When a team that is struggling as much as City are lose to mishit shot which loops slowly and gently into the net deep in to added time, then it’s only natural that people are going to bemoan their bad luck. However, I have to admit that I agreed with Roberto Martinez’s assessment of our 2-1 defeat at Goodison Park yesterday afternoon – Everton deserved the points overall, despite a fighting Cardiff performance.
In fact, it could be argued that all that has happened in March compared to the previous three months as far as our away games go is that we are losing by one goal on our visits to sides near the top of the table rather than two, because, despite the nice things that were being said about us last night, we had lost another match in a manner in which relegation sides do.
All of the above is a pretty brutal way of looking at things though. For example, how can you not feel sympathy for David Marshall after yet another heroic display from our keeper? Yes, I know he has more to do than his contemporaries in this league, but, honestly, has there been a better goalkeeper week in, week out in the Premier League this season than ours? People say that he will leave us if we go down, but I think we will struggle to hold on to him even if we stay up.
I read this week that Lucas Fabianski looks likely to leave Arsenal this summer, if that is true, then Arsene Wenger could be well served bidding for our keeper as someone who would not just be a better back up for Wojciech Szczesny, but would be good enough to put the Pole under real pressure for his first team place. The same is true at almost everyone of the top clubs – they would be getting a goalkeeper who is a great age for that position and may get better still.
You had to feel for Marshall’s team mates as well who scrapped and fought for the whole ninety minutes while also playing with more fluency and attacking threat than in most of their recent away matches and for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær who was brave enough to switch from the three centreback formation we had seen at Spurs to a 4-1-4-1 approach similar to the one used against Fulham and to make an attacking substitution (Zaha for Fabio) with the score at 1-1.
I think the first of those changes worked in that it led to an improvement in our performance, as for the second, that’s more arguable given the final outcome. There were certainly people on the messageboards who returned to the Zaha substitution after the game had finished, but, having had years of reading about “negative” substitutions by a variety of City managers which have cost us points according to the online critics, I can’t be too critical of Ole for having the cojones (to use the word he did in his post match press conference when referring to his team), to go for the win – the truth is managers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to substitutions if the result goes against them.
At least Zaha looked more up for the fight when he came on and, if his head is right, then he can be a real asset for us in the weeks ahead. In fact, although losses at Tottenham and Everton, have lessened our chances of staying up compared to what they were in February, the encouraging thing about the three games so far this month is that quite a few City players seem to have “got their heads right” when compared to what we were seeing a few weeks ago – our manager seems to be having more success in, first, getting his message across to the players and, second, getting those players on board with that message as well.
Most people have us as good as relegated already and, if I’m being honest, I think they’ll be proved right come May. That said however, I’m more optimistic as we enter a third, and most decisive, phase of our season than I ever thought I would be at this point after the Hull debacle.
I say third stage there, because I’ve always believed that our season could be divided up into three phases – the first, lasting until early December, consisted of seven very tough home matches and eight more, less taxing, away games, the second, ending this weekend, consisting of eight “winnable” fixtures at Cardiff City Stadium and seven exceptionally hard away encounters and the third being a mini season with two out of four remaining home games against title contenders and the other two against relegation candidates, while we have four away matches that, on paper at least, look more akin to the away games we faced at the beginning of the season.
The first phase saw us do very well, in my opinion, to gain eight points from those seven home matches – apart from Swansea and Newcastle, the sides we faced currently occupy five of the top seven places in the league (Newcastle are ninth as well). While a return of six points from the away games was probably slightly less than we should have got – fourteen points from fifteen games was not great by any means, but, if we could sustain that sort of points per game rate throughout the campaign, then the likelihood is that we would stay up.
The second phase has not gone well though. Eleven points from eight home matches doesn’t sound too bad, but, when you compare the quality of the opposition we faced with the standard of the teams we saw at Cardiff City Stadium earlier in the campaign, it’s not been good enough. The need for improved home results was emphasised by an awfully tough run of away games since we were beaten 2-0 at Palace with trips to six of the current top seven sandwiching the derby at Swansea. Ironically, the heaviest beating and worst performance (by far) in that run of seven games came at the Liberty Stadium where we just didn’t turn up against a Swansea team reckoned to be in crisis at the time – the other six games all saw performances ranging from decent to pretty good, but nothing at all in the way of points.
So, especially when you weigh up the toughness, or otherwise, of the fixture list during these two phases, I would argue that we have performed like a side who would just about stay up in the first one and like one which is definitely going down in the second – now we need mid table (or better) results in the third phase if we are to stay up.
Now, thinking that a side which has won just six times in thirty matches can win four (it might be that we will need five wins) of their last eight seems like the height of optimism (it probably is!), but, when you look at the opposition we face in those matches, maybe it isn’t as far fetched as it would first appear.
Phase three starts with a home game against a Liverpool team which, at times, have played some devastating counter attacking football away from home, but they can be got at defensively, especially from set pieces – a referee who actually acts on what Mr Skrtel gets up to in such situations would be a great help as well! However, the odds are that it will be another defeat for us, but the important thing is not to let that get to anyone too much (Liverpool, like Chelsea, is a “bonus” game where anything we get will only mean that we might be able to afford the odd disappointing result elsewhere).
After that, we have four out of our next six games away from home – once again, the bald statistics (eight consecutive Premier League away defeats) look daunting, but two games against relegation rivals in front of crowds that will put their teams under enormous pressure if things aren’t going well, offer the hope of a Craven Cottage type result for City. As for the other two, I always feel that the best type of sides to face at the business end of the season are ones with nothing to play for – Southampton (although a side capable of playing with real quality if the mood takes them) and Newcastle definitely fall into that category.
The chances are that Stoke will be another side with nothing to play for by the time they come here and then we have Palace which. no matter what happens to both teams in their next two matches, looks like the original “must win” game as far as we are concerned.
That slight feeling of optimism I have is dependent on us being where we have been mentally this month for the rest of the campaign and us not looking as frail and dispirited as we did against the likes of Swansea, Hull and Wigan – Roberto Martinez comes across as a generous man and it might be that his post match assessment of us was just him being his usual self, but he knows quite a bit about relegation scraps after his time at Swansea (as a player) and Wigan and if he genuinely believes we “are going to get a lot of points between now and the end of this season”, then I’m not going to argue with him!
* Pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/