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.

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Watford at Home 2017/18 – Happy Christmas

23rd December, Portslade, 2am. Several adults who should know a lot better by now are attempting to leave an 80s disco together. I’m vaguely trying to issue instructions but I might as well be talking Swedish. It’s possible it is Swedish. No good, it’s like herding cats. The last time a big group of people talked such nonsense there was a referendum a week later.

23rd December, Portslade, 7 am. The children in my house wake me up. All the children. Noisily. Yep, I was going to have to do the Watford game hungover, sleep deprived and ever-so-slightly grumpy. It had better be good, I thought.

Probably the last thing you need in that sort of condition is to get on the train and bump in to the Honey Monster and Luigi from Mario and Luigi but that’s what happened. “Sit next to the Honey Monster” I told The Boy, probably for the first and last time. These were Watford fans in fancy dress, proper fans who’d been around the block a bit with a real injustice complex to go with it. “How many times is Knockaert going to dive?”. “How many players will Watford have sent off today?”. Then they told me they were shit and we’d win easily. I replied it was highly unlikely we’d take any of our chances. It was nearly all so prophetic.

In the stands there was a forced change. Out went Steve with a chest infection. In came Gareth, a man who once tried to play his own game of human dominoes from the top of the West Upper. Changes on the pitch too. Goldson in for the suspended Duffy, Hemed up top. Meanwhile Suttner had beaten Bong at Christmas Top Trumps and got to start at left back. The game started and we charged out of the blocks

So complete was our early dominance that anyone watching who hadn’t seen the rest of our season would have assumed a goal was coming any minute. Groß was finding a lot of space in between their lines. Knockaert, to a chorus of boos from the away end, was seeing a lot of the ball out wide. March was seeing even more of it, though mostly losing it. Goldson made an early mark on his Premier League debut with a crunching tackle and it was he who really should have opened the scoring with a free header from a corner straight at Gomes. Individual mistakes in front of goal were once again costing us. Knockaert twisted and turned and was free to cross in yards of space when he tried to beat his man once again to a howl of frustration from the West Stand. “He’s gonna cry in a minute” sang the Watford fans. We just wanted him to score, knowing the celebration that would follow, but instead, when he got free on his left peg he hit a weak shot straight at the keeper. Half time came. 0-0 despite our domination.

Unlike Burnley, though, we kept up our domination in the second half. In fact we made even better chances – and missed them again (what’s better than a penalty you ask? A free header from 2 yards, Mr Dunk, or a shot from three Mr Hemed). Again March saw a tremendous amount of ball and gave it away a tremendous amount. Just like Knockaert he had a perfect chance to cross but wouldn’t because he forgot his right foot was attached to his body. Yet, in the middle of all this we actually took one of the harder chances. Groß went wide left, cut inside by himself and shot low. Gomes should have saved it but parried it under his body and in. Everyone went bananas. Everyone.

Three minutes added on at the end and everyone was thinking “don’t mess it up” or words to that effect when we did. Ryan – who’d been excellent up till then – dropped a cross and Watford missed from a yard out, proving at least that we weren’t all that special when it came to in front of goal bloopers.

One nil at the end though and it felt like a cup final. All the players (except Izquierdo who’d been given a 30 second cameo) stayed out and soaked up the cheers. And for all the whinging about missed chances we WERE excellent. Groß put in a huge shift, Propper and “Sideways” Stephens broke up the play and Goldson – and just take this in for a moment – in his first Premier League game and his first game back from heart surgery, was fantastic. Duffy may not get the shirt back.

Other observations? Suttner was marvellous and should start going forward. Watford were niggly. Not filthy but bloody annoying, No wonder they get cards. We need a clinical finisher and God only knows how much that will cost at this level. But we’re more than surviving. Half the games (though Watford twice and Chelsea not at all) and we are 12th and on target for the magic 40 points. For a sleep deprived, hungover man this was the best Christmas present of all. Have a good one everyone.

 

 

 

Burnley at Home 2017/18 – Toothless?

The run of tough games supposedly never ends in the Premier League. A sequence that has recently seen a local derby at home, and us take on Liverpool and Tottenham was punctuated by a trip to Huddersfield, a winnable game on paper but never on grass, and Burnley coming here. Burnley who many see as our model going forwards. Burnley who went down but went straight back up (at our expense, Joey Barton stamp and all) and stayed up. Burnley who recently spent a day in the Champions League places and have been sitting comfortably in the top half all season. Burnley who beat Chelsea at the Bridge. That Burnley.

Many on Twitter and elsewhere still felt this was winnable. The Boy did too. Steve and I weren’t so sure. The general consensus was that it would be tight, maybe a goal in it either way. Goals are not something we do right now, not even from four yards out or from a penalty. Or even in the warm up.

March was returned to the side with Murray up top. Having been nagged constantly by the boys we went to our seats earlier than normal, just in time to see the warming up team enter shooting practice, with March and Murray prominent. I think they hit one on target between them. It would prove to be prophetic.

Before the report I’m going to drift off, prompted by social media discussions last night, in to what constitutes a good game and just how toothless we are. Yes, the title of this blog entry references an NSC thread from last night but with the addition of a question mark. I tweeted at the end about how poor the game had been. I’m still on 140 characters, which are not enough after a beer or two, to explain poor in terms of actual skill and quality. Not action, there was plenty of action yesterday, but both teams conspired to serve up sub-Championship quality and zero goals. That’s the net effect no matter how many times the ball crosses the goal mouth. The referee had a mare too and, I’m sorry to say, the crowd were much quieter than recently. It was like going back three years. IMHO like. I predicted we’d be last on MOTD and, guess what, we were.

And in terms of threat? In terms of threat we created plenty in the first half. So that’s not toothless at all. In fact, after an awkward first fifteen minutes we bossed the rest of the first half to the extent that it was only us really playing. Three decent penalty shouts (one given) and other point blank chances created. I should be ripping the positives out of that. After Huddersfield and Tottenham, here we were back at our fortress, dominating a team and setting up chance after chance after chance. But, just like the warm up, we never looked like taking them. And then there was a second half in which each substitution weakened us, both centre backs committed acts of gross stupidity and only Ryan kept us in the game. Is my glass half full or half empty? I genuinely don’t know. It’s just half.

So, anyway, the action. Burnley swapped ends on us after winning the toss, meaning we were attacking the North Stand first. The first fifteen or so were evenly matched with Burnley winning an early corner, sure to test us, but dealt with more than adequately. Credit to the team for work on this area in the last week. But, as we eased in to the game Burnley were troubled. The front players were closing them down high, Gross in particular with a fantastic work rate. Knockaert and Bruno were in best partnership form, weaving the shapes that trouble defences. Propper and Stephens were breaking play up and, with more time on the ball, using it, even if in Stephens’ case that still means sideways or backwards more often than not. But it paid off.

Both wide players were seeing a lot of the ball and Gross was joining them, interchanging in attacking positions and forcing crosses in. From one such cross by Bruno Murray headed in to Pope’s gloves when it was easier to score.

Then we broke quickly and Stephens, Knockaert and Propper combined. The ball came across the six yard box at, to be fair, a real speed. Knockaert still managed to turn it goalwards but somehow it hit the post rather than the back of the net.

Corners were also being forced and we looked like we’d worked just as hard on attacking set pieces. A near post corner from the left was perfectly met with a Dunk header but Burnley had a man back to head off the line. From another the ball spat out to the right and Duffy chased it down, going down under a challenge with the crowd howling for a penalty. Nothing doing from referee Chris Kavanagh.

But then the moment it looked like we’d get what we deserved. An excellent long ball over the top down the right channel saw Murray on side and controlling the ball perfectly before driving in to the box. He too went down under challenge – arguably a more benign one than Duffy had suffered – and Kavanagh pointed to the spot. Here we go we thought. Murray rarely misses from twelve yards but this was one of those rare moment. The net remained conspicuously absent of bulge, the only people troubled by the penalty being those stood in Row Z of the North Stand.

Still we should have had another and Burnley should have had a red card, Tarkowski’s elbow in to Murray’s ribs unnoticed by Kavanagh. Somehow we went in 0-0 but the only disheartening thing at this stage was the missed penalty. We were massively on top. Surely a goal was coming?

But if ever there was a game that proved you need to take your chances at this level, this was it. Dyche rallied his troops and Burnley got more of the ball and began to hit us on the break. Enter Mat Ryan and a series of outstanding point blank saves that earned him a deserved man of the match. A ping-pong series after a quick break actually ended with Burnley scoring, but from an offside position. One of Burnley’s three ex-Brighton strikers, Chris Wood, was put through on the right but his chip was brilliantly clawed out of the air by Ryan. Our attacks were becoming fewer and fewer but there was still another nearly moment, Knockaert weaving his magic and shooting from an acute angle, which got a deflection and sent the ball agonisingly ahead of Murray’s sliding boot and then agonisingly wide of the post. The subsequent corner came to nowt.

The worrying thing for Brighton fans was our substitutions, each of which weakened the side rather than providing fresh impact. Burnley dealt with Hemed, on for Murray, far better than they had with Murray. Izquierdo came on too late to have an impact. And then there’s Brown. Now, you can imagine it’s not been easy for him. Injured early on, asked to play lone striker at Arsenal of all places, and then used mostly off the bench he still hasn’t settled. Yesterday he looked like a 10 year old who’d never had to make a decision in the top third of the pitch.  Horribly ponderous and about as bothered as Leon Best, every touch said “I wish I’d stayed at Huddersfield”. The nadir was his with Izquierdo haring in to space, and Brown with all the time in the world to find him, the ball was still played behind, slowing the whole move down and forcing a pass wide to Bong who produced a ball of sheer horror quality.

Did I mention that Duffy won’t be playing  next week due to the most blatant and unnecessary hand ball in history? Or that Dunk is now one off suspension because he couldn’t keep his mouth closed?

Should I be more positive? I was reminded today that this is the Premier League after all and, of course, we were never going to find it easy. We’re still 13th. There are a lot of teams in the same points bracket as us. We’re getting 30,000 at home, 3000 away and seeing football from the best league in the world. We’re famous in India. But we’re also missing penalties, missing from four yards out, having our keeper be man of the match every week, getting silly bookings and failing to score or convert winning positions at home against relatively poor sides. As a fan it’s an interesting ride. As a blogger I’m compelled to point out both sides of the story.

Palace at Home – Shambles

Thank Christ. With my loyalty points nowhere near enough for the return, should I be interested, which after last night I’m not, that’s that for another season. Frankly we’ll have to draw them in about the semi-finals of the Cup for me to want to bother with all that again.

Something I’ve heard a couple of times on trains and in the ground, presumably from people who share a season ticket in a group, is ‘the one game I really wanted was Palace’. I can vaguely understand this. Yes, if we beat them then you want to be there, yes the atmosphere is febrile, but everything else is a massive pain in the arse. Last night that included the football.

So bad was it that it’s barely worth discussing, so I won’t for a bit, except to say that if you’re as bad going forwards as Palace are then it’s no wonder you end up cheering as a bunch of repressed Mummy’s Boy teenagers from Reigate, dressed as a cross between a Gothic polar explorer and an 8 year old who’s borrowed his brother’s hoodie, throw rook scarers and snort baking powder. This is as exciting as it gets at Palace right now. Last night we went down to their level.

All day I had the feeling I was dreading the evening, for you live on your nerves in these games. I left early and went straight to the ground, avoiding an incident that was later described to me by a friend as “Brighton fans attacking other Brighton fans that they thought were Palace fans”. I’ve no idea if this was actually true but it sums up the general idiocy that engulfed just about everyone involved last night. Arriving on the concourse I was one of the first, though beaten to it by another couple of people heavily involved in Brighton Fan media and also experienced enough to know it’s best to get there early.

Idiocy you say? Well let’s take the security, just for a minute. As kick off arrived some 150 Palace fans were locked outside, some with tickets according to our club statement, as others had taken their seats, unentitled, unsearched and unsniffed. Such a selfish act I cannot imagine and the hope is very much that those ticket holders locked out have a “little word” with those who took their places over the coming weeks. They certainly should do. This whole thing just served to prove several things that we all knew all along:

  • The game should have been a Sunday lunchtime, not an evening
  • Restricting Palace’s allocation was counter productive
  • The “special train” serves only to inconvenience Brighton fans.

The game? Oh, if I must. Talking to @TimJones15 on Twitter last nigh it was clear that the best phrase to describe the midfield action was “inexplicably gave the ball away”. We inexplicably gave the ball away. Then they did. Then we did again. To me, to you, to me, to you. Chuckle.

Duane Dibley was casting a figure as a hilariously bad panto villain, played out of position by Hodgson and accompanying the equally woeful Benteke in not doing much. Still, the one time they did get it right up front they cut us open and Ryan produced an unbelievably fantastic double save, our best moment of the evening. Where Palace did excel was in closing down the space we operated in, shutting down and crowding midfield. Knocky huffed, puffed, twisted and turned but Murray and Gross didn’t have the pace or guile to get on the end of anything. In the first half Stephens shanked a decent looking left footed second ball in to the scum and in the second Murray’s header was cleared off the line by Hennesey from our 565th corner of the half, each of the previous ones having either been adequately dealt with or kicked out before curling back in.

Sorry, this is short but it’s as much as I want to write about a night to forget. As an advert for the Premier League it was up there with those shit Pearl and Dean cinema ads for the corner shop that sold Razzle.