Wolves at Home 18/19 – Gritty

A slightly numb feeling has descended over BBOAH towers this morning as I write. Normally this weekend, with the clocks going back, is ideal for a bit of a longer report, followed by a longer Sunday morning run, to fully appreciate the extra (dark) hour given to us.

However, a slightly grim feeling has taken hold. On NSC last night, debating the quality of this very game and performance, a couple of threads suddenly came up that put the game in to perspective. Firstly an elderly Albion fan tragically collapsed and died before the game, according to reports. And then there was the first news of the helicopter crash at Leicester. Their chairman has done amazing things with that club and, while it is far too early to be speculating on casualties or cause, this has clearly shaken the club. Football, after that, really is just twenty two men kicking a bag of wind about.

We set off and got delayed on the way, so it was straight to the ground. There AITC were doing a great job with their one pound appeal. The Boy tried to kick a football through some very small round holes and got a selfie with a giant football made of the rubbish collected from the Spurs game. I had a quick beer. Lots of sweets were consumed. We’d need the sustenance.

In a poor first half we sat too deep and gave Wolves far too much respect. The incisiveness was never really there from our visitors but dropping back due to their pace and our lack of it was inviting on. What we lack in pace at the back, however, we more than make up for in organisation, determination and blocking and heading ability. The line held firm, and time and again, Dunk and Duffy cleared the lines. However, with Murray isolated against three defenders we rarely looked like doing much with it.

The one time this changed for us was a quick break down the left that saw March overlap in to a wide position from his, now customary, “number 10”. He slung in a fast, low cross which Murray, on 99 club goals, threw a boot at and just missed. However, the two best chances of the half were about to appear.

A diagonal ball out to the Wolves right, one of several that troubled us, wasn’t dealt with and suddenly Doherty walked through our defence, totally unchallenged, only to somehow shoot wide when it was easier to score. Then, at the end of the half, we had a corner which we worked in the air to the unmarked Duffy who somehow headed on to the outside of the post and wide when it was easier to score. It was fair to say the game needed a goal.

It duly got one. Just three minutes after the restart and a long cross from a set piece on the left was knocked down and run on to by a charging Bruno. Was he going to slam it in the top bins? No. Instead it was scuffed across goal where the unmarked Murray tapped it in first time with a cool finish. Goal number 100 and THAT celebration from the Withdean days came out. Still no idea what it means.

This was the cue for Wolves to attack from all sides but, though they has a lot of possession and territory, they still lacked quality. Lots of shots but all blocked, wide or comfortably at Ryan. We stuck at hitting on the break and, I imagine, nearly frustrated Ali J in to submission. First it was Izquierdo breaking through that just had to release Ali to his right but instead carried on running (more slowly) at the defender, to eventually spurn the chance.

Then we got a taste of why Maty Ryan is still so valuable to us, the Aussie shot stopper seemingly getting better every game, as Wolves found their radar and Maty clean stopped a low shot with a crowd in front of him before producing the save of the game with an incredible reflex stop that I was certain had seen Wolves score.

There was still time for Knocky to commit the second breakaway error, streaming clear before again failing to find the unmarked Ali, and that was it. A poor match? Not up to the United game, that’s for sure, but I care not one bit. The only things that matter are three statistics; another three points, another clean sheet and the ton up for Murray. Everything else is window dressing. I’ll happily take every other home game ending that way right now.

 

 

 

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Chelsea At Home – Hazard Warning

Too early, That was my immediate thought. While the rest of the world walked its dog, did its shopping or went to gymnastics or karate lessons we were stood at Portslade Station waiting for a train to the Amex with tens of other Brighton fans. The journey over was memorable only for a frankly incoherent half-and-half scarf seller outside Falmer station, The Boy nearly forgetting his change from his programme and an all out Gully attack outside the club shop. Once upstairs in the concourse pints were purchased for me and Steve’s friend who was shaking off a post-party hangover, and a Bovril for Steve who is absolutely smashing Dry January, the poor sod. Five minutes later we were collectively spluttering in to them. FIVE at the back? No Knockaert AT ALL? Wow.

At one level it made sense. We’ve been struggling on set pieces and an extra head there would be useful. Schelotto is a born wing-back and it would suit Suttner too. What we couldn’t work out was what the rest of the formation would look like. It turned out to be a sort of 5-3-2 with Gross back in midfield and March up with Hemed. At least I think so. That might have been what we moved to, since it only took Chelsea three minutes to disrupt it.

We’d barely kicked off. Chelsea were in full voice though the Albion faithful seemed to be fast asleep, the North Stand strangely muted as if many of its inhabitants don’t see that time of day often (clue lads, it’s normally about when you stagger off the train for your away day). Certain other parts of the ground were either too busy creaming themselves over Chelsea or just being please to be there, of which more later, Anyway, before we’d mustered song for whatever reason, Chelsea put together a nice attack down the right, Hazard and Willian playing the roles of conductor and Moses providing the width. A low cross and Stephens, who found himself playing fourth centre back, overstretched, flicking out a boot and sending the ball straight to Hazard who buried it. Celebrations for Chelsea. A belated “Albioooon” from us.

What we really needed to do at this point was get back among them and equalise quickly. Instead, three minutes later we were two down. I’ve seen the goal again and, grudgingly it is indeed a thing of beauty, the sort of goal that if we’d scored we’d add instantly to the pre-match highlights reel. Yes Dunk and Propper gave it away, the former under-hitting a pass and the latter reacting too slowly, but after that it’s all one touch and backheels, Willian starting and finishing the move that inevitably involved Hazard. Even the finish was perfect. Nothing we could do about that, five at the back or not. Unfortunately this left our tactical plans in ruins, a bit like that bit in Pirates of the Caribbean where Captain Sparrow ends up marooned with the boat disappearing in to the distance. Or something. “We’ll get done five or six here” I said to my companions.

To our credit we didn’t. We went back at them with renewed vigour. Enter the game’s villain, referee Jon Moss. A great diagonal ball looked for Gross in the box and out came Caballero to punch, but only as far as the marauding Schelotto who won the loose ball, took it past the keeper and was clearly brought down – clearly that is if you could see it which fatty Moss, in totally the wrong position, couldn’t. We still wasted an open goal anyway, Gross crossing over Hemed’s head in the confusion.

Then just as good a chance, Gross crossing after a cross field ball for March and Hemed’s free header inexplicably saved by Caballero’s feet as he went the wrong way. Then a second penalty shout, Schelotto again winning a loose ball and catching Chelsea on the wrong side, going down under a challenge from Bakayoko that was, while minimal, nevertheless present and from behind. The enraged Schelotto almost walked off the pitch and was lucky to still be on the pitch for his reaction. Half time and referee Moss left the arena to a justified chorus of boos.

Still we tried to claw it back, Schelotto again causing no end of problems for Chelsea down the right before Propper headed a cross agonisingly on the post.

Chelsea were next to hit the post with a brilliant Wilian free kick producing an even better save from Ryan, who was excellent all game, pushing it on to the woodwork. Gaps started to appear as we chased the game and inevitably we went three down on the break. Again we gave the ball away sloppily but after that it was all about Hazard who sent the whole of the Amex the wrong way with his finish.

Then a great long ball over the top and Moses found himself ahead of the tiring Suttner to slot in the fourth. And that was that. A slow start, some Hazard brilliance, two awful referring decisions and some more Hazard brilliance deciding the game. That’s what you seem to get at this level, World Class players who punish you and pub league referees, in love with the big six, who punish you some more.

And we seem to be in love with the big six too. I usually sign off with a cheery story of beery banter and delayed trains but not today. We need to decide if we want to stay in this league. If we do we need to stop all this fawning, forget shirt swapping and selfie sticks, play our own game and back the team from the start. Too many yesterday seemed just pleased to be there watching Hazard work his magic. Unless we develop a bit of nastiness that’s only going to last one season. You wouldn’t catch Burnley at Turf Moor being so nice.

Atletico Madrid At Home

“Atletico Madrid at home”. There’s a match report I never thought I’d be writing. Yet it really did happen, in glorious sunshine too. Yesterday, the big time arrived at The Amex.

It’s arrived here at BBOAH Towers too. I’ll have you know this is a Premier League blog you’re reading now and the proof is that I’m magically charging you 25p a word via use of a invisible paywall powered by Jamie Redknapp’s arse-hair and the recycled dreams of the Essex branch of the Manchester United Supporter’s club*. I’ve got slightly better back lights though and you will be reading about players like Benjamin Mendy, Paul Pogba, Steve Cooke and Ashley Barnes.

I digress. Atletico Madrid eh?

Whoever got this friendly arranged needs a massive pat on the back, which I suspect they’ve had since Paul Barber’s ears will have been delighting in the sound of ringing cash tills all afternoon. I have rarely seen The Boy so excited and we fairly bounced to the bus at Sainsbury’s. Many others were making their way, decked out in our brand new kit, and the bus left for Dreamland at exactly ten past two, full of happy chatter. Steve and I caught up with the tiny events that had happened since I’d cooked him a massive steak the night before and the boys chattered eagerly. The Boy had already worked out that “Mathew Ryan” scans in to exactly the same songs as “David Stockdale”, which would prove to be useful.

A beer or two and a chat with an old mate I used to travel the country with watching us, back in the day, and then it was out in to the bright sunshine for Griezmann against Duffy. Quite literally for us as we’d booked tickets early, when the West Upper wasn’t open, and therefore found ourselves with a most excellent view in the centre of the East Stand, a few rows from the front.

An interesting team selection had been discussed already in the bar. With Murray suspended Hemed had to lead the line but most of us would have started with March rather than Murphy. Otherwise it was the expected side but the weaknesses in it, one enforced and one chosen, were obvious from the start.

Atleti were extremely comfortable early on, dominating the ball with Torres proving a handful and Griezmann, never stellar to be fair, still conducting attacks. Yesterday was far from his best game yet I spent a portion of time just watching him rather than the ball and the way he constantly sits in space, right in the hole, and is key to Atleti’s game. He seems to have more time on the ball than half our team put together.

Inevitably from comfortable possession came a range of attacks. Kayal’s foul gave Griezmann a chance from an early free kick but he stuck it straight at Ryan. From another a loose ball was stabbed at our new keeper who produced a reaction save of sheer class. Even better, a powerful low, skidding shot that was flying in to the bottom corner was somehow repelled at full stretch. “Da da da daaaa! Mathew Ryan!” sang The Boy. “Da da da daaaa! Mathew Ryan!” sang the North Stand. Meanwhile, Oblak in the Atleti goal was a spectator.

This sort of dominance at least gave a chance to assess our new players. Suttner looks decent in the air and competitive but he was being helped a lot in the first half by Izzy Brown, playing more left midfield than left wing. Brown showed the same sort of excellent temperament we got last season from another Chelsea loanee, Tomori, and applied himself selflessly. On the odd attack we did have he looked dangerous and will prove, I think, to be quite the decent signing. Gross hardly had a touch early on but one incredible little ball steal and turn, halfway in the Atletico Madrid half, set up one of our more dangerous moments.

Sadly for us, have expertly denied Atletico’s better chances we conceded just before half time to a howler, Gaitan hitting a tame shot from long range that somehow went straight through Ryan, who’d been outstanding up to then. So yes, we appear to have a keeper who is a brilliant shot stopper and distributes the ball well, but is prone to the odd ricket. Plus ca change, plus cest la meme chose.

Three changes were made at half time, Sidwell coming in to centre midfield for Kayal, March replacing the utterly ineffective Murphy and Bong getting a full half at left back. The Albion immediately looked more dangerous. The addition of March put Atletico on the back foot and Hughton must have put some belief in to us. March took them on with glee, right in front of us, with a trade mark cut inside and shot just over the bar and generally we gained some possession and territory. From another attack we equalized. Hemed for once won and kept the ball in a dangerous area and a sloppy foul was committed on him. Gross, who’d already established his dead ball skills in the first half grabbed the ball and his low free kick took a massive deflection and went in off the post. We’d scored. Against Atletico Madrid.

As March was good down our right so Juanfran was on theirs and he soon re-established the lead with a pinpoint cross to see the unmarked Torres head home. 1-2. Knockaert came on and took over on the right, March switching wings and Brown going up top with Hemed off. This paid immediate dividends. Knockaert tucked in to Atletico’s defence like me and Steve had our steaks, the night previously and March roasted the aforementioned Juanfran. From the resultant space a cross was produced that was every bit as good as theirs and Sidwell tucked away an unmarked header of his own.

Could we get a draw? A late winner even? Sadly, it was not to be. Instead a final attack from our visitors produced some desperate ping-pong in the box. A few minutes earlier a suicidal cross field pass from us had seen Griezmann fluff a gaping goal from less than twelve yards by trying to use the outside of his left and slicing in to the South Stand. He wanted to make up for it here and although Ryan saved the initial effort Hernandez fired home the rebound for a cruel last minute winner.

So, how are we really set for next week? Well firstly all of the new signings look like they will bring real quality, Hopefully that is Ryan’s howler for the season out of the way before it matters. If it is then he has the reflexes and distribution to be a success. Suttner looks physical, an upgrade on Pocagnoli. The stars were Brown and Gross though, each excellent in both workrate, passing and threat.

Of the old boys March and Knockaert are going to relish this league and, if Dunk and Duffy stay fit, we have Premier League Ready centre backs. Bruno will be done for pace but is still making those intelligent runs forward. The spine is the worry. Stephens looked way off the pace yesterday, Kayal worse if anything and Hemed was lost. The very strong rumours, though, are of Davy Propper signing for us. If that happens we might not just survive, we might cause a few teams a real headache.

*not really

 

 

 

 

 

Aston Villa Away – The Final Curtain

Not a game I was expecting to go to. With not quite enough points in the first round of ticket sales and Villa keeping allocations to a minimum (despite a whole closed tier opposite us) we had settled for the beam back. That was until my very good friend came through with tickets via a sponsor and the waiting list. Only a few days notice but enough to round up a crew, car and driver. The West Upper boys were off to Birmingham.

Early morning banter in the car suggested the mood was upbeat, if not over confident. We made excellent time to Oxford services which was full of a coach load of Brighton fans in similar mood. They also included our mate Danny, a man infamous for having worn a very thin suit to the freezing cold Sheffield Wednesday game. Earlier in the season three of our carload plus Danny had gone on protracted beer sampling mission – aka piss up – for my birthday game at home to Aston Villa. Now we were reunited. That game had finished 1-1. It really should have been a sign.

We weren’t doing omens in the car though. We were far too busy trying to follow a silent sat nav round spaghetti junction. Eventually, though, we found our pre-booked parking spot, rapidly decided the pubs of Aston were not for us, had a traditional dog burger from a van (undercooked onions, no Michelin star awaits) and got on the concourse almost as soon as it had opened. A minute later some early morning beers were hitting the spot, driver excepted.

Beer had certainly been the order of the day in Birmingham. Many of our mates had stayed over and slowly they arrived looking like it had been a very long night indeed. At first our only companions on the concourse had been those who had taken advantage of clear roads that morning but, as kick off approached, the familiar faces of those who had seen our twenty year rise to the promised land were everywhere.

Could we go one better and clinch the title? We’d needed to win one game in three, not a problem to date in this most excellent of seasons, but we’d certainly fluffed our last two lines. A party-weary side losing to two identically unfortunate goals is one thing but you couldn’t really want for a better chance to seal the deal than Bristol City at home, a struggling side you’d beaten away from home who were all but mathematically safe, at your fortress. Villa away, on the other hand, would be hard.

Villa Park is a magnificent ground. It’s everything I love about football, big, noisy and traditional but with fans very close to the pitch. Upton Park is gone, White Hart Lane going but I hope Villa Park stays for a very long time. We are going to have to get used to playing in big grounds in front of big crowds and, once again, the occasion seemed to overawe us. This may seem a strange thing to say given the atmosphere at the Amex this season has, at times, been febrile with 25-30,000 regularly packed in, but that is OUR big game atmosphere. We had already struggled at St James’s and Elland Road this season and that’s a worry. We shall have nineteen such games next season. Even Bournemouth and Burnley will sell out.

I’m getting slightly ahead of myself but it’s a fact that our first half here was poor. Villa pressed us tight, as they had back in November in Brighton. Our counter to that on this occasion was the long ball over the top. With Baldock back in the side this at least made some sense but with Murray not noted for his pace, Knockaert marked out of it and Murphy seemingly overcome by the event it wasn’t exactly paying dividends either. At the back there were issues too. Not at centre back where Dunk and Tomori were excellent but definitely at full back. Bruno was engaged in a one man battle with half the Villa team. Pocognoli, selected ahead of Bong, had the full on yips. A deep cross from Villa’s left could have been back-headed out or even let go (though he did not know what was behind him). Instead he chested it back across goal, a mistake that ten year olds would be chastised for, and Lansbury, lurking on the six yard box, couldn’t miss with a free header. Incredibly, he did.

Just as bad was to come as a back pass by the same player was criminally under hit, this time Hogan spurning the chance. As moves were made towards a half time beer queue Hogan was taken out by Sidwell, the resulting injury ending his game and the resulting free kick just about repelled. We went in at 0-0 after prolonged injury time but in truth should have been one or two down.

Half time talk centred on “we couldn’t be that bad again, could we?”. And “I hope Hughton’s reading the riot act”. A goal was needed asap, we all agreed.

It was not immediately forthcoming, though we started much brighter. Pocognoli seemed more solid, Knockaert more in the game. Sidwell had been excellent and this continued. Ditto Stockdale. And then, on 64 minutes, the moment that should have won us the title. Baldock released clean through. His tame effort was saved but the pressure exerted by Baker on his back had been unfair. Spot kick. Sending off too. The game changed in a flash. I couldn’t watch but, of course, Murray buried it, the away end went mental, blue smoke on the pitch and the whole team over and going crazy.

Then Elphick – remember him? – hit a tame back pass and Murray latched on to it. Surely this would be 2-0 and game done? No. We somehow contrived to miss, how I do not know. It wasn’t quite action free at the other end, Stockdale producing a magnificent save from a long range Hourihane effort, but Villa were down to ten men and a party was starting in the away end. So what did we do….?

That’s right. We sat back.

Why? Why against ten men with nothing to play for and a home crowd silenced do we offer them a way back in. Nerves? Instruction? It had been the same at QPR but there we held on. Here we did not. A minute to go and heartbreak. A nothing shot from Jack Grealish but Dunk tried to block, unsighting Stockdale. It went straight through him. Quite some noise from Villa Park. Despair from our keeper.

At the end the players were distraught, Stockdale in particular. He should not be but the bloke cares so much and clearly blamed himself. Never mind that he’d kept us in it, that in previous games he’s won us enough points to get promoted in the middle of April, there was no consoling him.  There is no blame at all from this writer. However, from his Twitter today it seems he’s gone.

In a way, though, title aside, this was preparation for next season. A big game in a proper old stadium. I think Chris will have confirmed what he already suspected, that one or two are not up to the step up. In many ways the Premier League started here.

A much more subdued car ride back down the motorway, with special thanks to the back to front in a silver Merc who tried to kill half the M40. “The Portslade Two” returned to The Railway – our Winchester – for a final consolation beer. It will take a zombie apocalypse – or possibly nuclear war – to stop us playing the big boys come August. That is what we should be focussing on. See you at the parade.