bruce had been at the club for too long and the apathy amongst the fans, boardroom and management team began in our third Premiership season. Since then the club declined slowly despite all the soothing words spoken by the board.
The fans aren’t fooled anymore. We know the board only spend what is earned through tv deals etc. We are still waiting on the infamous big screen television from last Christmas. Does David Sullivan honestly believe that we think even if Lippi, Scolari or Jol joined they would be given money to spend like today’s visitors or our local rivals have ? Are these claims from the same Mr. Sullivan who wants out as soon as possible ? You can fool some fans some of the time …
Steve Bruce may have been given peanuts to spend, that should not make him indefensible as one local radio presenter seems to think. I look at this Blues team compared to our relegation squad and wonder if Mr. Bruce did actually learn the lessons he claims. All I see is a younger version. We must have the slowest back four in the league and a midfield bereft of creativity. There is so little pace in the team we are too predictable. Tactics? Play for percentages seems to have been the only one in recent seasons. If we are “only as good as our strikers” as the previous manager claimed can someone please explain to me why we lost Bendnter, Campbell and Cole in the summer and replaced them with just O’Connor? It does not take a genius to work out that with Cameron Jerome in his first season at the highest level he would need a break at some point whether it be due to injury, suspension or loss or form. That leaves just Mikael Forssell, an injury prone striker. Three strikers going into any Premiership season is simply not enough. Lessons learned?
This takeover saga is no-ones fault but the boards. Everything this season stems from that and I am not interested in them blaming anyone but themselves. For such clever businessmen they have dug a hole for the club that only they can sort out. Whichever way you look there seems to be more questions than answers. If they truly have the club at heart we will see in the next few weeks if their actions outweigh their words.