From sublime to ridiculous in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. How Inter Milan must have shaken their heads in bewilderment. On Saturday our heroes appeared to be running a competition amongst themselves as to who could make the most mistakes, with bonus points for any particular ineptitude that led to a Bolton goal. I suppose such little games are good for team morale – oh how the rascals must have jested with each other in the changing-rooms afterwards, as they recounted Gallas’ hilarious “clearance” and BAE’s thoroughly unsubtle shove for the third goal. For all the internal merriment however, I could not help thinking that team spirit would have been served equally well by storming to victory.
This was a game lost not much because of post-Europe fatigue as plain incompetence all round. While the first goal might have been disallowed for offside it made no difference to the pattern of play. Indeed, if there was a defining moment in the game I would suggest (admittedly while brazenly stretching the definition of “moment”) that it was the ten-minute spell at the start of the second half, in which, rather than fight tooth and nail to restore parity, our heroes gave a masterclass in being half-heartedly second to just about everything. It resulted in Bolton’s second goal and was swiftly followed by a shoddy third, ultimately rendering futile our late fightback.
The Lost Puppy in Central Midfield
As well as catalogue of individual moments of shoddiness, our choice of personnel in the centre also seemed to bring about our downfall. Young Master Bale often provides the most obvious goal threat, but control against Inter was provided by the unrestrained magnificence of VDV, Modders and Hudd, purring their way around central midfield with impeccable technique and lashings of élan. Although unavoidable, the absence of two of these three, as much as the general sloppiness of our lot, was a contributory to our failure to get a grip at the Reebok.
Sergeant Wilson and Sandro are many things, but they most dashed well are not like-for-like ball-playing replacements for Hudd and VDV, and our midfield was consequently unable to get a grip on the game. Poor old Modders hurried and scurried and twisted and turned, but all in vain, as every time he looked up for support he was greeted by the sight of general thud and blundering. The poor blighter vaguely resembled a domestic dog whose owner has died, Modders faithfully trotting around in anticipation of his rewards, but left forlornly wondering why no-one of the ilk of VDV was present to scratch his tummy or return a pass.
“Donde El Gringo” or Something?
No idea what language is best for young Sandro, but the shout of “Man on” did not seem to have the slightest effect on him, so Gallas and chums ought to settle upon a suitable warning call in the appropriate lingo, and pronto. Frankly Sandro gave a pretty good impression of a man to whom the whole concept of football was entirely novel. On the whole he passed the time gently wandering around inside his own half, carefully avoiding any scenario that might lead to him positively impacting upon the game, an approached crystallised when he was presented with a cracking chance to score from six yards but somehow contrived to flick the ball backwards. The patrons of AANP Towers are hardly about to write him off just yet, but this was spectacularly inauspicious stuff.
Crouch: Copy and Paste…
Every week Crouch is picked atop the 4-5-1, and every week he demonstrates himself to be painfully inadequate. He has his uses, particularly at European/international level (where our continental cousins remain entertainingly incapable of dealing with him), or as an impact sub, or indeed as a beanpole occasionally capable of nodding down into the path of VDV. However, in recent weeks all things bright and beautiful from our heroes have been achieved in spite of rather than because of him. The gangly one seemed stunned each time the small white orb neared him, reacting like he had never seen such an entity and was completely ignorant as to the physics of the thing. Damningly, when Bale whipped in a low first-half cross, he slid in with knees bent and legs tucked under his rear, rather than stretching out his limbs as far as they would extend.
Given the respective performances of Crouch, Sergeant Wilson and Sandro, I was mightily relieved to observe the switch to 4-4-2 at half-time, and an opportunity for Pav to shine, although in truth a substitute’s appearance away to Bolton does not really fit the Russian’s grandiose dreams of personal glory. The last person you want to roll up his sleeves and fight, or track back and tackle, Pav is the sort of princess who would refuse to accept a bed at the Hilton because he would find a pea under the mattress. On he was flung on Saturday, to fairly minimal impact.However, princesses may be pampered prima donnas, but they darned well love a little splash of diamond-encrusted quality in their lives, and for all his moodiness Pav does deliver some finishes of the most incredible quality. Recall ye his awful, half-hearted performance away to Young Boys, suddenly illuminated by an absolutely blistering finish. The goal yesterday lunchtime was similarly brilliant, absolutely ruddy brilliant. He does not seem the man for a 4-5-1 either, but sometimes his finishing is quite superb.
The New Gareth Bale
A quite brilliant goal too from Hutton. Had either his or Pav’s goals come from the gleaming boots of Drogba, Torres or indeed Bale they would have been repeated non-stop across the tv channels. Hutton has never been backward when it comes to bombing forward from full-back, and while there are questions regarding how he links with Lennon, he adds a tasty extra threat on the right. Moreover, he struck me as the pick of our back-four on Saturday, encouraging stuff from a man hardly blessed with a reputation for defensive faultlessness.
Elsewhere On The Pitch
We at AANP Towers are sticklers for good manners and general decorum, and with that in mind we implore the Hudd to nip in the bud that tendency towards violent cynicism that has emerged in recent weeks. The elbow against Twente and stamp on an opponent yesterday both appeared fairly deliberate, and although he got away with both they hint at a most unbecoming trait.
Disappointing stuff from Niko Kranjcar, which will do little to end rumours of a January exit, but despite his anonymity on Saturday I sincerely hope his services are retained.
Conclusion? We Must Win The Champions League…
One point from our last three league games, and thinking back over the Everton, Man Utd and Bolton games, it is difficult to make a case for us deserving much more. The Champions League adventure is magnificent fun, make no mistake, but we need it to be the norm rather than the exception, to which end simply slacking off each weekend after a European night is not good enough. A run of consecutive wins would put us right back in contention for the top four – otherwise the best means of ensuring Champions League football next season is to win the whole bally thing in May…