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

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

Burton Albion at Home – Easy

“Easy”.

I mean no disrespect. The phrase or adjective included within the title often describes the day as a whole, just as the post itself is supposed to, and this is no exception. It was a very easy day, especially considering the number of potential banana skins.

For one, we’ve not exactly been covering ourselves in glory recently. Huddersfield took us to bits and a loss up there by four or five would not have been an injustice. We’ve conceded three goals in each of our last three away games and we did our best to go three down last Sunday, David Stockdale’s penalty save probably being the difference between an amazing come-back draw and another miserable defeat.

We were also taking one of The Boy’s mates to his first ever Albion game. This is something I genuinely love, the chance to brainwash another poor sod in to the ways of the Albion (or “create another lifelong customer with an excellent match day experience” as I’m sure Paul Barber would put it) but there’s always risk associated with it. What if he hates the crowds and the train queue? What if it’s a terrible game? Will they ever want to come back? Have I over hyped this?

And then there was the ruddy British weather. It was cold. And snowing. These are two of my least favourite weathers in the world. I’ve never been able to understand people who go on holiday to ski down a snowy mountain. I’d much rather live my life on a tropical beach. But, I digress. It had the potential to be rubbish, that’s all I’m saying. It wasn’t.

Everyone turned up on time and there was therefore the chance for a very swift half in our family friendly local. There were a lot of people waiting on the platform but the train was on time and we got on easily enough. There wasn’t much of a queue at Brighton either and we even got a seat on a fast Falmer-bound service, which was on time and seemed to have no issue with its doors being closed.

The boys rushed to get a programme each and a big match atmosphere was building as vast numbers of home fans circled The Amex. We went straight up to the WSU (where the boys this time counted 122 steps, it’s different every time and at some point I’m going to count them myself as surely this will be the definitive answer) and our many and varied snack and drink requests were immediately and efficiently dispensed by a Sodexo employee who seemed to know what they were doing. What WAS going on? Steve and I chewed the fat over the last couple of games, I bumped in to Chaily Jem and we put the world of grass roots football to rights, and then we took the boys up, one of them for his first look at the hallowed turf from our lofty perch.

Easy.

We’d agreed in the build up that an early goal would be very good for the nerves. Guy, who sits behind us, wanted it in the 11th minute as that’s what was on his Seagulls Lotto ticket. It certainly looked like we might oblige as we started brightly, but then all our key men were back.

The recent run of poor results and performances has been achieved totally without Stephens and Baldock and largely without Dunk. Here they were all back while Hemed was preferred to the recently misfiring Murray. There was an early scare when Knockaert went down for a very long time (“he’s gone” Steve had said, thank goodness he was wrong) but as the clock precisely changed from eleven to twelve minutes Le Petit Magicien found himself in space down the right and drilled a low cross in to the box. Various limbs were thrown unsuccessfully at it before Hemed neatly converted at the back post. 1-0. I was pleased to observe our new convert jumping with joy. A collective sigh of relief went round The Amex.

If there was one thing that wasn’t easy it was getting an atmosphere going. In some respects you need something or someone to compete with. Three hundred odd Burton fans, all sitting down politely, isn’t going to do it. Yes, I know how far they’ve come in a short time and how few they get at home, and how far it is, so kudos to those who did travel. However, seething cauldron the Amex wasn’t. The goal and an impressively comic referee had to make do as atmosphere conduits.

To say we were comfortable in the first half would almost be to understate it. We were as comfortable as a well-worn fluffy onesie in front of a roaring fire. As comfortable as that pair of trainers you always go when your feet need a treat, no matter how smelly. Burton did not have a shot, never mind a corner, and barely found themselves in our half. Meanwhile we carved out half chances without ever really exerting ourselves, Knockaert sashaying his way up the middle before hitting a tame long range shot and March providing crosses from the other wing that were just not quite precise enough. Second gear for the home Albion.

At half time we all agreed another goal would kill it off. Meanwhile, to Guy’s disgust the first goal time was given as twelve minutes.

That goal came a couple of minutes after the restart. A gorgeous ball over the top down the left from Sidwell found Burton’s right back on a tropical beach (or possibly skiing in Val D’Isere) and March in acres of space. He advanced and put in a teasing low cross and Baldock got in front of McLaughlin in the Burton goal to slide in. Two nil and very much game done.

Ten minutes later and the level of comfort was very much at “Norwegian Fisherman’s Jumper” setting. March waltzed through the middle with some tidy footwork and was tripped in the box. Referee Martin got a decision right for a change and Hemed put a trade mark penalty in the bottom corner the keeper having been sold a bigger dummy than the window dresser at High and Mighty.

Of course this is The Albion so we found a way to put ourselves through a few minutes of ringer. Baldock, Hemed and Stephens were taken off to preserve them for later endeavours and Kayal, Murray and Akpom came on. Kayal still looks ring rusty and while we were still adjusting Burton got a free kick on the edge of our area which was brilliantly converted by Michael Kightly. Top bins as The Boy would say.

There was a short point where they looked like getting an uncomfortable second but then we found our feet again. Knockaert popped up on the left and hit a superb cross that the unmarked Murray couldn’t fail to head home for number four and Akpom should have done better when clean through. An easy win.

Afterwards we had an easy celebration beer, walked straight on to a train and got The Boy’s mate home half an hour earlier than I said we would. A good day then. And an easy one.

The Boy’s Ref Watch

Referee Steve Martin was as comic as his namesake. He sprayed so much of The Amex pitch I think he might actually be Banksie in his day job, and he signalled for full time with an action that reminded me of a bear taking a shit in the woods. Didn’t give a card and barely gave a correct decision. But that’s my take on it. The Boy reported described him as “OMG he was TERRIBLE. TERRIBLE! Minus two hundred million!”. Then he lost his hat a flipped a bottle.

 

 

 

Aston Villa at Home – Point Rescued

Sometimes the words for these reports just pop in to my head. It can be a curse, because it can happen at four in the morning or when I’m out on a run, miles away from a laptop but more often then not I know what I’m going to say. Today however it’s not happening because I have a massive hangover writer’s block.

The cursor has been blinking at me for approximately forty two minutes and thirty seven seconds while I ingest Berroca (other vitamin type supplements are available) and coffee and ponder a bacon sandwich.

The thing is, I write this sort of report far too regularly now and people are going to start suspecting me of mild, functioning alcoholism. In my defence, this was the game nearest to my birthday and a boys’ night out had been in the diary for some time. The Boy also has his birthday around the same time and he had his mates round for X-Box and the game on the telly, leaving the adults free to do a bit of guilt-free drinking. And that’s where we’ll begin, not because I want to dazzle you with the thirty fourth different synonym that I’ve thought of for beer drinking, but because the atmosphere in town was proper.

Five o’clock, the time that most people pile out of the office on a Friday, and the pub we were in was heaving. Brighton shirts, people I recognised from the Amex and Goldstone, and a big group of Villa fans who appeared to have been drinking since last Thursday. A proper night at the football was on the cards.

After a couple of beers we decided to get the bus to the ground for a change, a wise move given the reported “train carnage”, and then headed to the Student Union bar. The bar itself had no queue at all, or so we thought, until someone pointed out the queueing system where you order from one place and pick up from another. The “order” line was considerably busier and your reward at the end seemed to be a pint of one of those weak lagers brewed under licence by a bloke called Dave from Romford. We left again. An hour before kick off we disgorged ourselves out to the perimeter of The Amex and there were people everywhere. Yep, a proper atmosphere was definitely on the cards.

So, not bad for a bloke with a massive hangover writer’s block. Nearly four hundred words describing our journey to the game, hopefully setting the scene nicely for you. You’ll have got the impression it was busy and that the majority of fans were well oiled. Now I have to write about the game and that’s where the problems begin.

It’s not that I don’t remember anything. In fact, if at any point during it I made an observation through Albion tinted beer goggles, my old friend Mark would gently correct me and I’d make a mental note of the reality of the situation. It’s just that the reality of the situation was that we were being snuffed out.

Villa knew our weaknesses. They closed us down very well and were organised throughout. Much of our passing was careless as a result. The understandably subdued Knockaert was well martialled by the impressive Amavi. Even Gary Gardner looked vaguely ok. It was almost like someone close to our first team had tipped Steve Bruce off on how to play against us. Hmm.

And they took the lead with the first real chance of the game, Adomah swinging in a wicked free kick and Baker glancing in a header that Stockdale might have done better with. We’d offered nothing up to that point and neither had they. Just a cancelling out and a lot of chasing. Their fans had been noisy up to that point and now they went in to overdrive and we went silent. It desperately needed a pick up.

Luckily we got in to the game and spent twenty or so minutes playing like the real Brighton. At the end of the half it paid off. We broke quickly and Sidwell fed Murray whose one-two with Baldock gained him some space. A low shot from twenty yards and we were level. A lot of craziness up in the WSU.

“A great time to score” I mused, thinking we’d kick on from there, but no. If anything Villa were even more impressive in the second half. We had a couple of headed chances, while Sidwell put a well worked corner over with the ball just behind him and that was that. The rest was all Villa. They took off Gardner and put on Grealish, which was really taking the piss, They had corner after corner after corner and should have scored from one of them. Adomah and Kodija combined to set up the best chance of the half but Stockdale atoned for his earlier error. And that was that. Easily the best side to come to The Amex this season and, for me, a point gained for the Albion.

And then the night went downhill, or uphill, depending on your point of view. A beer kitty. A very large Villa fan who we christened “Tiny”. Jaeger shots. Some sort of rambling conversation about God Knows What, over and over again. Good friends, good times, a typical Friday night out with the boys. I needed it. The previous ninety minutes had shown how much work we still have to do.