Wednesday, 27th October 2010
You never quite know what you're going to get as a team in the League Cup, the modern trend being to make maximum use of the first team squad. There again when you get to the last 16 of a competition maybe a strong starting XI is called for. Prompted partly by injuries in one or two areas, Mr Grant elected to field what, by any measure, would qualify as a weakened side at the start of this one, that eleven comprising Stech, Faubert, Ben Haim, Tomkins, Da Costa, Kovac, Parker, Boa Morte, Barrera, Cole and McCarthy.
It was the worst of starts – indeed it almost looked like a continuation of the second half of the Newcastle game – and we were one down within six minutes. It was an awful goal as well. Let's consider the evidence. We were playing Stoke City. What do you think of when you think of Stoke City? Delap's throw-ins and set plays in general are the things that leap to mind to me. So what on earth were the defence were thinking of when Stoke were awarded a corner on six minutes? Pennant crossed and Jones, nodded in. No challenge, nothing.
A strong response was required but there seemed to be a strange lack of urgency. Sure, if our luck had been a bit better on 13 minutes we might have equalised but even that effort summed up our first half. Barrera cut in from the right and shot, his drive hitting a team mate and spinning over with Begovic wrong-footed and stranded. Stoke showed little attacking threat but nearly doubled the lead on 19 minutes. Walters fed Higginbotham on the Stoke left. When the predictable long cross came in, Tuncay, like Jones before him, had no challenge to trouble him and his header was a little too close for comfort.
It appeared that we had no real interest in staying in the competition – ok maybe that's a bit strong but it certainly looked like we were doing all we could to assist the visitors in their endeavours. A short back-pass from Ben-Haim kept Stech on his toes with Walters lurking. Walters then benefited from an “so sad it was comical” mix-up between Kovac and Da Costa but thankfully the forward's effort was wayward.
And now a word about this habit of kicking the ball out when players are injured. Is it just me or are more and more players cynically exploiting this trend? We had an example of this on the half hour when Higginbotham lay pole-axed on the floor deep inside our half. We brought the ball forward as far as Cole who was in good space on the right only for the striker to put the ball out to allow the Stoke player to receive attention. Whereupon Higginbotham rose from the dead and jogged happily back into position.
Just to make things worse the ball was thumped all the way back to Stech. It's a tough one – nobody wants to see serious injury go untreated but, when players abuse the process refs ought to be a bit more willing to issue the cards such situations deserve. A bit like time wasting really. Of which more later.
We spent much of the remainder of the half camped in the Stoke half of the pitch without ever really looking like scoring. The nearest we came was just before half time when Boa Morte found Cole with a clever ball inside a defender. Cole played the ball square to McCarthy who capped a wretched 45 minutes by completely missing his kick when well-placed only 12 yards out.
The second half commenced much in similar vein to the way the first had ended. A couple of early corners apart, the visitors were content to sit back and watch us come forward. However, we did create the odd chance here and there. A Barrera corner was missed by Begovic and Tomkins threw himself at the ball, the header coming off the foot of the post going out for a goal kick.
Nothing happened for the next minute. Actually that isn't quite true. Begovic slowly retrieved the ball from behind the goal then trudged across to the other side of the six-yard box. Actually trudged is probably overstating the case. His movement was so slow that, when he reached the far side of the goal area, he had to take another few seconds to flatten the grass that had grown in abundance since he had commenced his oh-so-slow journey.
Pausing only to adjust his socks, check the position of the ball and check his voice mail, he finally launched the ball forward. Ref Webb noticed all this and made great show to everyone of holding his watch aloft and tapping it. This he did on the six or seven subsequent occasions that Begovic delayed the restart. The last time I looked at law 12 it contained wording that states that a referee “must” caution a player who delays the restart of the game by taking an excessive amount of time to take a free-kick or goal kick. There again my copy of the laws is probably out of date given FIFA's habit of issuing directions on an hourly basis.
Tomkins' near miss felt like confirmation that it was going to be one of those nights. I suspect that Stoke boss Tony Pulis felt the sameas, shortly after he started to make substitutions that were the footballing equivalent of a cricket declaration. Firstly Pennant was replaced by Pugh, a defensive midfielder replacing an attacking one. This was closely followed by the replacement of Jones, who seemed to be carrying a knock, with Gudjohnsen, who has found another mug to pay his hotel bills these days. Back on the pitch Tuncay found some space on the Stoke left and Stech had to be alert to turn his near post shot away for a corner.
We continued to press forward and Parker added to the “it ain't gonna be our night” atmosphere by hitting a low shot narrowly wide. This was shortly followed by our first change of the night. Kovac went off to be replaced by Obinna, leaving behind as he left one of those little yellow patches in the grass that you get when you leave something on the lawn for a few days. Our second and third simultaneous changes occurred about seven minutes later as Boa-Morte and McCarthy left to be replaced by Behrami and Noble.
The crowd reaction to LBM's departure was, to these ears anyway, slightly disappointing. Although he hadn't had the greatest of games at no stage did he hide – and he wasn't alone in that respect. The substitutions made a hell of a difference. Obinna brought a save out of Begovic and both Behrami and Noble looked lively.
The changes and the increase in urgency that they brought prompted Stoke to make one final change of their own. Off went the gifted Tuncay and on came the, er, slightly less gifted Delap, prompting us to ask what had happened to those advertising hoardings that appeared in last season's league encounter.
Time was ticking and something was needed and needed quick. Shawcross brought down Cole in the box but nothing was given. Having got lucky once, Shawcross did it again to the same player and, despite appearing to get nothing of the ball, Webb awarded a corner. Proof if proof were needed that it wasn't going to be our night. Only it was.
With six left to play on the clock, Barrera collected a pass from Obinna and sent across the perfect cross. Parker's run across his marker was superbly timed and the skipper for the night's header was glanced past Begovic with perfection to give us the equaliser that we were convinced wasn't going to come. On the balance of play, however, the equaliser was no more than we deserved on the balance of play.
With the momentum firmly in our favour we pressed forward to try to save us the bother of another 30 minutes. Obinna in particular seemed to have somewhere better to be and a shot from distance came close. Shortly before the end a potentially dangerous break by the visitors was brought to a cynical end by Ben Haim whose body check earned him a deserved yellow.
Webb added three minutes of stoppage – a rather baffling period given the amount of theatrical watch-tapping, a couple of appearances by the physios and the full complement of substitutions. At the end of the period we were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box. Obinna won the raffle to take it but drilled it into the wall and that was that for the 90 minutes.
We attacked the Sir Trevor end in the first period of extra time. It took six minutes for us to take the lead. And what a goal it was. I'll be honest, when we got a corner on the left I wasn't particularly happy with it being taken short. However, the ball ended back with Noble whose magnificent run left three or four Stoke players scratching their heads as he got to the goal-line. Noble pulled the ball back towards the penalty spot where Da Costa, who had remained up for the corner that hadn't come. Da Costa buried his shot to give us a deserved lead. Goal to Da Costa but mega kudos to Noble.
The goal had two effects. Firstly, Stoke reverted to plan A, that being to get the ball up to the wings as quickly as possible to try to win a throw-in for Delap. The second effect was that Begovic's goal kicks were suddenly – and hilariously - taking seconds to complete rather than the millennia that had been the case at 1-0. As for the throw-ins, well after their initial ropey start, Tomkins and Da Costa had improved to the extent that they actually won most of Delap's projectiles. This was just as well, since the illegal attentions of the forward line on Stech were being ignored by Webb. Stoke, without Pennant, Tuncay and Jones lacked any sort of guile and we always looked more likely to score, a deflected shot from Barrera coming closest in the first period.
We turned round 2-1 up. The pattern was similar to the first period – Stoke looking for throws with us looking dangerous on the break. Halfway through the period we survived a mini scare when Shawcross found himself unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box. However his attempted back-heel was well wide and, in any case, the linesman had raised his flag, Shawcross being a good two yards offside at the time the ball was played. Three minutes later, another Delap throw saw Stech being flattened. The foul went unpunished by Webb but the loose ball was hacked high into the Sir Trevor.
And then it was all over. With both Barrera and Faubert collapsing from cramp and about two minutes left to play, Noble broke out of defence and played an inch-perfect pass through to Obinna who took the ball into the box before driving past Begovic to make the score 3-1. This prompted a set of gymnastics from Obinna including backflips and the like. Apparently. I was buried under loads of celebrating Hammers at the time. It could have been four – Obinna got on the end of another Noble pass but put his shot wide when one on one with the keeper. One minute of stoppage and that was your lot.
This was very much a curate's egg of a performance. For much of the game we looked as if we could stay there all night without scoring. Then, when we did start to create chances, we couldn't put one away. This was the right result in the end but wouldn't it be nice for once if we could play well for the whole 90 minutes (or 120) instead of having patches of Jekyll and Hyde football.
Ah well another step closer to Wembley. I understand that they've done the place up a bit since we were last there!
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One good save. Looked a bit uncertain against Delap's aerial bombardment and his kicking needs a bit of work. Decent match though.
Going forward we got the usual four poor crosses for every dangerous one but he did ok.
Tal Ben Haim
A couple of potentially costly errors in normal time. Took one for the team in getting a yellow card for a block that broke up a dangerous looking break.
Like Da Costa, he got steadily better as the game progressed. Unlucky not to score.
Manuel Da Costa
Recovered from a shaky start which led to the goal. Took his goal well and relished the different challenge that the introduction of Delap brought in.
Another fine game. Superb goal. At one point he appeared to be playing the opposition single handed.
His withdrawal was the catalyst for our recovery.
Luis Boa Morte
Not the greatest of matches but nobody could fault his effort on the night – unlike some others.
A microcosm of the team as a whole – sometimes breathtaking and dangerous, sometimes anonymous. Fine cross for the equaliser.
Like Boa Morte he didn't have the greatest of matches but he never gave up, despite the often illegal attention of the Stoke defence – one unpunished stranglehold in particular sticks in the mind begging the question what did he have to do to actually get a free-kick.
His air shot was the 'highlight' of a rather dismal performance.
(Replaced Barrera, 69 mins) Not afraid to run at players – something that had been lacking in the period prior to his introduction.
(Replaced Barrera, 69 mins) Outstanding – I'd give him MOTM for that run alone. He ended up being the difference between the two sides.
(Replaced Barrera, 69 mins) Well taken goal. Made a hellofa difference and also picks up a 5.9 for artistic impression for the gymnastics.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Luis Boa Morte
Did not play.
Did not play.
Referee: Howard Webb.
Man of the Match: Mark Noble.
West Ham United
Marek Stech, Julien Faubert, Tal Ben Haim, James Tomkins, Manuel Da Costa, Scott Parker, Radoslav Kovac, Luis Boa Morte, Pablo Barrera, Carlton Cole, Benni McCarthy.
Goals: Scott Parker 84 Manuel Da Costa 96 Victor Obinna 118 .
Booked: Tal Ben Haim 88 .
Sent off: None.
Begovic, Higginbotham, Shawcross, Wilkinson, Huth, Pennant, Whitehead, Whelan, Tuncay, Walters, Jones.
Substitutes: Pugh (Pennant 55), Gudjohnsen (Jones 58), Delap (Tuncay 77).
Subs not used: Nash, Soares, Tonge, Faye.
Goals: Jones (6).
Sent Off: None.