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COLUMNIST KEN BUCKLEY

From My Seat: Stoke (H)

By Ken Buckley :  14/03/2009 :  Comments (0) :
Another three points that almost ensures Euro footy next season from a game that could not be described meaningfully as a game of two halves because every game has two halves but rather a game of contrasting performances half to half. On the managers 7th anniversary, the first half reinforced the notion of how far we have come under his leadership and the second half showed how easy it is to slip back to the ways of year 1.

In that first half, we showed by way of plenty of joined up football, good workrate and quickness of thought that indeed we were way ahead of a workmanlike Stoke. James Beattie returned to a good ovation and apart from a couple of comic moments that's all we saw of him.

The Blues were at it from the off with Baines and Pienaar showing good understanding down the left and it was this combination that gave us our first chance by supplying Osman with a chance that he should have done better with. The joined-up footy was evident all over the pitch and with Neville and Cahill running the midfield area it was no surprise when the first goal came.

Fellaini, whose visit to the tonsorial artist had transformed him into a 8 foot Pienaar lookalike as well as making him card free, combined well with an improved Jo and we saw the latter shoot under the keeper and open the scoreing.

Then the Brazilian delighted us with a series of 'stepovers' in the box before laying of a pass that came to nought but gave rise to the thought that he may become known as 'RonaldJo'!

More good build-up that Stoke found hard to handle resulted in the second goal when Osman put in a cross that was met by that heading machine Cahill and the keeper could only parry it as far as Lescott who netted with some aplomb. More good work from Jo and he found Osman who once again missed the target from 12yds.

Half-time... looking good and the chat centred on Wembley tickets and the cost of going; most thought the club should extend the 'Early Bird' period for a couple of weeks as the closing date is just a day before Wembley.

Second half and Cahill is replaced by Saha with Fellaini dropping back to partner Neville. Whether this move triggered the second-half non-performance I don't know but, where we had been confident in thought and application, we were now uncertain and a touch panicky.

Passes missed their mark, hoofball started to raise its ugly head and Stoke seemed to sense a fightback was on. Less than ten minutes in and the usually dependable Jags switched off at a throw-in and forced Yobo to make a last ditch challenge that resulted in a corner.

From that corner Shawcross, unmarked(!), got in a powerfull header that beat Howard to the corner of the net... hell, we were defending a corner with no-one on the posts!! Made me wonder — Was that a planned tactic or player error?

Stoke and their vociferous fans re-awoke and bombed us, balls rained in on us as we defended and broke with little or no conviction. Fuller joined the fray and was only denied by a Lescott timely tackle. Shawcross again got on the end of a header and missed what looked an open goal. Two long range efforts narrowly flashed wide, close enough to bring Oohs and Ahhrs from both sets of fans.

Slowly we did start to reassert ourselves and mainly through good hold-up work and thoughtful layoff's from Jo others started to respond as the clock ticked down. The manager made a change by bringing Rodwell on; I thought it would be for the misfiring Fellaini who had looked anything but comfotable in mid-field but no, it was the excellent Jo who made way and Fellaini once more moved forward to partner the striker, leaving the fledgling Rodwell to help shore up the mid-field.

Sometimes the manager's substitutions baffle me but he was proved spot on as, after Piennaar had missed a sitter when the keeper could only parry the ball into his path, that man Fellaini after the most ungainly piece of control, fired on goal and via a deflection we were home and dry in injury time.

Final whistle, the DJ played 'Grand Old Team' but today didn't bother to switch off at the 'If yer know yer 'istory' bit. Anyone who does player ratings would today have to compile one for each half, such was the discrepancy. Over the whole match I thought only Lescott, Baines, Neville and my 'Man of the match' Jo showed the consistency needed to keep our good run going.

In the games to be played before Wembley, we have an excellent chance of taking maximum points and the players need to take note of that second half performance to ensure we do.

That second half seemed to indicate that, when the chips are down and the going gets tough and we lose the centre mid-field, then Jags makes Hibbert look world class at right back and both Osman and Pienaar are as weak as wet lettuce.

Still much for the manager to work on down Finch Farm way to ensure enforced changes don't cost us to dearly. UP THE BLUES

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