Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Season 2011/2012: Match 10: Arsenal 0 Manchester City 1 (Carling Cup Quarter Final))

I'm back in London with work this week, and this trip has luckily coincided with a busy week in the English football calendar.

The last time I was down, I took in West Ham vs Ipswich, but this time around I'm at top flight grounds, although not for Premier League matches.

First up on Tuesday night was Arsenal against Man City in the Carling Cup.

When I booked the ticket, I did so expecting to see Arsenal U19s vs Man City reserves. It wasn't quite as bad as that, although there was no Van Persie, no Kompany, no Arteta, no Szczesny, no Hart, no suspended Balotelli, no Tevez (too busy arguing with his own reflection in an Argentine mansion).

But included in the line-ups were Benayoun, Chamakh, Djourou, Squillaci, Park, Zabaleta, Dzeko, Toure, Johnson, Nasri, Hargreaves and De Jong (brilliantly described as "The World's Most Expensive Nigel" by The Guardian not long after he signed for City).

Nasri had a tough evening, booed by almost the whole stadium every time he went near the ball, retribution for deserting the club late this summer.

And what a stadium it is. I'd been before for a conference held in one of The Emirates' sumptuous function suites, but the atmosphere outside the ground for Tuesday's match was electric. I did a full lap, reading about the true legends of Arsenal who grace the stadium's outside walls.

Where Hampden, also a huge purpose-built football arena, feels like a soulless bowl, the Emirates crackles from the minute you step out of Arsenal tube station. The view from my seat in the gods was perfect. I genuinely couldn't fault the place. The only stadium I've liked watching a game at more is Ibrox.

It's just a pity that Arsenal weren't firing on all cylinders. They actually contained City very well - Laurent Koscielny in particular was composed at the back, marshalling Dzeko with confidence.

But Arsenal's front two of Park and Chamakh were a long way off the pace. Park in particular was a huge disappointment, and made no impact whatsoever.

Arsenal's brightest attacking player throughout was teenager Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who gave the city defence a torrid time from the right wing. If his final ball had been a bit more dangerous, or his strikers more alert, Arsenal might have taken something from the match.

In the end though, it was City who moved into the semi-final. Sergio Aguero, introduced in the first half as a substitute (a £38m substitute!! Is that a record?) was played in by Adam Johnson and dispatched a low finish past Lukasz Fabianski.

Arsenal can feel aggrieved, but it was their own poor finishing that cost them. A decent enough match, and certainly a bit different to the Montrose v Ayr United match I was at a week earlier. (A cup tie that ended in a single-goal win for the visiting side....)

Man of the Match: Most of City's players looked comfortable. Aguero clearly put the shits up the Arsenal players, as they looked panic-stricken for about five minutes after he came on. Toure organised the City defence well. Oxlade-Chamberlain's performance against illustrious opponents belied his tender years. But for me Koscielny was the stand-out perfomer, giving an assured performance at the back in the face of attacking talent most defenders would baulk at.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Season 2011/2012: Match 9: Montrose 3 Berwick Rangers 5 (Irn-Bru Division Three)

Hurricane Mo is currently howling her way through Angus' answer to Rio de Janeiro, and high winds almost threatened to derail today's clash of tit(an)s at Links Park.

Referee Kevin Clancy was seen in conversation with both managers just five minutes before kick-off, debating whether the match could go ahead. Needless to say, it did, and the two sides served up an eight-goal thriller.

The match could have gone either way, and the wind did play a part in the proceedings. Montrose were playing against it in the first half, and keeper Michael Andrews never seemed to grasp the idea that long kicks up the park were out of the question.

It was the home side that took the lead today, Martin "Star of The Sun" Boyle flicking the ball over goalkeeper Jamie Barclay from a Scott Johnston lob into the box. The ball looked to be dropping wide of the post, but Boyle nipped around the keeper and stooped to nod the ball into the net.

The lead lasted 11 minutes, Berwick finding an eqauliser out of nowhere, Darren Gribben thumping a low shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.

Gribben was a constant pain in the ass threat, and put the visitors ahead five minutes later, flicking a header into the bottom corner from Kevin McDonald's cross.

Both sides had chances throughout the first half, Montrose looking especially dangerous from set pieces. But it took them until six minutes after the break to find an equaliser, Paul Lunan sending a sublime shot high into the net from the edge of the box.

That goal should have spurred Montrose on to win the match, but Berwick took only nine minutes to restore their advantage, Jonathan Crawford caught in possession from a short McNally pass, Stuart Noble taking advantage to beat Andrews with a low shot.

It was Andrews himself who was at fault for Berwick's fourth, spilling a catch that allowed Noble to thump home from six yards out. This isn't the first time Andrews has been culpable this season, and there have to be questions over his bottle, as although he makes a lot of good saves, he also makes a lot of bad mistakes.

Montrose were given a brief boost three minutes from time, Dougie "Kneeheid" Cameron scoring directly from a wind-assisted corner, Barclay unable to scoop the ball to safety before it had crossed the line.

But that brief boost came to an end three minutes into added time, Ross Gray turning on the edge of the box and dinking a shot over Andrews and into the net.

Barclay had to be alert direct from the following kick off, Jamie Winter thumping a shot from just inside his own half that would have dropped into the net had the keeper not been watching closely.

All in all, a disappointing but not disheartening day for Montrose. They created plenty of chances, their top goalscorer found the net again, their second goal was a peach and their third was a feat seen all too rarely.

They sometime lacked defensive composure, but that is nothing new. Jonathan Smart was out of the team today, the Alan Campbell and Sean Crighton partnership restored at centre back. Winter, Masson and Lunan look to be forming a solid unit in the middle of the park, and Cameron and McNally appear to be thriving as fullbacks/auxiliary wingers.

Andrews in goal is an enigma - a great shot stopper who has saved Montrose a number of times in recent matches, but who is prone to disheartening errors all too frequently. Sandy Wood can still feel aggrieved at having been dropped after his strong pre-season form, but at least we've left the days of experimental mime artist Ramiro Gonzalez's Crab Football Extravaganza behind.

Conceding five goals at home is unacceptable, as is scoring three at home and still losing. But again (and I feel like I say this after every Montrose match) there were a lot of positives from today's performance.

Montrose: The team that aspires to mediocrity.

Man of the Match: Today was more of a team showing, with no one player standing head and shoulders above his colleagues. Terry Masson continues to look like a creative and defensive force in the middle, while Jamie Winter - who I regard as a luxury player - is nevertheless beginning to look like he should be the first name on the team sheet every week. Dougie Cameron has also improved considerably over the past couple of months, putting some of his more disastrous errors behind him and looking like a genuine leader on the park. In fact, of the the three candidates I've just named, I'm shocking myself by selecting him as my man of the match - for the second time in three matches. I think I need medical help.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Season 2011/2012: Match 8: Montrose 1 Ayr United 2 (William Hill Scottish Cup Third Round Replay)

Holidays and other real life stuff meant that it was a month since I'd last seen Montrose when I donned the warm jacket and Thinsulate bunnet for last night's Scottish Cup replay.

By all accounts the Gable Endies had given a spirited performance against Ayr in the original tie, and had been well worth their draw.

There was a good turnout last night, the crowd just a smidgin under 600 for a Tuesday night cup match a month shy of Christmas.

Montrose started the better side, and had several chances to take an early lead, Terry Masson coming close on a couple of occasions with twisting runs and powerful shots that were saved or deflected wide.

But despite having the best of the first half, Montrose were a goal down at the break, Michael McGowan playing Alan Trouten into the box, the winger rounding Michael Andrews and shooting into the net.

The same player doubled Ayr’s advantage in the 73rd minute, latching onto a short passback and flicking the ball over the home goalkeeper.

Montrose never do things the easy way, and Jamie Winter's 81st minute goal suggested that they were going to claw their way back into the match in the dying minutes. A short free kick from Stephen McNally was touched to Winter, who hammered a Groanin' Jockesque shot from 20-odd yards that flew into the bottom corner.

The home side threw caution to the wind from that point, pouring everyone up front. If Jonathan Smart was half the striker he thinks he is, he'd have equalised in the dying seconds, but instead he shanked his volley out for a goal kick.

Martin Boyle had put the ball in the net even before Winter's goal, but it was chalked off for offside in questionable circumstances. The striker was definitely onside when the ball was played, and succeeded in rounding Kevin Cuthbert before rolling the ball into the net. Some amongst the press corps suggested he may have handled the ball in the build-up - I guess we'll never know.

All in all, Montrose can be proud of their performance. Over 180 minutes, they refused to lie down to a team that, on paper, should be far superior. With more luck they could have won last night to set up a money-spinning lucrative desirable clash with Livingston in the fourth round.

But there were enough positives last night to suggest that progress is continuing.

Man of the match: None of the players could be ashamed of their performances last night. All of them worked hard, tracked back, covered their men and passed quickly along the ground. Michael Andrews made a number of crucial saves to keep the home side's hopes alive. For me, the key performer was Terry Masson, just edging out Sean Pierce. Pierce was creative throughout, and his crosses were begging to be tucked home. But Masson was a figure of authority in midfield, crisp in his passing where Winter was occasionally wasteful, a danger going forward and a leader from deep.