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Give them their Villa back

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Shall I play five in midfield? Or six?

It was a genuine shock to see what Aston Villa, cus­tom­ar­ily a top eight club, have been reduced to. Or to be exact, what their manager Alex McLeish has reduced them to. Surely, surely, you have to trust your creative players enough to have a bit of a go. After all, if he’s sacked he’ll have a great severance deal — I well remember him telling us it was the first thing in any contract he sorted out.
And another poor headline, given the piece is all about Villa.

Wigan 0 Aston Villa 0: Wigan peer into the abyss

Richard Rae at The DW Stadium

The Wigan manager, Roberto Martinez, signed off his programme notes with the Spanish phrase Sin Miedo, meaning he intends his side to play without fear. It is a concept that seems alien to Aston Villa’s manager, Alex McLeish.

To the increas­ingly noisy frus­tra­tion of the Villa sup­port­ers, the Scot’s caution in the way he sets up his team is reducing once creative players to frus­trated, ges­tic­u­lat­ing ciphers of their former selves, their instincts stifled. “We want our Villa back,” chanted the away fans after 70 sterile minutes, once McLeish, with Charles N’Zogbia and Stephen Ireland also on the bench, turned first to Emile Heskey.

To make matters worse, shortly after­wards McLeish lost Darren Bent to an ankle ligament injury. McLeish expressed fears he could be out for a lengthy spell. The striker is almost certain to miss England’s game against Holland on Wednesday.

That Villa left the DW stadium with a point, however, against a side who have won once at home all season, was jus­ti­fi­ca­tion enough for McLeish. “Our con­cen­tra­tion was good today, I don’t think Wigan really pen­e­trated, and we had the best chances,” he said. “The fans expect Aston Villa to come to Wigan and win.”

Wigan played neat, thought­ful football but made rel­a­tively few chances and still remain in with a chance of avoiding rel­e­ga­tion. They dominated pos­ses­sion but it was Villa who went closest to scoring, first when Keane’s shot was turned around the post by Wigan goal­keeper Ali Al Habsi, and then when the Irishman put Bent clear on goal.

Again Al Habsi came to Wigan’s rescue, blocking the shot with his knees, and he was once more in the right place to save when Carlos Cuellar had a free header on the six-yard line. Wigan’s best chances came in the second period, Franco di Santo forcing a good diving save from Shay Given, and then Mohamed Diame setting up Hugo Rodallega to shoot over the bar.

The per­for­mance was something to be extremely pleased about,” said Martinez. “We tested them enough to get three points but we needed a little lucky bounce.

But to be able to play against a team like Aston Villa and be as dominant as we were suggests a big scoreline for us is just around the corner.”

Wigan Athletic: Al Habsi 8, Alcarez 7, Caldwell 7, Boyce 6, Figueroa 7, McCarthy 7 (Diame 78min), McArthur 7, Beausejour 7, Di Santo 7, Moses 7 (Crusat 89min), Gomez 6 (Rodallega 65min)

Aston Villa: Given 7, Hutton 6, Collins 7, Cuellar 7, Warnock 6, Albrighton 5 (Heskey 70min), Gardner 6 (Ireland 74min), Bannan 5, Agbonlahor 5, Keane 7, Bent 5 (N’Zogbia 78min)

Originally published in The Sunday Times

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Written by RichardRae

February 26th, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Aston Villa 0 Liverpool 2: Away win delights Dalglish

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Dalglish makes his point.

First-half goals from Craig Bellamy and Martin Skrtel give Liverpool a com­fort­able victory and lift them to sixth in the table

by Richard Rae

That Liverpool would win this game was, given the teams’ respec­tive form going into the match, very much to be expected. Less expected was the comfort with which they would do so. Managers may con­stantly insist there are no easy games in the Premier League but this was as straight­for­ward a victory as the Reds will enjoy this season.

The only downside, from the point of view of Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, was his side’s failure to take more than two of the many chances they created against a Villa side that looked bereft of con­fi­dence, as well as their two England strikers. In the cir­cum­stances their failure to test the visitors’ defence was under­stand­able: their manifest defensive frailty was not.

Already missing the suspended Gabby Agbonlahor, Villa manager Alex McLeish could have done without losing his other England inter­na­tional forward, Darren Bent, to a hip problem. In their absence McLeish gave Emile Heskey a start against his former club, playing up front alongside Nathan Delfouneso.

The Liverpool line-up was also changed, Dalglish bringing in Craig Bellamy and Jonjo Shelvey for Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt, a selection that was amply justified after just 11 minutes.

It was already apparent that the extra man in midfield was giving the visitors more options when Stewart Downing, the manner of whose leaving Villa for Liverpool last summer ensured he was booed by the home fans from the start, won a corner on the right. Downing took it and his low, swinging delivery was flicked towards goal by Shelvey. Luis Suarez’s attempt to touch the ball home was blocked by Villa goal­keeper Brad Guzan but the rebound was turned in by Bellamy.

It was a poor goal to concede from a defensive point of view — three times in the Villa penalty area, Liverpool players had been first to the ball — but not as poor as Liverpool’s second four minutes later. Again Bellamy was involved, this time taking a corner from the left that Martin Skrtel, whose simple run towards the near post was enough to confuse both Richard Dunne and Alan Hutton, to glance a header neatly beyond Guzan and into the top corner.

The reaction of the home fans was one of res­ig­na­tion as much as anger, but the response on the field was a little more positive. Charles N’Zogbia, drifting into a central position, drove a clean shot a foot over Pepe Reina’s bar before again making the Liverpool goal­keeper scramble with a shot into the side-netting. Delfouneso then met a Marc Albrighton free kick on the six-yard line only to fail to keep his header down, but Villa were up against the team with the best defensive record in the Premier League this season and as half-time approached, Liverpool’s sense of comfort was obvious.

With a rel­a­tively inex­pe­ri­enced bench high­light­ing his club’s lack of playing resources, McLeish made no changes at half-time and almost saw his team go three down within less than a minute of the restart. Bellamy’s firmly driven cross from the left cleared the final defender but the stretch­ing Daniel Agger, arriving in at the far post, could not get his header on target.

Villa’s defending did not improve. First Hutton gave the ball away to Bellamy, and then Dunne, having appar­ently got to the resulting pass into the penalty area ahead of Suarez, allowed the Uruguyan to steal it back. Suarez then cut easily inside James Collins, but with only Guzan to beat, smashed his shot against the underside of the bar.

Stephen Warnock was the next Villa defender to give the ball away, and again his side was lucky not to be punished, Guzan diving to his right to keep out Glen Johnson’s shot. Suarez, who compared with his teammates had been looking a little out of sorts from the start, produced an out­stand­ing piece of skill to chip Guzan only to see the ball come back off the inside of the post. It was the 17th occasion Liverpool had hit the woodwork this season.

With the game in danger of becoming a pro­ces­sion. Shelvey brought another diving save from Guzan, and Charlie Adam, with Shelvey unmarked to his right, saw a goal-bound shot deflected just wide.

Aware of many tougher battles to come, Liverpool eased off. Villa’s third defeat in four home matches, lifting their visitors to sixth in the league table, had been long since assured.

Aston Villa: Guzan, Hutton, Dunne, Collins, Warnock, Albrighton, Delph (Weimann 80min), Petrov, N’Zogbia, Heskey (Bannan 56min), Delfouneso

Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique, Downing, Adam, Shelvey (Carragher 83min), Henderson, Bellamy (Kuyt 88min), Suarez (Carroll 73min)

Originally published in The Sunday Times on Sunday 18 December 2011.

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Written by RichardRae

December 18th, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Stoke 2 Tottenham 1: Redknapp fumes after run ended

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Apparently awkward, but always effective: Peter Crouch in the act of setting up Stoke’s first goal. (Jamie McDonald)

White Hart Lane old boy dents his former club’s title bid with first-half double to condemn Spurs to their first league defeat since August

by Richard Rae

When three of a club’s former players start for the oppo­si­tion, the odds against what Italians refer to as ‘the immutable law of the ex’ coming into effect are long indeed, and sure enough, two goals from Matthew Etherington, the first created by Peter Crouch, duly brought Spurs’ winning run to an end.

Not, however, before Stoke survived a period of pressure made all the more remark­able by what had gone before. For an hour, the Potters had produced a per­for­mance which appeared to have put talk about Spurs being serious con­tenders for the Premier League title firmly into context. That the visitors responded, and in the end were des­per­ately unlucky not to take a point from the game after being the victim of several clearly incorrect ref­er­ee­ing decisions, suggested that talk may not be quite so far-fetched after all.

The decisions were incred­i­ble,” shrugged Spurs manager Harry Redknapp. “We didn’t play well in the first half and they deserved to be in front, but we changed com­pletely in the second half, we really got after them and really deserved something from the game. I never complain about referees, but it was dis­ap­point­ing today.”

Etherington very nearly worked the oracle within a few seconds of the start, with a crisp, low volley which Spurs goal­keeper Brad Friedel had to be at his best to save. That Spurs were rattled was evident when full-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto lost pos­ses­sion to Jon Walters only a few feet outside his penalty area: he was fortunate that the Stoke forward pulled his shot across the face of the goal. The pressure continued as Ryan Shotton’s long throw was then glanced on by Crouch for Walters to head just over.

With Jonathan Woodgate’s lack of pace at right-back, Spurs’ game plan must have involved getting Gareth Bale on the ball as much as possible, but it was ten minutes before the Welsh flyer finally got a run down the left. When he did so he left Woodgate trailing, but Robert Huth cleared the cross.

Otherwise Stoke’s dominance was remark­able, and it paid off on 13 minutes. Shotton’s deflected cross was nodded on by Walters, and though Crouch’s initial attempt to control the ball saw it run away from him — having appeared to strike his arm — the tall striker’s per­sis­tence saw him somehow retain pos­ses­sion before turning the ball back across goal, leaving Friedel out of position and giving Etherington the chance to side-foot the ball joyfully into the empty net.

It was no more than Stoke deserved. Rafael van der Vaart’s tame shot after 23 minutes, easily saved by Thomas Sorensen, was not just their first effort on target, it was their first effort on goal of any kind, and they continued to look shaky at the back, espe­cially in the air.

Two minutes remained in the first half when Stoke extended their lead, and there was nothing sur­pris­ing about how the goal came about. Shotton’s long throw from the right was glanced on by Walters — who had won just about every ball in the air he had contested — and Etherington, this time slightly for­tu­itously, again swept the ball past Friedel.

Redknapp made changes, bringing on Sebastien Bassong to give the defence more aerial presence, Jermain Defoe to give the attack more focus, and switching to a 3–5-2 formation. Gradually Spurs’ share of pos­ses­sion began to increase. A series of crosses were repelled by Stoke, but on the hour Luka Modric tricked Glenn Whelan into fouling him the penalty area. Emmanuel Adebayor sent Sorensen the wrong way from the spot, and suddenly the visitors began to hit their straps. Scott Parker brought a flying save from Sorensen and Adebayor curled a shot just wide.

Now it was all Spurs, and Stoke were twice fortunate not to concede another penalty, most obviously when Younes Kaboul, coming in at the far post to meet a Modric cross, clearly hit the ball against the elbow of Ryan Shawcross on the line.

To rub salt in the wound the ball was returned into the penalty area for Adebayor to beat Sorensen, only for the striker to be ruled offside. When the pass was played, he was a good yard onside.

The harsh dismissal of Kaboul in the 82nd minute for a second yellow card stemmed the purple tide, and there­after Stoke held out without too many problems. Indeed Shawcross almost extended their lead, first bringing a fine save from Friedel, and then heading the sub­se­quent corner against the top of the bar.

After four con­sec­u­tive defeats, three wins in a row have lifted Stoke to eighth. “Against a team that have been flying, we showed what we were about,” said Crouch. “I think Spurs are going to go very close this season, so this is a massive result for us.”

Stoke City (4–4-2): Sorensen 7: Woodgate 6 (Delap 84), Huth 7, Shawcross 7, Wilson 6: Shotton 7, Whitehead 6, Whelan 6, Etherington 7 (Palacios 89): Walters 8, Crouch 7. Not used: Begovic, Upson, Jones, Fuller, Jerome.

Tottenham Hotspur (4–4-2): Friedel 6: Walker 6, Kaboul 6, Gallas 5, Assou-Ekotto 5 (Bassong 46, 7): Lennon 5 (Defoe 46, 6), Parker 6, Modric 6, Bale 6: Van der Vaart 4 (Giovani 88), Adebayor 5. Not used: Gomes, Corluka, Sandro, Pienaar.

Originally published in The Sunday Times Online on Sunday 11 December 2011.

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Written by RichardRae

December 12th, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Wigan 0 Arsenal 4: Gunners find their range

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There are ways to lose .…

December is a month to enjoy, said Roberto Martinez, but there were no smiles among Wigan’s sup­port­ers as they left the DW stadium

Richard Rae at the DW Stadium

December is a month to enjoy, said Wigan’s manager, Roberto Martinez, before this match, but there were no smiles among the home sup­port­ers as they left the DW stadium having witnessed humil­i­a­tion on a grand scale.

So much so, in fact, that it was hard not to feel sorry for Martinez in the final few minutes of the game, as he stood unmoving on the touchline in teeming rain. His theory is that with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United among the Latics’ opponents during this last month of the year, Wigan could play without the burden of expec­ta­tion, but on this evidence there is little hope for them.

The Spaniard’s crumb of comfort is that few teams are likely to come here and pick his team apart in the manner that Arsenal did, once Wigan had given them a two-goal start. “We had too much for Wigan today. We looked solid at the back, we didn’t lose too many fights, and we saw some out­stand­ing com­bi­na­tions,” said Arsenal’s manager, Arsène Wenger, before pointing out with a smile that the pitch, of which he had been critical in the past, has improved.

Yet of the two managers, Martinez must have been the happier after seeing his team enjoy much the better of the opening quarter hour. In the sixth minute Jordi Gomez looked certain to score after David Jones’ cross was palmed straight to him by the diving Wojciech Szczesny, and the Arsenal goal­keeper must have been relieved when Gomez’s shot deflected wide off Andre Santos.

Arsenal were patient, however, and Wigan’s initial surge had not long subsided before the visitors started asking questions of their own. Gary Caldwell was fortunate that his botched attempt to clear Theo Walcott’s cross rebounded into the hands of his goal­keeper, Ali Al Habsi, but not long there­after the visitors took the lead. Mikel Arteta’s shot from about 22 yards was hit firmly and moved in the air but it should have been saved by Al Habsi; the goal­keeper dived and mistimed the flight of the ball so badly that it went straight through his hands.

Barely 90 seconds later, Arsenal were two ahead. Again Wigan’s defence had cause for embar­rass­ment, in that Gary Caldwell and Conor Sammon allowed Thomas Vermaelen to meet a corner from the Arsenal right with a header which, while well placed just inside the post, might again have been saved by Al Habsi.

Wigan fans who believed all was not entirely lost, given that Arsenal had let slip two-goal leads at this ground in each of the two previous seasons, were quickly disabused of the notion after the break. Although Martinez made changes after an hour, Gervinho, on hand after Robin van Persie’s shot was saved, made it three, and from that point on Wigan saw little of the ball.

Amazingly, Van Persie shot over with only Al Habsi to beat but just when it looked as though Arsenal were going to win a game in which the prolific Dutchman did not score, Walcott’s pace left Caldwell gasping and the England winger unselfishly pulled the ball back for Van Persie to register his 14th Premier League goal of the season.

It could have been more, but Wenger’s triple sub­sti­tu­tion took the rhythm out of Arsenal’s attacking game. That said, Yossi Benayoun should have made it five when put clear, but his attempt to lob the ball over Al Habsi lacked power and was cleared off the line by Caldwell.

After a good start we conceded two really soft goals and giving them that cushion helped them to use their expe­ri­ence and take control,” said Martinez. “We have to give them credit for taking advantage of the strong lead we gave them but we have to learn not to be affected by conceding goals. There are ways to lose and today we lost a little bit too easily.”

Wigan: Al Habsi 4, Stam 5, Gohouri 5, Caldwell 4, Figueroa 5, McCarthy 5, Diame 5 (McArthur 88min), Jones 6, Sammon 5 (Di Sato 59min, 5), Gomez 5, Moses 6 (Crusat 59min, 6)

Arsenal: Szczesny 6, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 7, Vermaelen 7, Santos 6, Walcott 7 (Benayoun 79min) Song 7 (Arshavin 79min), Arteta 8, Ramsey 7, Gervinho 7 (Coquelin 79min), Van Persie 7

Originally published in The Sunday Times on December 4th, 2011.

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Written by RichardRae

December 4th, 2011 at 12:42 pm

West Brom 0 Liverpool 2: Suarez leads the way

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Suarez — more important to Liverpool than Stevie G?

Richard Rae at The Hawthorns

Roy Hodgson’s failure at Liverpool, many Reds sup­port­ers believe, was one of style as well as results. This was a match that rep­re­sented an oppor­tu­nity to demon­strate why their support for Kenny Dalglish is based on more than memories, and the manner in which the Scot’s Liverpool totally outplayed Hodgson’s West Bromwich Albion will no doubt be seen very much as point made.

It was also, however, another game that empha­sised the vital impor­tance to Liverpool of the out­stand­ing Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan may not have scored but he created both goals and, with his wonderful touch and awareness, was a constant threat to Hodgson’s much-improved Albion defence — so much so that the absence of Jamie Carragher and, yet again, Steven Gerrard, this time with what Dalglish described as an infected ankle, was not noticed.

Which, as Dalglish pointed out, from a Liverpool point of view is reas­sur­ing: “We’re better with Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher in the squad, they’ve done mag­nif­i­cently for the football club and will continue to do so, but I suppose it’s a reflec­tion on the squad that we are still com­ment­ing on such a good performance.”

Even when, as he said, none of his players had cause for dis­ap­point­ment in their per­for­mance last night, he could hardly avoid singling out Suarez. “I said after a week of working with him that I’d run out of superla­tives, and that still applies. In a group of players there’s usually some who excel a little bit more than others, and for us it seems to be Luis quite often — but that’s not to say the others are too far behind.”

Dalglish declined to speculate on whether Gerrard is expected to be fit to be part of the England squad for the forth­com­ing matches against Spain and Sweden. His decision to partner Suarez with Andy Carroll up front meant that both sides played a more or less orthodox 4–4-2, and given the room Suarez found to set up Charlie Adam for a shot in only the second minute, it looked as though the tactical match-up might suit Liverpool more. Adam put the ball well over the bar but the former Blackpool mid­fielder was soon to be less wasteful.

That he was given the oppor­tu­nity, however, was con­tro­ver­sial. Judging by his lack of reaction, referee Lee Mason saw nothing wrong with the challenge by Jerome Thomas that left Suarez on the floor just inside the Albion penalty area, but assistant Gary Beswick did and signalled as much. After a con­sid­er­able delay as the Albion players made their feelings plain, Adam sent Ben Foster the wrong way from the spot. Replays did at least confirm contact.

If the decision was generous to the visitors, Albion could not blame the referee for the way in which Liverpool con­trolled the game from then on. Throughout the first half the pairing of Adam and Lucas in central midfield con­stantly brought their wingers and strikers into the game, and Liverpool should have extended their lead when Martin Skrtel, up for a corner, side­footed the loose ball back across the six-yard box only for Suarez, on the turn, to shoot over the bar.

Suarez is far from being just a finisher and in first-half stoppage time he made Liverpool’s second with a superb first-time volleyed pass from the right that sent Carroll clear down the centre. The former Newcastle United forward almost bungled it with a typically heavy first touch but was still able to get to the ball just in time to squeeze it under the advancing Foster.

Albion, in contrast, failed to make Pepe Reina produce a save, though they had their moments. The most promising came five minutes before the break when Peter Odemwingie’s lay-off enabled Tchoyi to send in a low cross that neither Odemwingie nor Thomas could quite reach. Albion improved after the break but after Tchoyi drove wide in the 47th minute, Liverpool should have picked them off any number of times on the break. Foster beat out a Carroll volley and in time added on, Stewart Downing drove the ball against the goalkeeper’s left-hand post.

Hodgson rang the changes but the one he would surely have wanted to make most of all, the removal of Suarez, was not his to make, and Albion were a beaten side long before Dalglish sent on Craig Bellamy in his place.

Hodgson had his grumble about the penalty decision — “They should be harder to earn than that,” he suggested — but went on to acknowl­edge Albion had been very much second best.

West Brom: Foster, Reid, Olsson, McAuley, Jones, Brunt, Scharner (Morrison 58min), Mulumbu (Dorrans 62min), Thomas, Odemwingie, Tchoyi (Cox 71min)

Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Jose Enrique, Henderson, Adam, Lucas, Downing, Suarez (Bellamy 81min), Carroll

Originally printed by The Sunday Times

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Heat turned up on Houllier

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Villa Park. Fine stadium. Not such a fine team, at time of writing.

Aston Villa 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 (Jarvis 39)

By Richard Rae at Villa Park.

Shortly before kick-off, a large banner was bran­dished in the Holte
End on which was written ‘Had enough. Houllier out.’
Free speech being as foreign a concept to some Premier League clubs as it is to many Middle Eastern despots, said banner was quickly removed, although how many Villa fans actually agreed with the sentiment
expressed is a moot point, given the action of the stewards appeared to receive as much applause as the banner’s appear­ance. One thing is certain however; there are a lot more after what has been an awful few
days for Aston Villa.
It is hard to say which is more embar­rass­ing, the fining of Richard Dunne and James Collins after a team bonding exercise exposed the con­sid­er­able divisions within the camp, or the per­for­mance of team and
man­age­ment yesterday.
Replacing the teenage left-back Nathan Baker after half an hour was an admission of error by the beleagured Gerard Houllier, but the second half sub­sti­tu­tion of young winger Marc Albrighton, who had offered Villa’s only con­sis­tent threat, was inviting the inevitable, and the Frenchman was duly informed that he did not know what he was doing.
By the end of the match, won by a crisp first-half volley by Matt Jarvis to give Wolves a first win at Villa Park for 31 years, the anger was pretty much universal.
Houllier said he under­stood and shared the frus­tra­tion. “They are not happy with me, I am not happy with what we are doing,” he shrugged, before adding with a smile; “But please, assure them I do know what I
am doing.”
Villa looked slightly happier and more co-ordinated going forward than at the back, but that it was Wolves who carried the greater threat was apparent when they had two ‘goals’ dis­al­lowed. The first, when
Christophe Berra headed in a Nenad Milijas free-kick, was for offside, the second, more curiously, when the same linesman decided Matt Jarvis’s cross had curled out of play before being nodded in by Kevin
Doyle.
In the cir­cum­stances the visitors deserved to take the lead, and did so when Berra’s header fell nicely for Jarvis on the edge of the penalty area to hit a low volley crisply beyond Villa goal­keeper Brad Friedel.
With Bent isolated up front, Villa’s attempts to get back into the game lacked con­vic­tion, though they were unlucky when Richard Stearman fouled Bent inside the penalty area, only for referee Phil Dowd to give a free-kick on the edge of the box.
Unfathomably, Houllier then replaced Nigel Reo-Coker and Albrighton with Robert Pires and Gabby Agbonlahor and there­after Villa were for the most part a shambles. They gave the ball away with embar­rass­ing
frequency and Wolves squan­dered several good chances to extend their lead before, out of nothing and possibly from an offside position, Ashley Young drove a shot against the underside of the bar.
Wolves manager Mick McCarthy empathised with Houllier but did not sym­pa­thise.
“I’ve been there, and I’d prefer it to be him and 18 others than me, so I don’t give a flying flute. We
wanted to drag them into the mire with us, and there’s no question that’s where they are,” he said.

Star man; Matt Jarvis (Wolves)
Booked; Stearman, Elokobi, Young, Foley.
Att; 38,965.

Aston Villa (4–4-1–1 from right); Friedel 6; Walker 6, Cuellar 6, Herd
6, Baker 5 (Delph 32, 6); Albrighton 6 (Agbonlahor 61), Reo-Coker 6
(Pires 61), Makoun 5, Downing 5; Young 5; Bent 5.

Subs not used: Marshall, Bradley, Heskey, Petrov.

Wolves (4–4-1–1 from right); Hennessey 7; Elokobi 6, Stearman 6, Berra
7, Foley 7; Hammill 7, Ebanks-Blake 65). Henry 7, Milijas 7, Jarvis 8
(Ward 80); O’Hara 7; Doyle 7.

Subs not used: Hahnemann, Craddock, Kightly, Fletcher, Jones.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire)

Originally published in The Sunday Times.

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Written by RichardRae

March 20th, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Stoke survive official blunders

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Stoke City 2 (Huth 12, Higginbotham 62) West Ham United 1 (Piquionne 30)

by Richard Rae

Stoke City reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup for the first time since 1972 with a victory over West Ham that was marked by a number of con­tro­ver­sial decisions by referee Mike Jones.
The Potters will play Bolton Wanderers at Wembley, and whoever is in charge will surely hope to give a more effective per­for­mance than that of Mr Jones. The Cheshire official allowed a West Ham goal that should have been ruled out for handball, awarded Stoke a penalty for a foul when no contact appeared to be made, and then, with minutes remaining, turned down a West Ham penalty appeal when Jon Walters clearly seemed to foul James Tomkins.
Danny Higginbotham, who scored Stoke’s winner from a free-kick that itself arguably should not have been awarded, declined to criticise Mr Jones, pre­fer­ring to con­cen­trate on what the win meant for City. With Gordon Banks watching in the stand, the final whistle carried con­sid­er­able sig­nif­i­cance for the Potters.
“The club has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, and it would be great to part of a team that makes history by getting to the Final itself,” said Higginbotham.
Having beaten Stoke 3–0 in the league at the Boleyn Ground last week, it was not sur­pris­ing that West Ham made only one change compared to Stoke’s six, but it was the home team which quickly estab­lished the early momentum when Jermaine Pennant was given far too much room to cross from the right for Matthew Etherington, having come in off the left wing into the centre of the penalty area, to get in a firm header which Robert Green, reacting instinc­tively, did well to save.
The West Ham goal­keeper was less deserving of praise soon after­wards when attempt­ing to deal with a Rory Delap long throw into his penalty area. Green was easily beaten to the ball by Robert Huth, but the Stoke central defender could not get his header on target.
It was a sign of things to come, and in the not too distant future. Soon after­wards Delap launched another throw into the West Ham box, and this time neither Green nor any of his defenders made any attempt at all to contest the ball. Huth’s run and leap was entirely unhin­dered, and from no more than eight yards the tall German’s thumping header gave Green no chance.
West Ham’s attempts to get back into the game lacked con­vic­tion, though as the half hour approached, they at least began to gain a share of pos­ses­sion. While the game was beginning to look a little more of a contest between equals, however, few would have predicted the manner of the equaliser. Thomas Hitzlsperger’s long diagonal ball to pick out Ferederic Piquionne was a good one, but the France inter­na­tional con­trolled the ball with his upper arm before guiding it over Stoke goal­keeper Thomas Sorensen and then flinging himself through the air to bundle the ball over the line, injuring himself in the process.
The Stoke protests were long, vehement and inevitably fruitless, and it was only in first half stoppage time that they began to recover some composure. Whether or not the referee saw the incident replayed during the break, there can be little doubt he was informed he had made an error in allowing the goal, and perhaps that was still on the official’s mind when, 15 seconds into the second period, he awarded Stoke a penalty for a Parker challenge on Etherington when the West Ham player appeared to make no contact what­so­ever.
In this case however Mr Jones got away with it, in that Green dived full-length to his left to save Etherington’s spot-kick, and West Ham, taking heart, threat­ened to get on top.
Stoke’s aerial threat remained evident however, when Jones beat Green to a Ryan Shawcross nod back only for Carlton Cole to clear off the line, and nor was the threat purely aerial. Shortly after the hour, Mr Jones awarded a free-kick to Stoke for handball on the edge of the West Ham penalty area. Again, it was a far from obvious decision, but Higginbotham took full advantage by smashing the ball low through a gap in the Hammers wall, and though Green got a good hand on the ball, he was unable to prevent it crossing the line.
Again West Ham came back strongly. Obinna’s powerful drive brought a fine save from Sorensen, and Matthew Upson headed Hitzlsperger’s corner against the bar as West Ham pressed for an equaliser their second half per­for­mance deserved.

Originally published at Sunday Times Online

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Written by RichardRae

March 13th, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Forest feel Tigers bite

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The letter box view from the City Ground press box

Richard Rae at the City Ground

Nottingham Forest 0 Hull City 1 (Fryatt 64)

For much of this match it was apparent that lack of quality, than lack of effort, may ulti­mately stymie both these sides in their respec­tive ambitions this season. For Forest, that must still be automatic promotion, for City the play-offs, but for long periods the lack of cre­ativ­ity on the pitch was remark­able.
Of the two clubs, it may now be Hull who will be the most confident of attaining their goal. Matty Fryatt’s calm finish shortly after the hour keeps them just about in touch with Leeds, five points ahead in
sixth, and means they are now unbeaten in 13 matches away from home, a record that demands respect.
For Forest, however, this was a bitter blow. After drawing their last three matches, Billy Davies’ faltering side badly needed all three points, but the ending of a run of 36 matches unbeaten at the City Ground leaves the Scot searching des­per­ately for a way to pull their season back round.
That neither manager needed telling draws were no longer enough was evident in the line-ups; whatever the outcome, it was clear both teams were committed to having a go. So they did, but the fact that in the entire first half neither goal­keeper was required to make a difficult save told its own story.
After Fryatt, running on to James Chester’s for­tu­nately deflected long ball, had rolled his shot beyond Forest goal­keeper Lee Camp, Forest’s efforts became frantic. But with Anthony Gerrard in superb form for Hull at the back, Forest rarely looked capable of breaching the Tigers’ defence. With two minutes remaining Radoslaw Majewski flashed an angled drive just beyond the post, but that was as close as Forest came.
“We were the dominant force and created a lot of chances, espe­cially in the first half, whereas they had one shot in the second half and that came from our pos­ses­sion,” pointed out Davies, who admitted he had been trying without success to bring in new signings on loan.
“I’m very proud of our home record, but it wasn’t going to go on for ever. We have nine players injured and we’ve lost a bit of fluency. The secret is to get to the inter­na­tional break, get the majority of our injured back for the remaining eight matches, and then it will be game on,” he said.
Hull assistant Craig Shakespeare paid par­tic­u­lar tribute to the Tigers’ defence, which lead by Gerrard dealt with every­thing Forest could throw at them with com­mend­able aplomb.
“The players are buoyant, rightly so after what they’ve achieved today,” said Shakespeare. “We’ve improved massively since the start of the season, but as far as the play-offs are concerned we’re going to have to continue to do so.”
The last away side to win at the City ground was Blackpool back in September 2009, and the Seasiders went on to win promotion via the play-offs, but Shakespeare under­stand­ably declined to accept the
com­par­i­son.
“It’s a great result, but it means nothing if we don’t take it through to our next game against Burnley,” he pointed out.

Man of the Match; Anthony Gerrard (Hull)
Booked; Dawson, Tudgay, Fryatt.

Nottingham Forest (4–4-2); Camp 6; Gunter 6, Morgan 6, Chambers 6, Konchesky 6; Anderson 6 (Adebola 77), Majewski 6, Cohen 6, McGugan 5 (McCleary 65); Earnshaw 6 (Rodney 70), Tudgay.5

Subs not used; McGoldrick, Smith, Moloney, Bennett.

Hull City (4–3-3); Mannone 7; Rosenior 7, Chester 7, Gerrard 8, Dawson 7; Harper 7, Koren 5 (Hobbs 76), Evans 6; Simpson 6 (Amoo 56,5) Fryatt 7, McLean 7 (Barmby 56, 7).

Subs not used; Oxley, Garcia, Cairney, Belaid.

Referee; S Hooper.

Originally published in The Sunday Times

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Vela rescues Albion

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The Hawthorns press box. Home from home in, er, West Bromwich.

West Bromwich Albion 1 (Vela 90) Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 (O’Hara 40)

by Richard Rae

THE appoint­ment of Roy Hodgson, opined the West Bromwich Albion programme somewhat por­ten­tously, alters per­cep­tions about the football club, its supposed ambitions and place in English football, at a stroke.
Well, maybe. For the moment Abion’s image as a club destined to ping-pong between the Premier League and Championship remains in danger of being set in cement, but the fact that Carlos Vela’s goal deep in stoppage time meant they did not lose Hodgson’s first match in charge could be a vital first step towards that change.
“I was happy to see the equaliser but I thought we derived more than a point,” said Hodgson. “The per­for­mance was good, and it told me there is fighting spirit, deter­mi­na­tion and character in this group of players.
“Wolves are a very strong team phys­i­cally and you have to give as much hard work, effort and com­mit­ment as they do, and we did that.”
Hodgson’s first team selection was notable not so much for personnel as for formation. Under Roberto Di Matteo, Albion — like Wolves — played with five in midfield and Peter Odemwingie as a lone striker, but having watched the Baggies start 4–4-2 against West Ham under the temporary stew­ard­ship of Michael Appleton last week, and score three times in the first half, Hodgson partnered Odemwingie and Marc-Antoine Fortune up front.
On paper Wolves manager Mick McCarthy stuck with the familiar, which means Kevin Doyle on his own up front. Actually, the arrival on loan of Jamie O’Hara means Wolves are slightly more positive than pre­vi­ously, with the Spurs mid­fielder looking to provide Doyle with a more reliable link to his midfield runners.
In the early stages McCarthy must have been pleased with what he saw. O’Hara saw plenty of the ball, and with Matt Jarvis on the left looking to have the beating of Albion right-back Gonzalo Jara, Wolves were asking more questions than their opponents.
In terms of actually creating chances, however, space was at such a premium in open play that both sides were looking to set-pieces for their oppor­tu­ni­ties. Albion, with Chris Brunt’s classy left foot delivery, looked more dangerous in this respect, with both Odemwingie and Paul Scharner going close.
Neither goal­keeper had had to make a serious save, however, when with five minutes remaining before half-time, Wolves took the lead. The free-kick some 25 yards out was well-worked, in that Nenad Milijas’s unex­pected lay-off gave O’Hara time to measure his effort, but cleanly though O’Hara hit his first-time curling shot, Albion goal­keeper Boaz Myhill will be dis­ap­pointed that having got a good hand to the ball, he could not prevent it going in.
Wolves should have been two up five minutes after the restart when Albion centre-half Gabriel Tamas, under no pressure, mis-timed and mis-directed his header back to Myhill so badly that it left Jarvis com­pletely free with only the goal­keeper to beat. With time to spare the winger scuffed his shot wide.
Albion responded, Odemwingie freeing Fortune for an angled drive which was deflected wide off Wayne Hennessey’s shoulder as the Wolves goal­keeper held his ground strongly.
Soon after­wards only a bril­liantly timed tackle by George Elokobi prevented Odewingie shooting with only Hennessey to beat, but the equaliser looked a certainty when Odemwingie nodded the ball across to Fortune six yards out. For some reason the former Celtic striker decided to try and take a touch instead of steering it home first time, and succeeded only in missing the ball entirely.
The feeling that it was destined to be Wolves’ day was strength­ened soon after­wards, when Jonas Olsson ‘s twisting header from a corner beat Hennessey all ends up only to be headed off the line by Jarvis.
With time running out it looked as though Wolves had done enough, but James Morrison tried a last shot through the crowded penalty area. Hennessey went down to save, but could not hold the ball, which bounced up for Vela to turn joyfully into the empty net.
McCarthy has now seen his side concede points-losing goals in the last three minutes of six games this season, but the Wolves manager took some con­so­la­tion in his team’s overall efforts.
“Of course it was a dis­ap­point­ing end, but the overall per­for­mance was good. Perhaps Wayne [Hennessey] should have held the ball, I don’t know, but it was a bobbly old pitch, and well take the point and go to Blackpool for our next game.”

Originally posted at The Sunday Times

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Written by RichardRae

February 23rd, 2011 at 9:11 am

Irvine buys himself time

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Not every stand at Hillsborough was packed to the rafters

Sheffield Wednesday 4 (Potter 15, C Morrison pen 68, pen 77, Johnson 76 ) Hereford United 1 (Fleetwood 9)

Richard Rae at Hillsborough

When your chairman is Milan Mandaric, life from a manager’s point of view is simple: you either win matches or you are sacked.
The odds on Alan Irvine surviving in his position if Sheffield Wednesday had been knocked out of the Cup yesterday were therefore long, for all that the trigger-happy Serbian busi­ness­man had given the Scot the go-ahead to bring in a number of new faces during the transfer window. Getting through until the fifth round of the FA Cup should therefore buy Irvine a certain amount of time, time that he must have thought might be running out up until the point a battling Hereford United side conceded a penalty and were reduced to ten men in the 67th minute.
“It probably was a big result for me per­son­ally,” Irvine acknowl­edged after his team had gone on to win com­fort­ably. “I’d be very naïve if I didn’t think I was in a pre­car­i­ous position. But it was also a great result for the club, which is the important thing.”
It is in fact a result that takes Wednesday into the fifth round of the Cup for the first time this century, but it was a result that did not look like coming for an uncom­fort­ably long time.
The manner in which Hereford took the lead in the ninth minute must have lead Irvine to fear the worst. Jake Jervis’s low cross should have been easily cleared by either Tommy Spurr or Michael Morrison, but the two Wednesday defenders comically stepped back to let the other put boot to a ball than instead ran through to Stuart Fleetwood. The Hereford forward had all the time he needed to control the ball and smash it past Wednesday goal­keeper Nicky Weaver.
Given the mut­ter­ings from around the stands, it was as well the visitors could only hold their lead for six minutes. Wednesday left-back Daniel Jones had pre­vi­ously come forward to good effect when another run and pull-back resulted in Paul Heffernan stepping over the ball to create space for Darren Potter to drive firmly past Bulls’ goal­keeper Adam Bartlett.
For the rest of the first half Hereford were probably the better side, and Fleetwood, running clear of the Wednesday back four, missed a great chance to put them back into the lead.
Having pre­sum­ably been given something of a rocket during half-time, Wednesday were better after the break, and Clinton Morrison had already seen one shot deflected wide when he was wrestled to the ground by Joe Heath as he tried to get on the end of Gary Teale’s cross. The assistant rather than the referee, seemed to give the decision, but it meant Heath had to go and Morrison himself scored from the spot.
Forced to go forward, Hereford started leaving space at the back. Weaver’s quick throw-out gave Jermaine Johnson’ the oppor­tu­nity to run and shoot for Wednesday’s third, and Morrison, with a second penalty given slightly harshly for handball, made it a happy final ten minutes for the Wednesday crowd.
“I thought we were starting to get some momentum before the penalty, but up to that point Hereford were playing well, albeit that we gave them the encour­age­ment of the opening goal,” said Irvine.
“None of their players seemed to appeal for the first penalty,” com­plained Hereford manager Jamie Pitman. “It was a tight match up to that point, and I certainly don’t think we deserved to lose it 4–1.”

Star man; C Morrison (weds)
Booked; Rose.
Sent off; Heath.
Att; 16, 578.

Sheff Weds; Weaver 6; Spurr 5; M Morrison 5, R Johnson 6, Jones 5; J Johnson 6, Potter 6 (O‘Connor 57, 6), Coke 5 (Sedgwick 81), Teale 6; C Morrison 8 Heffernan 5.

Hereford United; Bartlett 6; Rose 6, Kovacs 7, Townsend 6, Heath 5; Colbeck 6 (Green 76), McQuilkin 7 (Thomas 80), Lunt 6 (Purdie 5), Featherstone 6; Jervis 6, Fleetwood 7.

Referee: S Tanner 4.

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