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.
I’m delighted to say that a popular and semi-sensible ‘nose (it’s the best I could do from the Joys & Sorrows forum) has agreed to take over doing the match previews, starting with the City preview today. Welcome Nat and thanks for your work.
Opposition: Manchester City
Stats/Form: City have won just two of their last ten in the league, whilst Blues will be looking to continue decent form at home under Alex McLeish. They have lost just once at St.Andrews since ‘Eck took over.
Since City got promoted from the Nationwide 2nd Division to 1st Division in May ‘99, they seem to have had a bit of a voodoo curse over Blues, with just two league wins out of a possible thirteen for Blues. City have won all of the other eleven encounters.
The last Blues win over City came in August ‘04 at St.Andrews, where an Emile Heskey header gave Blues all three points.
Last time out: 20/08/2005 Blues 1 (Butt) City 2 (Barton, Cole)
Memories: In the interest of having a balanced preview, I felt the need to have one good memory of playing Man City, and one bad one.
The bad one for me comes about a week before Christmas ‘05, the season we were finally relegated from the Premiership. A couple of thousand Bluenoses had gone up to Eastlands to see if Blues could notch up a fourth win of the season. What we were treated to was the second worst performance I have ever seen from a Blues side. To make matters worse for ‘Noses; this match, to bow down to the God that is television, kicked off at 5.20pm, meaning a whole day of Christmas shopping (or getting drunk) was gone. But anyway on to the match.
Nothing really to report until twenty seconds after kick-off, when Vassell went through on goal but was thwarted by Vaesen. From the resulting corner, an unmarked David Sommeil (I think I was closer to him than any Blues player, and I was about ten rows back in the away end), nodded home, meaning that one whole minute after kick-off we were 1-0 down. Fantastic.
Ten minutes later we conceded a penalty. Joey Barton stepped up; 2-0. On the stroke of half-time, just when things couldn’t get worse, they did. A long ball was punted up and Nico Vaesen came for it, completely missed it, leaving Sibierski with the chance of a lifetime. After half-time, we went 4-0 down through the best goal of the match from Bradley Wright-Phillips. Blues then scored through Jarosik, who did the one things football fans hate and kissed the badge in celebration. To then top it all off, Nico Vaesen, in what was to be his last league appearance for Blues, got himself sent-off, and because we had used our subs, Stephen Clemence took the gloves.
Final Score: City 4 (Sommeil, Barton, Sibierski, Wright-Phillips) Blues 1 (Jarosik)
The good memory comes in the last days of 2003. City went 1-0 up through Robbie Fowler, but Blues hit back midway through the second half through the unlikely goalscoring hero Jeff Kenna. With three minutes to go, a free-kick was flung in, Richard Dunne tried to clear, but his hoof hit the knee of Mikael Forssell, cue mass jubilation all around St.Andrews.
Final Score: Blues 2 (Kenna, Forssell) City 1 (Fowler)
Team news: Ridgewell is suspended and Kapo isn’t match fit for Blues whilst McFadden is also out. City have Dietmar Hamman and Michael Johnson back from suspension and a chest injury respectively, but defenders Micah Richards and Michael Ball are both out.
Pre Match articles:
City key man: Elano
Elano was the creative pivot City built their tremendous early form on. Since he came from Shaktar Dontesk in the Summer he has wowed crowds all over with his skill and vision, making him a hero with the City faithful. It is also noticeable that, since Elano’s form has tailed off, City’s has nosedived with it. Combine this with the fact that he score the winning goal when we went to Eastlands earlier in the season, he most definately stands out as the potent threat to be watched today.
How will the match turn out?
We will of course, have to show respect to the threat that City hold, however I think the fact that we need the win desperately whilst City aren’t really playing for anything but pride now should swing it our favour. A close game but Blues to shade it.
Prediction: Blues 3 City 2
Ladbrokes Odds: Blues 5/4 City 7/4 Draw 11/
Is it just me or has it been a bit strange since Alex McLeish, Roy Aitken and Andy Watson turned up? I was reading some articles today [#1, #2, #3, #4, #5] and it got me thinking. We’ve been consistently not getting our just desserts whilst conceding stupid goals as well as spending most of our time either in, or just above, the dreaded relegation zone.
Since McLeish and his assistants turned up, we’ve played 17 league games, won 3, drawn seven and lost seven. This has included games at home against Newcastle United, Derby County, Fulham and Reading as well as trips to Reading, Sunderland, Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United. I’m not suggesting that we should’ve won all of these games nor am I suggesting that we have any sort of divine right to beat such sides. But overall, I think you’d look at games such as these and note that if you have genuine aspirations of staying in the Premiership, you need to pick up more bags of three points here than not.
These eight games have yielded just four points. In the process, we’ve conceded 13 goals and scored just six.
Okay, we’ve performed well above ourselves in other games and beaten Spurs twice (netting seven in the process!) and drawing twice against Arsenal and had one or two other good results under Big Eck. But for me, the bread and butter is games against the sides around us and our record in such games is well below par and – dare I say it – well below what we’d come to expect from a Steve Bruce side.
And in case you were wondering: Since Bruce has joined Wigan, they’ve played seven games against fellow strugglers and managed 13 points whilst scoring seven and conceding the same – four of those in one game not long after he’d joined, too. I’m not comparing Bruce to Big Eck here or saying that we’d have been better off with W’or Brucey in charge or that all of the results mentioned are down solely to the manager.
With Bruce in charge, I had expectations and things that I’d gotten used to. Being one of the better sides near the foot of the table was one of the things I’d taken for granted. We always seemed to pull out results – especially at home – against sides around us and it was always the most solid of bases to build from. Many things culminated in our relegation such as taking our eye of the ball with the new stadium, Bruce’s inability to notice that he’d become paralysed by fear, too much talk, too little action, the inability of Bruce to see that several of the squad were past it etc, etc. However, before that, Bruce had a tried and tested and solid formula. We knew what to expect and we knew what realistic ambitions we had for the game ahead.
With McLeish in charge, that seems to have gone… perhaps I’m on my own here and you’re looking at your PC monitor with your mouth open thinking “What is this plum on about?” but stick with me. Despite the lack of points against sides around us, I can’t remember being this excited about Blues for a long time. We’d become, as a club as well as a side, trapped, scared, stunted and dour.
I’m not sure whether it’s because McLeish will try and win games or because we haven’t settled down into some sort of ‘routine’ under McLeish but from one game to the next, you never know what to expect and that, in some ways, is a great feeling to have. We’re still to work out what McLeish’s strengths and weaknesses are and he’s yet to fully understand and appreciate us as a club and the squad at his disposal.
But this wasn’t really a blog about what McLeish still has to learn or how he measures up against Bruce. It was about the positive atmosphere and philosophy that he insists on everyone at the club having. The articles linked above show what I mean and I’m desperate to see that continue. It’s nice to support a club where most people involved are positive and ambitious in what they want to do.
And that doesn’t just stem from the manager. The whole playing staff regularly speak openly, honestly and most of all – positively -about playing for Blues and what needs to be done. Players like Sebastian Larsson, Mehdi Nafti, Fabrice Muamba, Mikael Forssell and one or two others exemplify exactly what modern day footballers and role models should be and it would be a crying shame if this team was broken up. I’m proud to say that they play for Blues and I’m pleased at the positive and forward-thinking nature of the manager and how he commands his troops.
What I’m trying to get across is that McLeish is trying to install his stamp on the club as well as his style on the team and if the positive energy that I’m feeling is typical of that of my fellow ‘noses then what shall we be like as a club if he keeps us up and makes sensible purchases in the summer? I’d like us to be able to beat fellow strugglers with regularity like we did under Bruce but if dour 1-0 wins and the feeling of tedium and lack of progression was the price, I think I’d prefer us to be on the current rollercoaster ride thanks…