Date: 16th January 2011 at 3:45pm
Written by:

As my wife was poorly and tucked up in bed in the evening, reading a romcom novel, hankie in hand (rather, two: one for her nose and one for her eyes), I was able to view the MC match three times yesterday.

I would also have used the recording as a reference point for my report today, had I not accidentally deleted it last night, the blunder caused by my inability to understand the instructions set out in the manual that accompanied my new Sky+ box (bought to avoid marital discord over Saturday evening TV) .

Repeated viewings, however, only increased my confusion. Was it another tale of plucky but inevitable defeat, a closely fought battle amongst equals or a missed opportunity? So, to clear my head of conflicting thoughts (and Gales HSB) I set off on my bike this morning. I was well on the way to rationalising the defeat, for reasons I will set out below, but at that moment I passed Chelsea`s training ground and changed my opinion. If we could beat Chelsea, why not Manchester City?

And we could have done. We outplayed them for most of the first half, began strongly after the break and ended the game piling on the pressure. My abiding impression of the match is of a City team desperately hanging on and the home crowd biting down their collective finger-nails to the quick. Yet we lost. We lost because we switched off for twenty minutes, during which time MC scored three goals. We also lost because this time Tevez played and he made the difference. His first goal, reminiscent of Maradona`s strike against England in the 1986 World Cup, was a brilliant solo effort, but benefited from sloppy defending. We gave him a free header for his second goal too!

This match exemplified the paradox of our season. We could have – should have – won the match by half-time, having squandering several gilt-edged chances. Jarvis was particularly at fault, on 19 minutes shooting at a defender after good approach work from Hunt and Fletcher. Even so, had we gone into the break in front, we might have been facing a jittery MC team in the second half, and a crowd rapidly getting restive. Given all our pressure, was it only my pessimism that told me this was not going to happen? Clearly not!

So, a revitalised, buoyed-up City came out and turned the game round, aided by Tevez`s wonder goal on 49 minutes. In short, our opponents took their chances, whereas we didn`t. After the fourth goal went in, I thought we might lose by a cricket score. And we might have done if Lescott had not kindly gifted us a penalty. I reckon we should bid for him: he evidently wants to help us survive in the PL!

From one point of view, therefore, it was the same old story: playing well but losing because of sloppy defending (watching the replays I thought that all four goals were avoidable) and a failure to kill the game off. We did score three goals but preferably they should have gone in before the opposition had notched up four. And the penalty, which ignited our revival, was an extremely soft one.

However, it would be churlish to write off the team`s performance as merely more of the same. We outplayed one of the best teams in the land for much of the game and we stuck to the task in spite of the hopelessness of our position. Indeed, we might have earned a draw had Mujangi Bia`s shot not been deflected wide. Moreover, this was not the bickering, half-hearted MC that had semi-turned up at Molineux but a confident, classy outfit playing at the top of their game, with the bonus of Tevez and Dzeko up-front.

For once, then, I can find solace in a plucky defeat. We have definitely upped our game, especially against the top sides (so, why not against the Wigans and WHUs?). We are genuinely capable of taking points off any team in the league, but we have to operate at this intensity in every match, focus for the entire 90+ minutes and put away our chances when they come along. We may not beat them but the prospect of facing MU and Arsenal next month does not fill me with the same degree of foreboding as it used to do. As for Liverpool, Bolton and Blackpool: bring them on!

Among the positives to take out of the game was the blossoming of the partnership between Doyle and Fletcher up-front. Doyle, as ever, looked sharp, but Fletcher also produced some delightful touches. I liked the look of Mujangi Bia, too: does anyone else feel that he has been shamefully under-used? He`s quick, elusive, passes well and possesses a good shot, which he is not unafraid to unleash. His well-flighted corner (much better than Jarvis`s efforts) led to Zubar`s goal. I am confident that we will improve our scoring rate in the remaining games.

As for the defence, an assessment of their overall performance has to take into account the number of goals we leaked. Both Berra and Stearman performed competently but self-evidently made errors. Apart from the four scored, one mistake by Berra almost cost us another goal. At least, it showed that Hennessey was up to the job. Ward made several crucial tackles but still backed off too much, a weakness that continues to prove costly (but he is not alone in this shortcoming). In Zubar, we might have found the answer to our left back problem. He was immense in attack and defence, and his goals are going to come in handy too.

In midfield we need Henry there to strengthen our defence. Had he been on the pitch earlier, we would have conceded fewer goals. Milijas impressed once again (and why doesn`t he take all the corners and free kicks?), though he crucially misjudged the weight of a cross in the dying minutes that could have produced a goal. Jones, on the other hand, remained largely anonymous … sell him soon for what we can get.

When I straightened up after cleaning my bike at the end of the ride, my second thought (my first thought was, ‘Ow, My poor back!`) was one of disappointment. It was not the equaliser that annoyed me (I expected it, even if, when it came, it was preventable) but rather the manner in which we fell apart in a twenty minute period in the second half. Our fight-back was gutsy and commendable but we should not have put ourselves in that position. How soon will Craddock be back?