Let It Snow, Let It Snow, let It Snow.
So, was it a point gained fellow Vital Villans, or another two points needlessly tossed away? Sadly I have to go with the latter, as once again we failed to drive home our advantage, gained during the course of a fairly impressive first half performance. After the break we failed to shut up shop at the back, stopped working and chasing, allowing West Bromwich to get back into the game, press us back, and ultimately those all too familiar defensive lapses reared their ugly head yet again to cost us dear.
Sixteen Cup Finals. Yes, I accept that those words communicate an extremely well worn cliché, but sixteen such high pressure games are what lay ahead of us between now, and seasons end on Sunday May 19th. From The Hawthorns through to the DW Stadium, no quarter can be asked, no quarter will be given. Clubs who currently find themselves struggling at the wrong end of the premier league table, including of course, for the third successive campaign our good selves, will battle to secure the necessary points total to ensure that they will be playing premier league football when the new campaign kicks off next August. Sixteen Cup Finals. And I`m not including the two domestic cup competitions, in which of course we still maintain a varying degree of interest.
So, no time, room or place for faint hearts. It wont be easy, it wont be pretty, but now is the time for the talking to stop, the excuses to cease, because all that matters is the end result of each and every game, starting right now, at the home of our good friends and neighbours, West Bromwich Albion.
Situated at an altitude of 551 feet above sea level, The Hawthorns is the highest of all the Premier League and Football League grounds, with a ground capacity of just over 26,000. As per usual, the claret and blue faithful were housed in the Smethwick Road end, a stand which I first visited back in May 1963, to see us get beat by The Throstles, 1-0. In fact it wasn`t until the 1977-78 season that I saw our first victory there, a 3-0 success. Up until that point I`d visited The Hawthorns on ten occasions, eight league, two League Cup, seen us draw just the twice, and sadly lose the rest, including an extremely humiliating 6-1 reversal in September 1966, a second round League Cup tie.
Well it`s hardly an ‘away` game is it, the two stadiums being just what? Four miles apart, if that. Still, my lot is to provide an away day match article whenever the situation demands, so with apologies for my somewhat condensed away-day version, and with the promise that normal service will be resumed on Friday next when we drive down to South Bermondsey for the fourth round F.A. Cup tie, lets get back to the weekend`s important business, Steve Clarke`s Baggies versus Paul Lambert`s Lions.
Might be just a mini away-day drive, but it`s still the same old four of us who hop into Gary`s jalopy for the scenic drive through my old stomping ground, Royal Great Barr, making a brief sojourn at The Towers public house on the Walsall Road, before hitting the Newton Road, exposing our passports to the authorities, and entering Sandwell.
We parked just down from the nature reserve, and joined the other hearty souls who had braved the elements to cheer on their favourites. Slipping and sliding was definitely the way to go, and Andy reminded us that the last time we had ventured to The Hawthorns in such conditions was for an F.A. Cup fifth round second replay against Wolverhampton Wanderers back in 1965. We lost 3-1, on a snow covered pitch, and from rather treacherous terraces that wouldn`t be o.k.`d nowadays. Hughie Mcllmoyle notched a hat-trick for the Wolves. Bobby Park replied for us. Not a good night.
Gary commented that he hadn`t ventured to The Hawthorns with such trepidation since the days of Albion hero`s Jeff Astle, Bomber Brown, Chippy Clark, Bobby Hope and John Kaye. I seconded that, while the ever optimistic Neil said, ‘No, we`ll win today, convincingly too`.
Plenty of Villans to enter into conversation with, as we continued our trek through the winter wasteland, all expressing concern at our current predicament, all having varying degrees of optimism as to whether or not we`ll escape the plunge into the lower league. We even fell into step with friend Neil`s next door neighbour neighbour Mike, a Baggie, and his two sons, both young Villans, who were today attending their first Villa away game.
Following last weekend`s disappointing home reversal, Paul Lambert decided upon the following starting line-up, in a desperate attempt to strike upon that winning formula, and allow us to breathe new life into our season:-
Guzan, Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Baker, Bennett, Westwood, Agbonlahor, Delph, N`Zogbia, and Benteke.
The reinforcements on the bench consisted of Marshall, Lichaj, Ireland, Bannan, Holman, Bowery, and Bent.
Before the kick-off both sets of players and fans paid their respects to Albion great Derek Kevan, a guy who really knew how to find the back of the net. He had passed away recently, something I had somehow missed, aged 77.
The game got underway on a biting, bitterly cold afternoon with our lads attacking the Brummie Road end, and we actually came out of the traps quite brightly. Gabby burst down the left, beat his man and swung the ball in. Unfortunately there was no one getting in on goal to meet his cross.
We suffered an early blow though when Baker injured himself as Odemwingie took the ball past him, earning the home lot a corner. Eric Lichaj came on for the unfortunate Baker, before the referee allowed the Albion corner to be taken.
For the Baggies Odemwingie and Jones linked up nicely on the right, but fortunately for us Jones ran the ball out for a goal kick.
With Albion starting to get into the game, we took the lead thanks to a superb Christian Benteke effort in the tenth minute.
Charles N’Zogbia slid the ball inside to the Belgian powerhouse, who with his back to goal, twisted, turned, and fired in a stunning effort from the edge of the box, which gave Ben Foster no chance to save.
A great start, just exactly what we had needed.
As The Throstles attempted to get back into the game, we failed to clear an Albion corner, and their on loan Belgian Lukaku was able to hook the ball over his shoulder, but we breathed again as the effort flew straight at Brad Guzan.
Olsson and Gabby exchanged phone numbers, as tempers got a little heated after Gabby had claimed for a handball against the West Brom defender. The incident earned them both a yellow card.
On the thirty minute mark we doubled our lead. The impressive N`Zogbia fed Gabby, who turned McAuley inside out, and slid the ball past Foster into the Brummie Road end goal. Celebrations up the Smethwick.
We were restricting the Baggies to little more than potshots. Odemwingie layed the ball off to Dorrans, who sent a woeful effort way over the bar.
Definitely a case of so far so good.
Just before the break we should scored goal number three. Charles N’Zogbia, enjoying a superb game, did brilliantly on the right before finding Eric Lichaj. Unfortunately he hit the ball straight at Ben Foster, when in truth he should have done much better. A golden chance wasted.
Lukaku then lost control of the ball and lunged in on Charlie- boy. From where we were it looked quite nasty, with plenty of studs showing.
It was definitely high, and N’Zogbia had to receive treatment for the lunge. The Chelsea striker was lucky to escape with a yellow. Many referee`s would have shown him red, and why Probert didn`t was something of a mystery.
So 2-0 at the interval, but as we have the nasty habit of conceding goals for fun after the break, we weren`t getting ahead of ourselves just yet. We had overcome the loss of Nathan Baker, and while I am personally not a big fan of Eric Lichaj, our defence had performed well, and looked quite relaxed and comfortable.
The Baggies came out of the blocks flying as the second period got underway, and within five minutes they were right back into the contest. Odemwingie did well out wide, and he found Lukaku. He squared the ball back to Brunt, who was pushing forward from midfield, and he tucked away a fine left footed effort which seemed to clip Brad`s right post as it flew in.
We were coming under pressure now, but the pace of N’Zogbia and Agbonlahor on the break was causing Albion problems. Indeed every time N`Zogbia collected the ball he was willing to run at and take on the opposition, something we haven`t been able to say all that often about Charles. He was looking quite a threat.
Barry Bannan came on for Fabian Delph, but Barry disappointed during his thirty five minutes or so on the pitch. He looked decidely sluggish, and just didn`t get involved.
Eric Lichaj committed one of his all too familiar cynical fouls and picked up a yellow, as the home team continued to push us back.
Gabby almost notched his second of the evening, after he and N’Zogbia found themselves two-on-two with home defenders. Gabby decided to go it alone, steamed past ex-Villan Ridgewell, but put his effort straight into the hands of Foster. Another opportunity lost.
Joe Bennett headed a McAuley effort of the line, and as a few niggly tackles started to fly in, Matty Lowton and the Baggies Dorran found themselves picking up unnecessary yellows.
Odemwingie wasted a great opportunity to tie things up. He got on the end of a long ball, and bearing down on Brad`s goal, he took the ball past our ‘keeper, and pretty much had the goal at his mercy. From a tight angle though, he could only fire high into the Birmingham Road end.
Brett Holman came on for Charles N`Zogbia, a switch that didn`t go down too well with the travelling Villans, and immediately
Christian Benteke cleverly back-heeled the ball to the incoming Aussie. He wasted the opportunity though, by shooting wildly way over the bar. Another chance thrown away.
Finally the goal that Albion had been threatening arrived on the eighty minute mark. Gareth McAuley, with time and acres of space allowed him, knocked the ball down from a corner, and Odemwingie was first to react, hooking the ball home from close range. That defence of ours!
Disappointing. Frustrating. All the all too familiar emotions. I suppose though that we should be used to it by now.
In the end the result was probably fair. West Bromwich were the better team second half, but inspired showings from N’Zogbia, Benteke, and Agbonlahor during the first forty five ensured we were the better, more threatening team before the break.
So we hiked back to the car to make the short drive home, thankful that we were spared a long haul back to Brum on this wintery evening.
Most Villans were questioning N`Zogbia`s withdrawal, and the fact that second half again we failed to continue the form of the first half. We`d looked better with Ron Vlaar back in the team, but that defence is still far from adequate, even though of course the loss of young Baker was a blow.
So, thoughts now turn to the two domestic Cup competitions. Here`s hoping that we over-turn that two goal deficit on Tuesday evening, in what promises to be one of those very special Villa Park nights, and then yours truly will be back with you following our drive down to South Bermondsey for Friday nights F.A. Cup fourth round tie.
Have yourselves a great week guys. Keep warm. Up the Villa!
Glensider At The Hawthorns
Let It Snow, Let It Snow, let It Snow.