United may not be the power they once were, but logic said that successive visits to Manchester in our remaining Premier League fixtures would see us remain on eighteen points while home games against Southampton and Stoke and Stoke and Hull respectively for Sunderland and Palace would see them get the one point they needed to see our worryingly poor goal difference consign us to last place.
Unfortunately, both of the sides below us yesterday morning did enough to move above us – Sunderland showed the spirit which earned them a point they should never have got at Cardiff City Stadium by again coming from a couple of goals down to earn a draw, while Palace edged a 1-0 win. The worst case scenario would see those two sides move a decent distance clear of us with further victories in their next match while we are at Old Trafford, but there would be a bonus of sorts involved because it would keep Stoke and Hull (both of whom have still to visit Cardiff) looking over their shoulders – it also needs to be said that Sunderland’s remaining away programme looks tougher than ours, while Palace’s fixtures next month should give us the opportunity to close up on them provided we do the business ourselves.
That though is the crux of the matter, Norwich’s win yesterday means that, with the exception of Swansea (who have the chance to change things today when they entertain Tottenham), all of the sides from Villa down have won at least one match since we last picked up three points – we can look at “winnable” home matches and a run of fixtures next month which offer the hope of climbing a long way up the table, but our last two games at Cardiff City Stadium have seen us completely botch things up against the two teams currently on the same number of points as us. Because of this, I’d say we are now in a position whereby our rivals can afford the occasional home draw against sides around them in the table, whereas, unless or until, we can get back to the sort of position we enjoyed during the first half of the season, we need three points every time.
There are grounds for hope though. During the week I did some research regarding that well known stat that only one side which were bottom at Christmas have escaped relegation (West Brom in 04/05). You would have thought that sides which dropped to the foot of the table with less of the campaign left would stand a lower chance of climbing clear, but it’s not true. Besides the Baggies in Earnie’s first season with them, Oldham were bottom going into February in the Premier League’s first season in 92/93 and Wigan were two seasons ago and they both stayed up – furthermore, all three teams were propping up the league going into March as well.
Of course, far more often, the bottom team, is relegated, but there are those precedents which show this isn’t always the case and, in a season where the battle to beat the drop is as tightly contested as this one is, I’d said the chances of a team defying the odds are better than they’d normally be.
If history tells us we are far from doomed, then it also has to be said that our recent away performances have offered some hope as well. To be honest, I had virtually given up on us collecting any more away points after our defeat at Palace because I couldn’t see many games where we had a chance of avoiding defeat – Swansea maybe, West Brom possibly, Sunderland perhaps, but that was it. Don’t get me wrong, I still firmly believe that if we are going to stay up, then it’s going to be at Cardiff City Stadium where we turn in the performances and get the results which ensure it, but, while I have a tendency to focus entirely on last weekend’s feeble flop against West Ham, our away displays this month have been quite encouraging.
At Arsenal we showed a spirit, defensive organisation and discipline that so nearly got us a draw and the win at Newcastle in the FA Cup shouldn’t be forgotten either. If what happened at the Emirates suggested that we might be able to cling on for a 0-0 at places like Man United, Spurs, Everton, Southampton or Newcastle, then yesterday’s 4-2 loss at the Etihad Stadium against a Manchester City side that I think will end the season as Champions suggested that we might have the armoury, and attitude, to ensure that keeping a clean sheet did not represent our only hope of getting something out of these games.
This season’s Manchester City side are like no other I’ve seen in the Premier League era in their attitude towards home matches. They are utterly ruthless – whereas other top teams in this league have often been prepared to “declare” and accept two or three goal wins, Man City want a sixth if they have five, want seven if they have six etc. Therefore, I had visions of us going the way of Norwich (7-0) and Spurs (6-0) when we made our second sluggish start in two league games under Ole Gunnar Solskjær yesterday.
Now, I know we were up against a top quality team so it was going to be very difficult for us and I shouldn’t be too critical, but we did ourselves few favours by the way we started – we should have conceded a penalty inside a minute and we were under siege right from the kick off. It was only a matter of time before the hosts scored and they duly did when Edin Dzeko knocked in the one hundredth goal of their campaign in the fourteenth minute.
The strange thing was however, that going a goal down seemed to relax City and they began to get a foothold in the game with the returning Jordon Mutch showing up well in the middle of the park. It was the performance of Craig Noone though that really suggested that we might have the attacking threat to cause Man City more problems than I for one had anticipated.
Before yesterday. Noone has been something of a success story in his first team appearances when compared to our other creative attacking midfielders (the aforementioned Mutch apart). The winger did have a tendency to fade in the last half an hour of matches, but his level of consistency has been better than the likes of Kimbo, Bellamy, Odemwingie and Whittingham – although results have been pretty awful in the matches he has started, I’d say he had definitely earned the right to a longish run in the starting line up.
Yesterday Noone took things on to a different level, he played his best game for us and, given the quality of the opposition and the huge task his team faced, I’d have to say it was right up there with the best displays from a Cardiff City winger I’ve seen. The highlight of his performance was the delightful goal he scored around the half an hour mark when City fans were able to dare to dream for a while – after neat build up play by Kevin Theophile-Catharine and Aron Gunnarsson provided him with a half chance, Noone turned Richard Kompany inside out, then gave Joe Hart the “eyes” before rolling his shot in on the near post as the keeper was left clueless as to what sort of effort he was going to face.
Noone was rampant down the right in the second half and, just as at Chelsea where our performance deserved better than a 4-1 defeat, there was a spell of about fifteen minutes when City were definitely causing their illustrious hosts problems. The wingers ability to run long distances with the ball enabled us to play further up the pitch than expected and we were able to use the additional room this gave us quite effectively. Under the circumstances, it was ironic that it was Noone losing possession to Yaya Toure which led to the goal that tied up the win for Man City with less than a quarter of an hour left.
If Noone was, to some degree, culpable for the third goal, he also had to accept some blame for the first one as well as he allowed David Silva (perhaps with the aid of a handball?) to get to the byeline and turn the ball across for Dzeko to score. Perhaps under our previous manager defensive weaknesses like this might have seen Noone left out for the next match, but the early signs are that Ole thinks differently – if that is the case, then I agree with him.
In the first four months of the season when a succession of very difficult home fixtures ensured that our attitude was a cautious one in most of the games we played, the reluctance to use Noone was more understandable because draws here and there were acceptable in the grand scheme of things. A combination of the nature of the opposition and our league position means that the situation has changed now. We are going to be playing a number of matches which fall into the must win category – Craig Noone, playing close to the heights he reached yesterday, currently represents one of our best bets of getting those wins.
It needs to be remembered though that a side that is so set up to attack all of the time as Man City are when they play at home are a completely different proposition compared to a relegation rival playing away who knows a point will do them fine. Noone, or his attacking team mates, won’t have as much room to prosper, but I’d like to think that what we saw in an attacking sense at the Etihad that we might be able to find the penetration and goal threat which proved so elusive in our last home game.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/