Yesterday morning I came across this article which, more than anything else I have read, brought into focus the size of the task facing City at Selhurst Park last night. While the two leg promotion Play Offs have often seen away teams coming out on top in recent years, for the some reason, the opposite is true in two leg League Cup Semi finals. Why this should be, I cannot begin to guess, but, with twelve out of the previous thirteen last four games in the competition having been won by the home team and only two away successes in the last twenty five Semi Final encounters, perhaps last night’s 1-0 First Leg loss to Crystal Palace is not as disappointing an outcome as it first appeared?
In my reaction piece to the 1-0 win at Forest on New Year’s Eve, I talked about the fine margins that make all the difference in so many Championship matches and, in many respects, last night’s match was typical of that league with two evenly matched sides playing with great determination and energy in a game that was, essentially, decided by two refereeing decision that went against us. The fact that both incidents came from dead ball situations could be said to back up those who claim that, although our league is exciting and amazingly competitive, the creativity needed to fashion chances in open play is in short supply. That was certainly the case last night as goalscoring opportunities were at a premium even from set piece situations and so those two decisions from Mike Dean become all the more important.
The first came in the forty third minute when Anthony Gardner scored the goal that currently separates the sides when the ball came off Mile Jedinak’s arm rather than his head as he beat Tom Heaton to the ball that was eventually flicked in from close range by the ex England international.. To be fair, it took Sky Sports, with all of their different camera angles, some time to produce pictures which showed this and so I don’t think the officials could be blamed for not spotting the offence, but the same could not be said for Mr. Dean’s decision to rule out Kenny Miller’s header from a corner early in the second half for an alleged push on keeper Speroni by Joe Mason.
Referee Mike Dean signals for the free kick which denied Kenny Miller what looked to be a valid equaliser - as Malky Mackay said, the ref was blowing his whistle virtually as soon as the corner left Peter Whittingham's boot.
To my mind, Malky Mackay got it spot on in his post match interviews when he said that Mr Dean (who I thought had a good game otherwise) blew for a free kick because he had realised that he might have been wrong to award the corner in the first place. The television pictures seemed to show that Speroni did not get a touch to Joe Ralls’ shot which flew narrowly wide, but two wrongs don’t make a right and if Mason really was guilty of a foul, then referees should be blowing up for free kicks or penalties every time a corner or attacking free kick is played into the penalty area.
That said, I daresay that there will be some who see Tom Heaton as the villain of the piece. The keeper, who has been Malky Mackay’s first choice for Cup matches this season, was made to pay for his decision to come off his line to try and deal with Darren Ambrose’s free kick and Jedinak’s intervention left Gardner with a simple task. However, there is a context behind so many decision that are made on the pitch and I think the following should be born in mind when considering the part Heaton played in the goal. Firstly, although he had conceded four on Saturday, Heaton played well at West Brom and, in my opinion, couldn’t have been blamed for any of the goals. Secondly, before the match on the weekend, Heaton had played three hundred and forty minutes without conceding a first team goal.
Therefore, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Heaton was a confident keeper going into the game and I’m sure all of those who say that City keepers should “dominate the penalty area” more would have been applauding as he dealt with much of what came at him prior to the goal in a decisive and assured manner. Leaving aside the ball coming off Jedinak’s arm, I’d say what did for Heaton was the quality of Darren Ambrose’s free kick – to be honest, with just a couple of exceptions, I didn’t think Ambrose’s set piece delivery was as good as it can be and, for most of the time, our free kicks and corners (not to mention Gunnarsson’s long throws) caused more problems, but he got the one that counted right and, although I’m not sure it will have made any difference, I’m certain there’ll be those blaming Malky Mackay for not using David Marshall last night.Anthony Gardner heads his first goal in nearly four years from point blank range to leave City slight underdogs going into the second leg.
As for the rest of the game, we started and finished it well and Palace probably shaded the middle bits, but, overall, I thought it was a game that should have finished up as a draw on the balance of play. I’ve seen Palace play four or five times this season and it seems to me that their approach is broadly the same no matter where they play. Even at home they look to counter attack by making use of the pace and ability of Zaha and Scannell (when he starts). Last night Ambrose also had licence to get forward to support Murray and Martin, but Dougie Freedman always likes to use two shielding central midfielders (in fact he used three defensive midfielders at Cardiff City Stadium). Palace play a defensive game home and away and, to be fair to them, looking at how their season’s going compared to the two previous years, you can’t really blame them.
Just as they did in the league in November, I’m sure Palace will provide a stern test in the Second Leg and this time, they’ll have the advantage of a lead to hold on to. Any side that has won at Old Trafford deserves to be respected and when you also consider that they have six away wins already in the Championship, they will be confident of finishing the job in thirteen days time. However, my gut feeling is that if we get the first goal on the night, then everything changes and I’d back us then because away teams obviously find it so difficult at this stage of the competition.