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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 20/01/02
Manchester City
Something new
By Matt Rowson

There's a healthy point of view, one which probably has a name in the relevant circles, which suggests that you should do something "new" every day. Maybe not something dramatic, necessarily; perhaps just taking a route home from work that you've never taken before, or trying a new sandwich filling. Just as long as you do something different. The theory is that a broader range of experiences lends itself to a fresher general perspective on life, which just has to be a good thing.

This evening, I left home barely an hour before kick-off. Until fairly recently this was as impractical as it was undesirable. I then parked the car and went straight to the ground. Another rare event. I arrived at my seat to find Ian not occupying the one next to it; not a unique event but, in that he hadn't missed a league game at home since some time in 1997, quite a rare one. (For those interested, the degree of frustration experienced by your regular correspondent in Brighton suggests that even the undoubted attractions of Samuel Beckett are unlikely to prompt a repeat in the near future.)

When Richard Short announced that Espen, Gifton, Heidar, David Noble and Jamie Hand were our "substitutes" (rather than, as has been the norm, our "substitutions"), you knew that something was very much up. When the Rookery, after a slow start, came close to filling the club's much-heralded ten minute cessation of hostilities (closer to five actually, but we'll let that pass), you braced yourself.

And this was indeed a frantic poltergeist of a game, picking things up and throwing them haphazardly and unpredictably at a nonplussed audience. Watford started with a 5-3-2 formation, apparently another random change in shape but actually, given the return and recruitment of key personnel - Glass and Okon respectively - probably a sensible move. Vega, back from suspension, rejoined Galli and Cox at the back with Doyley and Glass as wingbacks, Okon holding the midfield alongside Nielsen and Hyde with Tommy and Jermaine Pennant up front.

As early as the quarter hour mark we were forced into a reshuffle as Cox limped off having earlier received treatment. Doyley dropped into his more accustomed central role, with Heidar continuing his tour of the outfield positions as a right wing-back.

By this point, we were already somewhat under the cosh. City had plenty of possession, territory and chances in the first period, with the elegant Benarbia and the scurrying Berkovic in the thick of it. Tiatto and Horlock both tested Chamberlain early on and Wiekens glanced a header narrowly wide from a corner.

However, with the pace and movement of Pennant and Smith up front, we looked better equipped than we have done all season to hit teams on the break - in the past, our build-up has been far too deliberate in such situations. The welcome supplement of Heidar's unpredictability and bullishness, heralded when he snapped into and decisively won a physical confrontation with Danny Tiatto within a minute of his introduction, gave us further incision. One such foray saw Pennant pondering from side to side in front of his opponent before bursting down the pitch, sneaking ahead of his marker and slamming in a low shot for Nash to push wide. Helguson, in support and space on the flank, and Smith at the far post were both probably better options but it's difficult to condemn such positive play.

Further encouragement was offered by City looking somewhat less than secure at the back, with an insistence on passing the ball across their penalty area in tight situations that is all too familiar, and the nervousness of Wright-Phillips, a gem going forward but not a defender, giving us confidence down the left.

But really, City should have had the lead. A cross from the left reached Goater a mere six yards out in front of a suddenly enormous target which the Bermudan nonetheless managed to clear by a couple of centimetres. A miss worthy of comparison to Nathan Blake's gorgeous effort for Wolves just before Christmas.

As if to rub salt into the wound, Watford had the temerity to break upfield and score. Helguson, cutting in from the right, controlled the ball brilliantly on the corner of the area. His success wrong-footed his opponent, particularly the keeper Nash who lost his footing on the slippery surface and briefly skidded past the goalpost, but also, sadly, Heidar himself, as he stumbled and missed the opportunity to shoot at an empty goalmouth. Instead, he set up the onrushing Smith who slammed the ball with reassuring confidence towards the far bottom corner of the net where it nestled having been palmed half-heartedely by the hapless Nash.

Which was all splendid, even if the scoreline didn't really reflect the balance of play. Sadly, it didn't last too long; just four minutes, in fact, as Goater cushioned a header down to Wanchope who finished decisively.

The goal reignited City's belief, and for the subsequent ten minutes or so the home goal at the Vicarage Road end was under siege, with some frantic blocks playing their part in protecting the even scoreline. You'll have to excuse the lack of detail; someone with better eyesight and/or a closer viewpoint than mine might care to fill in the gaps of this interlude, but you can get a general feel by playing "Broken Face" by the Pixies at a reasonably loud volume. A lot of wonderfully hectic banging and crashing around, which then stops. As did the half.

Lucky Half-Time Chocolate: Five Smarties. Two Blue, one Green, one Pink, one Yellow.
Reason: Well, I'd already eaten my Twix before kick-off. Random kick-off times play havoc with eating patterns. And Sarah had Smarties, which are sort of good "team chocolate" anyway.
Level of Success: In that lucky Chocolate probably needs to generate good fortune, bloody appalling. Which may be a blessing, in that I don't fancy fingering through a packet of smarties to pick out the necessary combination during cold away fixtures in northern places should we hit a lucky formula.

With most of the first half having been played at the Vicarage Road end, we expected to see more of the action at the Rookery end in the second half; it didn't really happen like that. For a few minutes Watford nervously waited for an onslaught which never came.

So the Hornets pushed on instead. Glass was the first to come close with a decent free kick, and then Okon slammed in a ferocious drive that Nash did exceedingly well to block.

On reflection, it's possible that Okon's first-half performance was as wholly impressive and vital as his second. Snapping City attacks off at the stem, keeping Watford's play moving, picking out passes, the unfussy oiling of the system that you only notice out of the corner of your eye - and he would have been too far away in the first half. A very good capture on evidence so far.

When City did get forward, they found a defence that looked more secure than it had done for some while. Galli's composure played no small part here, as did Doyley's energy in its own way. Doyley found himself picking up Wanchope quite frequently in the second half, a confrontation with mayhem written all over it in so many ways; the young defender won the second period on points.

But the real star of the show was, slightly surprisingly, Ramon Vega. Vega's recent appearances have seen his weaknesses - lack of control and concentration - drown out his assets, but that was not the case today. On more than one occasion Vega read City's attacks and snuffed them out with the right run and an effortless interception. Pearce was doing the same at the other end, but this is more par for the course. The Swiss centreback also ventured forward without falling victim to his regularly haphazard distribution - indeed he twice came close to adding to the scoreline. A first-half header, won ahead of three opponents at a far post corner, ultimately lacked power; a thumping second-half shot span wide thanks, according to Ramon, to an unacknowledged deflection. More of the same please, sir.

Micah, also impressive, started to boss the midfield and slung passes left and right to choruses of cheers. Berkovic's frustration manifested itself in a laughable swallowdive inside the City half which Dermot Gallacher, to his immense credit on more than one score, completely ignored. From the resultant attack, Pennant again slapped in a shot which Nash blocked and Tiatto cleared in the face of another charge from Helguson.

More frustration from City as Horlock was booked for a lunge at the escaping Smith. Watford were now in the ascendancy and although City were far from out of it, it was difficult to see where a goal at the Rookery end was coming from.

Having said which, we had more than one warning. For all their inferiority in the second period, City's forwards never stopped working and poor communication between Alec and his defence, coupled with the infuriating persistence in knocking the ball across the back in the face of pressure, had already given away an unnecessary corner.

As for the goal itself... well, Luca should take a lot of credit for good things in this performance - not least the effectiveness of the midfield and the role of Okon - but he is by no means inculpable here. We've seen enough dodgy defending over the last two seasons not to be too bold in stating what defenders do and don't do in certain situations, but it's fair to say that most natural defenders wouldn't knock a loose ball back towards their own goal without glancing back first. Heidar's not a defender, he didn't look. For the second time in the afternoon he wrong-footed the keeper on a slippery surface in front of the Rookery. Heads in hands, City paused in disbelief and then celebrated.

It's true that, given an injury to Cox, defensive options were slightly limited. It's also true that a successful professional footballer needs to be slightly more resistant to the vagaries of the job than Heidar seems to be.

However, it's also true that part of a manager's role ought to be to help a player to overcome such problems, not put him in a situation where it's frequently going to be an issue. Further, the most significant of the many assets that Pennant will briefly bring to the side are wonderful balls planted in dangerous positions just where you'd like a lunatic Icelandic centre-forward to throw himself at them. Fortunately, we have one such; unfortunately, he now won't be available until our trip to Sheffield Wednesday in almost a month's time... by which time Arsenal may have reclaimed their crown jewels.

Heidar spent the remainder of the game a picture of absolute misery. This really couldn't have happened to a worse person from Watford's point of view. Again, City flared up after their lucky break, and Wanchope should have extended the lead, but headed Tiatto's accurate cross narrowly over. Huckerby came on for a cameo and also came close. Watford rallied and pushed for an equaliser, noisily backed by the Rookery. We forced a corner, everyone piled forward... and Gallacher blew up, the last surprise of the afternoon.

So lots of new stuff, but perhaps not too much new information. We already knew that we look a decent side against teams that give us space to play. We also knew that were probably not - yet - good enough to be at the top of the table on that basis. Losing at home to City is not a disaster in any circumstances, but is a crushing disappointment as it turns out.

The side could do with a rapid chance to get over this, but aren't going to get it. As for the supporters, with our exhausted perspectives stretched forlornly out of shape, perhaps the eleven day hiatus before our next encounter may be no bad thing.