A dreadful game, determined in a dreadful fashion.
We could probably leave it there, for there’s precious little else to report, and even less of it will gladden the heart. West Bromwich Albion may be the best away trip the Premier League has, but its footballing offering yesterday cannot fail to leave us cold, and still concerned about how this season is going to pan out.
Beforehand, a goodly portion of the Tiger Nation assembled in the spectacularly brilliant Vine public house, a 20 minute walk from The Hawthorns. It does curry and ale, and is sufficiently excellent as to represent the sole reason for attending for many. Beforehand, confidence was moderate. Tony Pulis is not quite the Josep Guardiola his more loyal media advocates may fancy him to be, but any new manager affords a sugar rush to underperforming players. It’d be tough.
Nonetheless, the side selected afforded us a level of optimism. Two strikers, and as strong a City XI as injuries would allow, with three changes from the FA Cup defeat at Arsenal and a line-up of: McGregor; Chester, Davies, Bruce, Figueroa; Elmohamady, Meyler, Livermore, Quinn; Jelavić, Hernández. 4-4-2.
West Brom made five changes themselves from the side that hammered Gateshead 7-0 last week, with ex-Tiger Boaz Myhill only on the substitutes’ bench.
City began kicking away from the section housing the away fans in a corner of a stand behind the goal. The area set aside for segregation was oddly and unnecessarily large, with a large expanse of empty seats between home and away fans, causing the usual problems with sold-out sections. Eventually, the stewards gave up and let people stand in aisles, thoroughly peculiar with so much unused space.
The atmosphere was fine though, with everyone stood and half-and-half-scarf losers gratifying absent. Things weren’t as good everywhere else however, with the home fans either strangely subdued or reliant on a drum-beating virgin. C’mon Albion, you’re a proper football club, you can do better than that.
The afternoon’s first shot was from Maynor Figueroa, whose effort from some way outside of the penalty area screwed several yards wide. Shortly after, Saido Berahino missed something of a sitter from a dozen yards after fastening onto a Sessegnon flick-on.
Little else of note really happened in the game’s opening quarter, with the home side looking sharper in possession, but with City having more of the ball. Cagey, you could perhaps call it. Not a great spectacle – though the 19’04” protest was hearteningly vocal.
Frustrated by this, both sides resorted to efforts from distance, one from a hopelessly long distance by Livermore sailing well over, and Berahino responding from outside the City area with a shot that McGregor comfortably caught.
On 33, things began to go wrong. Nikica Jelavić hobbled from the field, to be replaced by Robbie Brady.
On 40, things went even further wrong as Hernández tried and failed to run off an injury and Tom Ince replaced him. City would have to play over half the game without a proper striker on the pitch. Already, we suspected that 0-0 may represent the summit of our ambition – although a surprise lead was almost pinched when Brady’s rasping shot nearly caught Ben Foster at the near post, the keeper doing well to recover and parry it to safety.
We only just made it to the break level when Ideye squandered a brilliant chance. Fed in space on the right of the City area, he only really had McGregor to beat, however he scuffed his effort wide. A poor miss, and a real let-off for City.
Neither side made a change at the break, but the home side began to take the initiative in the second half, with City’s previous possession advantage eroded and reversed. Not that it overly troubled anyone in the away end, which was a bit of a party by this time, in a way we haven’t often seen this season (and certainly not at games against the Sky Sports Mega Super Big Clubs).
Fun off the pitch. Tepid on it. Shorn of any forwards, City looked wholly lacking in direction, and what few chances were created fell to the home side, Berahino hammering one wide from distance and McAuley heading wastefully off-target.
A rare moment of brightness for City came when Brady scampered into space on the left and crossed well for Ince – his header was successfully blocked, and Elmohamady’s follow-up effort was manfully repelled by a covering Albion defender. Good stuff, from both sides.
With the game drifting towards a goalless draw that’d have suited City more than West Brom, Tony Pulis made a brace of changes, bringing on Anichebe for Ideye and Gardner for Sessegnon. However, the game’s decisive moment a few minutes later was very much of City’s making.
A defensive mix-up saw Elmohamady pat the ball back to the out-rushing McGregor, who probably had little option but to pick the ball up and concede an indirect free-kick about 13 yards out. The resulting wall crumbled quite pathetically, and Berahino’s low shot deflected in.
If there’s a worse way to lose a game than that, we haven’t seen it lately. It was dopey stuff from defence and perhaps keeper to concede the free-kick, but for the wall to jump and dissolve when doing neither would have unquestionably quelled the danger was galling.
Tom Huddlestone was instantly brought on for Quinn, and there was one chance left in the game – Ince cottoning onto possession, but instead of keeping calm he completely lost his head and wildly swiped the ball over. And that was that.
A cheap defeat, this one. There’s little you can do when both of your forwards limp off, and City’s injury crisis is now of season-threatening scale. But the way the goal was conceding was not good enough, the lack of chances created paltry and a promising start collapsed into a pretty crummy display.
So, once again City have gifted victory a side around them, and undone much of the good work done in the thrilling victory over Everton. A lousy loss to relegation rivals and the potential loss of either or both of Jelavić and Hernández. We’ve had worse days than that this season – but not many.