Another match report from Bazza.
Like many, I cannot believe that I’ve woken up this morning and we remain unbeaten in 11 games a record since the 1907-08 season when we only won three games in that 11 game spell and got relegated at the end of the season to boot! I had the company of my eldest son for the 171 miles trip to Stoke-on-Trent which made what would have been a dull trudge up the motorways of England a lot more enjoyable. My son is home from University for Christmas and it was good to have him along for the trip as so often in the past but he has the added value of being of an age now where he can share the driving.
It was a cold but bright day and we arrived in time to grab a drink and a bite to eat at the Harvester pub right outside the ground. Sadly, for the first time this season I encountered the only bit of unpleasantness from an opposition fan this year when walking towards the ground a Stoke fan spat in the direction of my son but fortunately missed. His smug, self satisfied grin would have been wiped off his face had he hit the target as my boy is over 6 foot 2 and has a strong sense of moral justice.
The Britannia is a modern stadium, a far cry from the old Victoria ground and when full it packs a punch as far as atmosphere is concerned and the Potters fans do everything in their power to make sure that an intimidating, hostile welcome is afforded to visitors, an attitude mirrored by their team who are highly physical and rely heavily on muscular wearing down of the opposition. They have a simple ideology; win as many set pieces as possible, launch them into the opposition box and win the headers both primary and secondary. Corners and free kicks added to Delap’s long throw-ins from both flanks all add up to a continual aerial bombardment and so it was to prove for the Birmingham defence in this game. This strategy is of course what has brought Stoke their success but I fear that sides are beginning to suss them out and devise plans to counteract it.
The game went very much as I expected and it was a matter of concern whether Blues could stand firm after an exhausting schedule culminating in the energy sapping draw against the League leaders in our last match. I needn’t of worried as once again the back four protected by the terrier like Bowyer and the imperious Barry Ferguson stood up to the challenge without once blinking. They simply refused to be bullied by their tall, physical opponents even when there was a mismatch in height as Stephen Carr found when up against just about anybody in the Stoke side.
A special mention has to go to Scott Dann who seemed to head just about everything launched at us. He was brave to the point of reckless with regard to his own safety at times and this comment does not detract from the huge contribution made by his fellow central defender Roger Johnson and like our manager I am running out of superlatives to describe these boys at the moment. Nevertheless, teams need a little bit of luck when continually bombarded as Stoke are wont to do and Huth and Shawcross both missed excellent chances to score from close range from corners especially the latter who surprised by the fact that the ball got to him two yards out at the far post failed to react in time and the ball sped by and away to safety.
The breakthrough came for Blues in the fourth minute of the second half when following a blocked goal bound shot from Benitez that flew over the bar off Delap, the resulting corner to the far post was headed back across goal by Johnson. It hit the unlucky Shawcross and Cameron Jerome was first to react and smashed the ball against Sorenson from two yards. The ex-Villa man was unable to keep the shot out and he could only parry it into his inside netting. This was all happening at the other end of the pitch to where the faithful stood and it took what seemed like eternity to register with us that we had actually scored and the celebrations that ensued were in reaction to the players wheeling away with their arms aloft.
I must confess that I thought Chucho had had his initial shot saved and Jerome must have followed up given that he was credited with the goal by the stadium announcer; in short I hadn’t a scooby what had occurred until I saw it on MotD later in the evening. No matter, it was a goal but its timing meant that we had an awfully long period to hold out and the inevitable onslaught from Stoke came in short order.
Joe Hart made two fabulous saves from Etherington and Faye whose goal bound header was brilliantly fended off at the foot of the post by Hart’s powerful right wrist. These were to prove to be match winning moments. After this ten minute flurry, Stoke continued to huff and puff but could not break down the resolute Blues defence.
Tony Pulis moaned about the referee saying that officials were not giving his team fair shares as they want to show they can’t be influenced by the frenzied Stoke support. This is nonsense of course but he had a point about the shirt pulling by Carr on Huth which was pretty blatant. What was glossed over by Pulis and the MotD pundits was that Huth was fouling Carr before the incident. However, Carr was lucky to get away with the shirt pull and he would have had to have gone off if the referee had decided to act having already been yellow carded earlier for dissent following a simply appalling decision when a free kick was awarded against him when it was he who had been clearly fouled. The other thing that the BBC also failed to highlight was the clear foul on Benitez in the box when the Ecuadorian shaped to shoot in the box at the end of the first half. This was a clear penalty so it evens out I suppose.
Tony Pulis can have no complaints about this result or the fact that his team have only one win in nine games. They are a strong powerful team but lack creativity and guile in their midfield. The one dimensional, direct approach may have worked in their first season in the Premier League but they have as I’ve suggested been rumbled and unless they adapt a struggle in the second half of the season is what they can expect. I don’t expect that they will be in relegation trouble however; they will have too much power for teams in the lower reaches of the division for that despite their limitations.
As for Blues, this fine run must be kept in perspective. There is a lot of work to do to improve the team and mould them into the sort of side that can appear regularly in the top half of the table. A top striker, creative midfielder and a proper left full back and perhaps a wide man with pace should be the priorities in that order. This squad needs improving not disrupting. 40 points is the only objective at this juncture.
Happy New Year to noses everywhere!