Good to have the away-days back upon us, the real pleasure of watching Aston Villa I always think, and just in time too. We’d almost forgotten the joys of stopping and starting on the M6 motorway, a regular occurrence as we head out of Brum journeying north towards various premier league destinations, but rest assured, this brief jaunt to The Potteries soon reminded us of what lays ahead over the next nine months or so.
Outside the stadium the atmosphere was electric, red and white striped replica shirts everywhere. No doubt about it, The Stokies were well and truly up for their return to the big-time. Not to be outdone though, the travelling Villans were in good voice too, vocal chords no doubt lubricated by a pint or two of the local brew, certainly the case with yours truly and his three regular companions. Inside the stadium, a cauldron of noise. The Potters are back!
Its been almost ten years since we kicked off the premier league season with two successive victories. Surely about time we put that to rights.
A not surprisingly unchanged team from the line-up that saw off Manchester City last Sunday, but early doors saw us definitely struggling to get a grip on the game. Out-muscled in midfield, with no real opportunity or ideas as to how to assert ourselves. The long throws of Rory Delap causing concern if not problems, and providing the home lot with an additional if unconventional weapon. Stoke made a very committed start to the game, their up and at ’em direct approach, very much in evidence.
Now we turn to a case of two penalties, both on the thirty minute mark. First Gabby went down in the Stoke box but was denied a penalty, when it clearly looked as if he’d been bundled to the ground, play went straight to the other end and the hosts were awarded a spot-kick when Laursen was adjudged to have left his foot in to take down Delap (no complaints from me – but again, I’m going by what I saw, or think I saw, not from any tv replays etc). Brave attempt by Brad to keep the spot-kick out, but Lawrence had placed his kick perfectly. 1-0 to The Potters, and a need for our lads to really step up to the plate now. We’d created nothing, giving Tommy Sorensen a very easy ride so far.
We were struggling, no doubt about it. This wasn’t in the script. A scrappy game overall, but Stoke had definitely shown more appetite for the fight, in a game that really had the feel of a cup-tie.
We were very disappointing going forward throughout the first forty-five, completely lacking ideas and invention.
Right on half-time Stoke almost doubled their lead. Fuller getting onto the end of another Rory Delap long throw, Brad never even made an attempt to get there, and fortunately the ball went just wide.
Sort ’em out Mart! Stoke in the first half had surely offered nothing that we didn’t expect, but for some reason we just hadn’t come to terms with the game.
The second forty-five got underway, and we certainly began brighter, looking more up for it, and pushing Stoke onto the back foot.
Gareth put in a right footed curler, clever idea, but nowhere near good enough to bring us level.
Ash completely wasted a free kick, guiding it into Sorensen’s waiting hands, and while you had to admit that Stoke’s defence was handling everything we threw at them, in truth you also had to admit that we weren’t actually throwing too much their way. We were just short on ideas. Nothing happening for us.
Then, totally out of keeping with all that had gone before from the good guys, a superb flowing move saw Big JC finish with aplomb in front of the travelling Brummies. 1-1, cue celebrations, and our first away-day hug-in/love fest of the new campaign.
Suddenly we looked a different team, with my good buddy making the worrying comment, ‘There’s only going to be one winner now’. Famous last words. I know, he’s uttered them so many times before!
For once, our set-pieces were leaving a lot to be desired. Not often we can say that, but annoyingly frustrating all the same.
Our first change of the afternoon, Wayne Routledge on for Nicky Shorey. Martin was certainly going for it.
The second half had certainly seen Gareth and Stan the Man grab a hold of midfield, the latter certainly continuing in his recent vein of fine form.
We looked on course for at least a point, in control, comfortable, but isn’t that when you’re at your most vulnerable?
Sure is! We went to sleep. Gareth gave the ball away needlessly, and Fuller put the ball past Brad to send the home fans into ecstasy. ‘You’re not singing anymore’ they taunted us with.
And we weren’t (singing anymore that is).
But…we soon were, and in louder voice than before! The Great Dane!! What was I prematurely saying about our dead ball delivery?
Ashley’s deflected free-kick falls to Martin Laursen, and in the blink of an eye, Stoke’s lead is no more. 2-2.
Oh no. Four minutes of injury time were indicated, and knowing how we love to concede late goals, that had to be a concern for us.
Sure enough, a late, late throw by Rory Delap, something we had struggled to come to terms with all afternoon, and there we are, 3-2 down, and with no time left to hit back.
These late, late goals kill us. Am I the only person who believes that this failing should have been eradicated by now? Lack of concentration, whatever, they hit us all too frequently for the problem to be dismissed as ‘just one of those things’.
Over the ninety minutes though, we weren’t good enough, and just didn’t do enough to get anything out of the game. Certainly during the first forty-five we didn’t play anywhere near to our capabilities, but overall its hard to say that we actually didn’t deserve at least a point, despite the below par showing.
Maybe the lads thought that all they had to do was turn up, although our improved second half showing indicated that Martin had got it through their heads in the dressing room at half-time that that certainly wasn’t the case.
Five goals conceded in two games has to be of concern, and with a certain strike duo of Robbie Fowler and Fernando Torres in town next weekend, its clear where our priorities will lie on the training ground this coming week.
I’m not very good when it comes to awarding marks out of ten to individual players, firmly believing that it is, as always, a team game, and that you thrive and shine on the service, assistance, and support, of your team mates, but for what its worth here goes:-
So, a very disappointing result from a below par performance. Just as last weekend’s opening victory though, didn’t mean we were certainties for a top six finish, this surprising reversal doesn’t mean we’re a bottom six outfit either.
Yes, there’s worrying traits that definitely require urgent attention, but there’s also indications of much promise too.
It’s early days. The secret is not to get overly carried away when we’re winning, and too negative and despondent when results don’t go the way we’d like.
Its been said so often before, the premiership is a marathon, not a sprint.
Here’s hoping the rest of your weekend is an improvement on what’s gone before. Later.
Friedel – 6
(unconvincing with his punching)
L.Young – 6
Laursen – 6
Davies – 4
Shorey – 4
NRC – 5
Barry – 5
Young – 6
Agbonlahor – 5
Carew – 6
Routledge (Sub) – 5