More frustration for the home faithful as City again pay a heavy price for a mis-firing strikeforceSun 9 Mar 14 by Gary Gowers
In the spirit of positivity, at least we were spared the awful ‘did that really happen’ moment upon waking this morning.
While yesterday’s draw was not exactly what the doctor, the statistician or the McNally ordered it did at least nudge the points total along and it didn’t engender the numb feeling so prevalent in Norfolk on Monday morning.
But it still wasn’t good. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.
While some were quick to trot out the ‘no damage done’ platitude in terms of league standings I’d argue otherwise. Yesterday was the latest in a long line of opportunities to put clear water between City and the melee at the bottom but again it was one that was missed.
Depending on the tint of your spectacles City’s fifteenth place, four points clear of eighteenth, could be construed as a small drop-zone buffer but with three of the teams below us now with games in hand it’s looking more precarious by the week. And that’s before the much discussed final four games are woven into the equation.
Throw into the mix City’s awful goal difference – in the final reckoning it could be be akin to a one point deduction – and the brown stuff looms that little bit larger.
All of which is why ‘two points dropped’ – the most over-used phrase post-match – resonated louder yesterday than it has done any other time this season.
The Premier League fixtures computer has long since deemed March to be the month when City’s short-term future is decided but with one point from a possible six on the board so far, even the optimists among us – and I’ve really tried – must be wavering slightly.
As ever it was the inability to score more than a single goal in a game that was to prove costly. A second goal to add to Bradley Johnson’s header would surely have won the game but, in truth, few present expected it.
Instead – and there’s no way of knowing if it was by design or otherwise – City retreated into the familiar ‘let’s consolidate’ mode; one that – not for the first time – was also to cost them dearly.
I’m loathe to mention it again (it still hurts) but those fateful sixteen minutes that followed Benteke’s opener last Sunday were the epitome of putting a game to bed.
While I suspect the Stoke back-line would have coped rather better with the kitchen sink than City’s did seven days ago, it would have been good to see the high tempo maintained and questions continued to be asked of Messrs Shawcross, Wilson and co.
It didn’t happen.
Instead Wes Hoolahan – City’s most creative spark – was sacrificed for the more defensive qualities of Jonny Howson. “Fresh legs” was the official line offered by Chris Hughton to BBC Radio Norfolk’s Chris Goreham but, while there’s no reason to doubt that diagnosis, those tiring limbs would have come in very handy in the final ten minutes when we needed a lock to be unpicked.
As it happened Stoke’s two banks of four were to retreat deeper and deeper (almost to the point of Begovic making it a back five) and the resultant sight of City slowly and deliberately shifting the ball to and fro in search of an opening was almost painful.
In similar circumstances – and bereft of a better option – other teams resort to banging long, hopeful balls into the box in the hope of a loose ball dropping favourably, but in the absence of ‘a big unit’ and faced with a defence akin to a rugby union second row it was a non-starter.
Minus that option it required something special to make the breakthrough. A delicately threaded through ball, a trick, a piece of magic, a long range howitzer – none of which were in the armoury.
Of course, if City had gone on to win the game the Hoolahan/Howson switch would passed without a murmur, but in the circumstances the lack of invention in the closing stages was laid horribly bare.
The need to get Howson into the fray was understandable but, in hindsight, to do so at the expense of Wes was a mistake. With Nathan Redmond, after some early promise, enjoying little success in the second-half an option would have been to bolt Howson into the central midfield and permit the Dubliner freedom to join in from a wide-left starting position.
While the penalty was as soft as they get – and Guidetti certainly made the most of it – it was needless for Sebastien Bassong to even give Andre Mariner a decision to make.
Alas, as rash as Bassong’s challenge undoubtedly was, when you’re walking a defensive tightrope these things unfortunately can – and often do – happen.
The root of the problem remains in the attacking third. Ricky van Wolfswinkel, despite enjoying the unerring support of Hughton, continues to struggle. Yes he’s neat and tidy in possession, yes he works his socks off and yes, his contribution ‘back to goal’ is improving. But when you shell out £8.5million for a goalscorer it’s fairly obvious what you’re expecting.
Whether his lack of presence in the penalty box is due to the set-up of the team, not enough chances being created or others not picking out the Dutchman’s runs it’s impossible to say, but the smart money is on it being a combination of all three.
Either way, the dearth of goals is killing us. Gary Hooper too is midst goal famine, although I’m unsure quite what occurred at Villa Park to cost him his place in the team. From a layman’s perspective it was a day when the problems were at the other end of the pitch and Hooper’s contribution, again, looked to be a decent one.
Alas six goals from three newly acquired strikers tells a story all of its own and, if the worst happens, will ultimately be our undoing.
For the most part it’s been fairly turgid to watch. The downs have heavily outnumbered the ups. And unbridled joy has been in fairly short supply.
However, if – and it’s a big if – said strikers had mustered another six goals between them we wouldn’t even be having these conversations now. Mid-table mediocrity would beckon.
But they haven’t and it doesn’t. Instead we’re edging closer to the precipice by the game.
This one is going to the wire folks. We’d better brace ourselves.