Monday, 18 January 2010

Liverpool (h) Saturday 16th January - A scrappy but deserved point.

It was slow at first, a whisper here, a subtle piece of punditry there, but somehow Stoke City were being touted as favourites for this game. First Liverpool lost to Reading in the Cup, then their three star players Gerrard, Torres and Benayoun were ruled out for several weeks a piece. Before you knew what was happening, unfashionable Stoke were being tipped to further Rafa's misery and provide yet another exciting installment in the scouse soap opera.

I could see the logic, the scousers were on a poor run of late, far from the force they were last season and a shadow of the side that tonked us 4-0 at Anfield back in August. With their three main (if not only) goal threats out injured and an uncharacteristically dubious defence, it was all set up for Stoke to pile on the misery. Or so the media and any neutral fan who I spoke to the few days before match day would have me believe. Naturally, I had other ideas.

Now granted, this was the best chance we'd have to beat Liverpool in a long while, but to think this game would be an easy one for Stoke was just silly. While they may have been hideously under performing of late, Liverpool's squad is still peppered with international stars of considerable calibre. Kuyt, Lucas, Mascherano, Aurelio, Carragher, even poor old Alberto 'money well spent' Aquilani, are all quality players with the ability to cause Stoke problems.

In addition to this, we cannot for a second underestimate Stoke City's considerable ability to produce a monstrous anti-climax. While we played brilliantly away at Villa and for 45 minutes against Fulham, we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at Hull and went AWOL for 45 minutes against Wolves. Stoke are far from consistent this season and the Britannia is no longer the impenetrable fortress it once appeared.

So with cautious optimism, I went into this fixture, aware that we perhaps could cause an upset, but never forgetting that while the cavalcade of comedy that is Liverpool's abject failure this season is highly amusing to all and sundry, it doesn't guarantee three points for the Potters.

In my eyes the Rafa saga has been done to death now by the media and there is little more to be said about the slightly unhinged Spaniard. A list of his unsuccessful signings and the millions he has spunked up the proverbial wall ( www.redandwhitekop/forum/index.php?topic=249365.0 ) makes for astonishing reading. Furthermore, when he opts for unproven flop Degen in a midfield role over Aquilani, the most expensive bench warmer in town, you can't help but question his methods. He has put together a squad that basically revolves around two players, messers Torres and Gerrard. Even more foolishly he decides to build a squad with only one recognised first team striker, thus ensuring that whenever Torres picks up a slight knock, rather than rest up and get fit, he has to play on and make things worse.

Consider the glut of strikers Liverpool have offloaded in recent years, Crouch, Bellamy, Keane, Morientes. Surely one of these proven goalscorers could have been kept hold of in case fragile old Fernando takes a slight knock. Not so it seems. Rafa's decided he's just fine with Fernando Torres, Dirk "second touch is always a tackle'" Kuyt and David Ngog. Oh Rafa.

Of course Rafa also persisted for two and a half seasons with the woefully inept Andriy Voronin, a player so useless he made David Ngog look like a viable option. The Ukrainian striker was clearly out of his depth in the Premier League and knowing his obvious limitations, it raises further questions about Rafa's thinking. Did he really see Voronin as an attacking alternative going into this campaign? Whatever his thinking, one thing's for sure, unless he secures the signing of a second quality striker in this transfer window, it's difficult to see where Liverpool's goals come from in Torres's absence.

The first half of this dismal encounter was fairly even and with very little incident. Liverpool got the ball to their midfielders, who gamely ran about a lot but visibly panicked when their big brother Steven wasn't there to pass to, or indeed their strangely attractive sister Fernando wasn't there to sprint into space.

Instead they were stuck with David Ngog, a man who appeared to be merely impersonating a professional footballer this afternoon. He could well be the most ineffective forward I've seen at Stoke this season. Sometimes with players, you have to accept that the manager sees them on the training ground all week, he sees him play week in week out, he knows all too well what that player can do. However, quite how Rafa feels Ngog is the an acceptable choice to lead a club like Liverpool's forward line is astonishing. Even Dirk 'Iain Dowie's long lost Dutch brother' Kuyt would surely be a more valid option.

Shawcross and Huth easily contain him the entire game and it's down to the sprightly Lucas to pose some attacking threat. The busy midfielder charged into the Stoke penalty area mid way through the first half and appeared to be pole-axed by a lunging Danny Higginbotham. Luckily for us, the referee decided Lucas had dived and waved their penalty claim away before booking the aghast Lucas. Now replays do suggest the Brazilian may have gone to ground rather theatrically when Higgy scythed him down, but for me the defender clearly made contact and Lucas couldn't of stayed on his feet if they were encased in cement. Nevertheless, a brave and courageous decision from ref Lee Mason and one I wholeheartedly endorse.

Stoke lost both Abdoulaye Faye and Rory Delap in the first half. Rory was predictably playing on the right wing in order to accommodate Salif Diao in the middle, much to the continuing frustration of the Potters faithful. It is a general consensus that if Rory has to be played, then he is more effective in the centre then out wide. Diao actually played well today, but his ultra-defensive nature and astonishing lack of attacking prowess, is not particularly becoming of a home team searching for a win.

Rory went off with a calf strain with around 20 minutes gone and was replaced by Liam Lawrence, who for me has still to prove himself as a Premiership midfielder. He's undeniably a tireless worker who, on his day, can change a game. Recently however he has simply not produced the goods with too many misplaced passes, and far too few goals. Rory's throw ins are a superb asset to utilise against the better teams in the league. I firmly subscribe to the view that relying on his long throw every week is often a counterproductive tactic. However in most away games and in home games against the top 6/7 teams, it could well prove to be our best chance of a goal. When Rory went off, so with it went our only threat on goal thus far in the game.

The second half began much as the first ended, with both teams doing their best to ensure the Match of the Day editors had the toughest job possible to put together match 'highlights'.

On 57 minutes, Liverpool earned a dubious free-kick and defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos bundled the resultant cross over the line from yards out after a Sorenson fumble. The travelling fans rejoiced and Match of the Day editors thanked the lord for something at last to work with.

The next half an hour or so of football was far from pretty but nevertheless vintage Stoke. Free kicks, crosses, even long throws (who knew Salif Diao is an acceptable long throw deputy, obtaining an impressive distance if not the same velocity as the Delapinator), were constantly launched into the Liverpool box. Reina and his defence held on valiantly and almost did enough to secure the win.

Ricardo Fuller was brought on with 66 minutes played, and he once again made a huge difference. His powerful runs and dogged determination was a constant thorn in the Scousers' side and he must have won us at least 4 corners all on his own. It was off one such corner that our chance finally came in the 89th minute. The ball floated to the back post where Higgy headed it back across goal. A faint flick on from Diao and it fell perfectly at Huth's feet for him to smack it into the net from yards out.

You really can't beat a last minute goal when it goes for your team. The fact that it was yet another disappointment for the beleaguered scouse away following made it all the sweeter. The crowd knew just how important this goal was, earning us a valuable point in a game we could very easily have lost. The ensuing celebrations were up there with the best of the season so far.

There was still time for Dirk 'I wonder what his real middle name is' Kuyt to miss an absolute sitter in the last few seconds of extra time (arguably thus demonstrating why Rafa doesn't want him leading the line). Luckily his diving header rebounded back off the post and the still celebrating crowd collectively exhaled a huge sigh of relief.

Another disappointment for Rafa and his multi-million pound squad of European also rands. A priceless point for us.

Anyone who has read this blog before may remember me bemoaning our bad luck in the Villa away game and how I questioned whether this bad luck would eventually even itself out over the course of the season. Well, after Shawcross's blatant handball against Fulham went unpunished and Liverpool's solid penalty appeal was waved away here, perhaps it's fair to say what goes around has truly come around.

It'll take more than luck to win our next game though, on-fire Arsenal are at the Brit for red-hot FA cup action. I sense the Match of the Day editing team are slightly more excited about their prospects for this encounter.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Fulham (h) Tuesday 5th January - Making hard work of it.

Due to the arctic conditions engulfing Britain this week, I reluctantly gave my midweek trip back to the Potteries a rethink. The game went ahead, but I decided against making the trek as the risk of being stranded in central Manchester upon my return was not one I felt like taking.

Luckily for me however, due to the Manchester Carling Cup derby being cancelled and Sky Sports desperately needing to fill the vacant footballing void, they took their cameras to Ice Station Britannia and covered our clash against Fulham.

It was a slightly surreal experience watching a Stoke home game on TV. I couldn't stop thinking of the various sights and sounds I was missing out on. The smell of over-priced offal burgers wafting through the air. The team walking out to "We'll be with you", Stoke's official 'hit' single from our glorious 1972 League Cup win. That first guttural roar from the crowd as we go on our first attack. Even the first clueless moan from the elderly woman who has sat behind me for the past 5 or 6 years has it's own endearing nature to it. Despite all the football she has seen, she still doesn't quite grasp the concept of playing the ball back to the keeper ("oh nooooo what's he going that way for!!!!"). Then however, I looked outside and saw the blanket of ice and snow and thought of how cold the Brit could be even in the height of summer......perhaps I wasn't missing out that much.

The visitors edged the first 10 minutes, but then the Turkish terror Tuncay (mmm that's good alliteration), nodded home from close range to give us the lead. Fulham's defence struggled to contain our aerial threat from set pieces for the whole game with our centre halves Shawcross and Faye, as well as big Mama Sidibe, winning countless headers and causing all sorts of problems.

Stoke haven't scored more than two goals in the Premiership since we beat Villa 3-2 in our first home game last season. Over 50 games have come and gone since that glorious day and in very few has such a feat even seemed a remote possibility. When Faye scrambled home our second goal on 34 minutes from yet another set piece, the unthinkable looked to be on. Fulham couldn't handle our physical presence and Tuncay and Etherington were once again running a defence ragged.

Five minutes later and after a superb passing move that once again belied our route-one reputation, Etherington flicked on to Mama and Sidibe shocked everyone by providing a lethal finish to rocket the ball into the back of the net. A Mama goal is rare enough, but one with his feet is almost unheard of. Nevertheless, he confidently stroked it home and sent us into the half time break 3 goals to the good.

Job done. 3 points in the bag. Stoke were cruising and could really have been 4 or 5 goals up. According to Jeff Stelling and Alan Curbishley in the studio, the game was already won.

Oh how little they know. I guarantee there wouldn't have been a single Stoke fan in that stadium who at half time didn't turn to their companions and mutter "it's not safe yet". Maybe it's due to years of under achievement and disappointment that we Stoke fans are naturally a pessimistic people. Maybe it's due to the countless squandered leads so far this season (Wolves and Chelsea at home, Hull and Everton away spring to mind). Regardless of what led to this mentality, one thing for sure is that Stoke fans are always wary of our own team's remarkable ability to make hard work of anything.

As expected, Tony clearly told the boys to sit back and soak up pressure in the second half. I say 'as expected' because Tony clearly tells the boys to sit back and soak up pressure when we are a goal down away from home. The fact he advised it today was hardly surprising. We looked solid for a while but on the hour mark Duff took a long range effort that received an unfortunate deflection to send it beyond Simonsen in the Stoke goal. It was around this point I adopted my usual 'Stoke holding onto a lead' stance, head in hands, top pulled up to below nose, glancing out gingerly through fingers.

The game was fairly even for most of the second half, Fuller had come on to replace the injured Tuncay in the first and he continued where the Turk left off. Riccy twisted and turned and created a couple of good chances for himself, one of which seemed destined for the far corner only for Schwarzer to deny him with a fantastic reaction save.

Sure enough, with 85 minutes played, Fulham's Clint Dempsey smashed home a superb volley from some distance out which looped over a stranded Simmo and set up the nerviest of finishes. I could imagine the change in atmosphere this goal caused at the Brit all too well. Nervous glances would be exchanged, conversations become more heated and the 'Stoke holding onto a lead' stance would become more widespread. The crushing inevitability of Stoke throwing away a seemingly unassailable lead was slowly coming to pass.

Or so I thought. Somehow the unthinkable happened and the Stoke team dug in and kept Fulham at bay to hold on for the much needed win. Naturally there was to be 5 minutes of injury time played first. This is barely a surprise anymore, few games at the Brit incur anything less than 4 minutes extra time and it's simply become accepted practice.

Far from being the enjoyable rout promised by the first half, the game turned into a tortuous slog that was to be endured almost as a punishment. When the final whistle went, I didn't leap around or cheer like one might after a typical 3-2 victory. I simply sat back and exhaled for what seemed like the first time in ten minutes, letting out a hard earned sigh of relief.

I was relieved not only to have held on for the win, but also to have ended our poor streak of late and to have once again remembered how to score goals. We may have made hard work of it, but we got there in the end.

It was undeniably a fine 3-2 victory. Just once though i'd like to really hammer a team. I'd like to sit back and patronisingly laugh as our third or fourth goal went it. I'd like to goad the away fans with chants like "you're not very good" and "time to go", classics you can only really trot out when the victory is assured. These laid back and leisurely games are a thing of the past for us now however. Gone are the days where we could take a lead at home and look commanding and unflappable. Now we are in the big leagues, any time we take the lead at home it's cause for the paramedic's to be on stand by a mass outbreak of panic attacks. One day perhaps we'll whip someone 3 or 4 nil, but for now, I fear i'll be seeing a lot more of the 'Stoke holding onto a lead' stance.

Right now however, we are on 24 points and 10th in the league. Things are looking up. It's amazing what a difference a game makes.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Aston Villa (a) Sat 19th December / Man City (a) Sat 26th December / Birmingham (h) Mon 28th December - A festive programme to forget

With the festive season now a distant memory and the drudgery of normal life back upon us once again, it occurred to me that I'd been rather sloppy of late and had missed entries for the past three league games. I would come up with some big excuse, but in all honesty it was down purely to a Christmas bout of extreme laziness.

These three games involved three defeats, four goals conceded and none scored by the boys in red and white. Ahhhh the joys of a packed Christmas programme.

With the Premier League season now over half way through, this poor run of results doesn't bode well, and whilst far from being a disaster, certainly leaves Stoke staring nervously at the wrong end of the table.

Prior to the Fulham game, we sit in 12th position with 21 points and a game in hand over most other teams. This in itself is not a bad record by any means, but a record of two draws and four losses in our last six Premiership games doesn't fill you with confidence.

Last year it was the stunning late fightback against Aston Villa which kick started our brilliant end of season run and came to epitomise our dogged never-say-die mentality. This season however, it was an excruciating let down and was typical of the poor luck and woeful finishing that has thus far epitomised our current campaign.

It really was a disappointing game, the type that it takes a few days to come to terms with, the type where I couldn't watch the Match of the Day highlights for around 5 days afterwards out of fear of smashing the TV into pieces with nothing but a sky remote. We really deserved something from this game with Etherington and Tuncay running the Villa defence ragged. Both missed good chances to give us a much needed goal with Tuncay in particular tormenting the Villa defence. Unfortunately it finished 1-0 to the home side as we rued missing several good hances.

Villa just about edged the first half but created very little in the second. Far from looking like a top 4 side, they looked sluggish and lightweight going forward and England starlets Milner and Young struggled to make an impact. Overall Villa looked tired, but after games against Man United and Sunderland in close succession, I suppose a bit of tiredness was to be expected. They celebrated this win as though it was one of the biggest games of the season, and it was undeniably a hard fought and precious victory for Villa as they push for a coveted Champions League spot.

What left a slightly bitter taste in Stoke mouth's however was the controversial disallowing of Mama Sidibe's perfectly legitimate goal. When decisions like this one go against you it's hard to keep perspective and not feel like you faced a great injustice the likes of which no other team ever has to suffer. Mama ran onto a superb Etherington cross and out muscling his defender (with arms barely raised mind), he nodded the ball firmly into the net. The defender Warnock went over rather easily, but to his credit didn't seem to be claiming a foul himself. The ref however managed to see an infraction and ruled out the goal. As one pundit noted after the game, if that was a foul, then Alan Shearer would barely of scored a goal in his career. A terrible, costly decision.

That goal would have put us in the lead and completely altered the course of the game. Once Villa scored however we were always up against it. In football, lightning very rarely strikes twice in the same place and there was to be no repeat of last season's heroics. Throughout the game we were guilty of missing several good chances, but we were definitely worthy of at least a point. On another day, and with a different referee, we could have produced another shock result, but alas it wasn't to be.

The Man City away game on Boxing Day was unfortunately not to be attended by yours truly due to family commitments. Whilst me and Keeling senior were far from averse to spending the day away from a house full of family in chilly Manchester, the fear of repercussions from respective better halves ensured that this match was one followed on the TV with Jeff and the boys.

Luckily, our decision paid off after all as we sank to a bland 2-0 defeat. By all accounts Stoke were never really in the game and posed little or no threat going forward.
Last season we faced City at Eastlands early on in our campaign and were taken to school by a certain Mr Robinho. That day we were outclassed and woefully ill-prepared. Today, while far from being as dominated as last season, we still showed no real sign of breaking City down.

The game came and went with little fanfare, and once it was over it was straight back to the leftovers, Roses and general over indulgence. This was definitely the easiest defeat of the season so far to get over. It's almost liked the memory of the Villa game numbed me to away-day pain. It's the games where you come so close to getting a result that really smart. This away day was never really within our grasp and the result was fairly predictable.

To complete the festive programme there was a Christmas home game against local rivals Birmingham City. Here was a great chance to get back on track and bring some much needed seasonal cheer to Potters fans. Unfortunately Brum were on a spectacular run and hadn't lost in ten games coming into this encounter. They were hot off a well earned draw against Chelsea at home and were always going to be a tough team to break down.

Earlier this season Stoke travelled to St. Andrews and came away with a draw themselves. We were the better team that day and Brum looked particularly lacklustre. I commented then that they would struggle this season and would get torn apart unless they changed something pronto. Thus proving that even yours truly is capable of Merson like football knowledge at times.

Somehow this rag-tag Brum team has pulled together and defied the odds to become a true force to be reckoned with. At a freezing Britannia Stadium they gritted their teeth and thanks to a commanding performance from Joe Hart in goal and resolute defending from their back four, they kept Stoke at bay. (A rugged and unattractive side pulling together and getting by on guts and teamwork....sounds oddly familiar.) They stuck away their one half chance and then defended stubbornly to leave with a memorable 'smash and grab' point.

These are the type of home games we were winning last season and we really can't afford to lose too many more matches against our mid-table rivals.

Stoke haven't scored in three Premier League games now, and only managed 4 in the last 8 outings. We also have the lowest amount of total goals scored in the league. Tone has given all four strikers a chance in the first team and none of them has gone on a goal scoring run. Beattie has looked worryingly unfit, Mama is as lethal as ever, Fuller and Tuncay both work hard but aren't taking their chances.

With the transfer window now open again, Tone may have one eye on a proven goalscorer to lead the line. I wouldn't give up on our forwards yet, as 3 out of the 4 of them are proven goalscorers in their own right, but how long can Tone give them before he seeks reinforcements?
A hugely disappointing festive period for Stoke, and a poor run that we need to put an end to sooner rather than later.