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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 11/8/01
Manchester City
Black thoughts
By Ian Grant

If you accept that the armchair viewer is now all-powerful - and why else would this game have kicked off at a time that satisfies neither tradition nor convenience for attending supporters - then you naturally start to ponder where it might all end. Because there's only one thing that the TV companies don't yet control, which is the level of entertainment on offer.

Perhaps that's the next step, then. If the game's getting a bit dull, its audience could vote for substitutes or tactical changes. Heck, the potential's even there for "Big Brother"-style evictions to replace the referee's red card. Sadly, had any of this been in operation last night, you suspect that the punters would've decided to replace one of the teams entirely.

Of course, this was the first competitive game of a new era. Of course, it's too early to make definite judgements. Of course, there's still much work to be done. Nevertheless, this was absolutely dreadful, an evening entirely devoid of positive signs. The only exception to that is the knowledge that the defeat wasn't as heavy as it might've been.

Luca Vialli's first Watford line-up contained more extravagant talent than any other in the club's history. That it didn't amount to the sum of its parts is something of an understatement. Rather, it resembled nothing so much as one of those teams that you assemble in management simulations, when there's no real need to worry about how they'll fit together as a unit. You half-expect Vialli to explain that Marcus Gayle scored loads of goals when he signed him in Championship Manager.

The result was a vacuous, nondescript, indistinct performance. Much of the time, there was literally nothing there, just a set of individuals running around very fast as if motion might substitute for organisation. At poor Espen Baardsen's end, three goals were conceded, a number that was some way short of the worst case scenario. At the other end, just a couple of shots on target and a meagre handful of half-chances.

To my mind, the answer to both of those problems lies in the midfield - the part of the squad that's most over-subscribed, ironically. So far, the new regime has produced a midfield that exists purely for its own sake, providing neither cover for the defence nor service for the strikers. Without doubt, it's full of players of great quality, yet it has no purpose or direction.

In particular - and I apologise for the repetition - the prediction that we'd miss Steve Palmer at some point hasn't taken very long to come true. Because the decision to give Eyal Berkovic as much space as he wanted in which to dictate City's attacks proved to be most unwise. Watching it all unfold, we would've given anything to see that familiar figure doing an equally familiar man-marking job on the opposition's danger man. Instead, we simply had to watch it all unfold some more.

So, regardless of the scoreline, the defence bears little responsibility. And the goalkeeper even less. And the attack some, but not much. Quite simply, they were all left completely isolated and exposed. We lost possession far too cheaply, thus faltering long before getting sight of the opposition goal, then failed to put up sufficient obstacles before City's attacks reached the final third. The only surprise was that it took so long for the deadlock to be broken.

For the first five minutes, we were the better side. Indeed, had Stephen Hughes been able to get a shot away after Nash's scuffed clearance had fallen to him after two minutes, our early eagerness might've been rewarded with a goal. As Hughes and a bustling Paul Robinson combined well on the left, it all looked rather promising.

Really, it remained promising for a while longer. As City began to come into the game, we were able to contain them reasonably effectively. While Stuart Pearce's swinging free kick, after Robinson had up-ended Wanchope on the edge of the box, didn't miss the target by very much, the same could be said of a rising drive from Patrick Blondeau that scraped the crossbar on its way into the stand behind. So, there were still few indications of just how one-sided the game was to become.

Until the twenty minute mark, that is. Then, Berkovic's delightful dink into the penalty area split the defence, leaving Wanchope pulling back his foot to smash the ball on the half-volley. He was stopped by an astonishing intervention from Ramon Vega, flying in at waist height and brilliantly removing the ball from the striker's toe. A series of corners followed and, although we dealt with them capably enough, City's first spell of serious pressure had begun. It never really stopped.

By half-time, we really should have been two or three goals down. That's "should", as in missed chances of a very high quality. To begin with, there was Berkovic managing to lift the ball over an open goal from ten yards after Espen Baardsen had only managed to push away Tiatto's well-struck drive as he dived down to his left. To sum things up, there was no challenge on Tiatto as he moved forward to shoot from outside the area, while the last-ditch efforts of the defence did enough to distract Berkovic as he followed up.

Just a minute afterwards, Berkovic was causing us all kinds of grief again as he darted down the left and, while still on the run, sent in a wonderful chip that drifted towards the top corner. It brought the best out of Baardsen, whose stretching dive was just enough to enable him to get his fingertips to the ball and divert it away from its intended course. From the corner, Howey headed wide at the near post. Suddenly, we were getting murdered.

No longer in the game, it became a matter of hanging on until the interval. We did that, just. With everything going through the inspired Berkovic, our reconstructed defence was completely exposed and severely tested. Indeed, the best chance was yet to come, as that man again managed to sneak into space on the left of the area and squared to the unmarked Goater. From six yards, his side-footed finish was too deliberate and hit Baardsen's legs as the keeper dived desperately back across his line. Again, Baardsen had saved us...although, on this occasion, not without some good fortune.

The first forty-five minutes of Luca Vialli's reign concluded with Goater heading straight at the keeper from Charvet's right wing cross. Again, lack of finishing had let a chance slip by, and we were left clinging to the hope that these misses might return to haunt City. There wasn't much else to cling to, frankly.

Before too long, there was nothing whatsoever. Our goal led a charmed life for a while longer, particularly when Pearce's thumping free kick from wide by-passed everyone and crashed against the far upright. It rebounded out, with great piles of bodies attempting to pounce on the loose ball and a series of scrambles before the danger was finally cleared. Lordy.

Frustratingly, disaster struck just as it seemed that City's eagerness to capitalise on their massive superiority might be creating opportunities to hit them on the break, using the pace of Tommy Smith. For the first time, we were able to dispense with the over-intricate and futile passing patterns in favour of releasing the ball into the space behind the home side's defence. Nothing came of this...but you have to remember that we were looking for things to cling on to, and we weren't in a position to be fussy. Incursions into the City penalty area were still rare, although Marcus Gayle did head wide from a Micah Hyde cross.

A false dawn, though. Because, just as I was reflecting on the marginal improvement, we'd lost control in our own half again, and a series of ricochets led to Goater running through. His low finish was blocked superbly by Baardsen, who really couldn't have done any more to keep his team in contention. But we were unable to clear effectively or organise ourselves, so that, when Charvet's cross came in, Goater was still unmarked to smash a header into the roof of the net.

Game over, really. A single goal margin has rarely seemed so wide. With our attacking efforts resembling one of those slidey picture puzzles, each move getting no nearer to the final objective, there was no way back into the game. The lack of width meant that there was no easy way of getting the ball into the opposition box, leading to an endless, exasperating series of failed attempts at a precise final pass. On this evidence, we'll score some exquisite goals over the course of the season. We just won't score very many of them.

Worth nothing, however, that Paolo Vernazza had our only noteworthy on-target shot at this point. From twenty-five yards, it zipped along the turf and required Nash to dive down to collect. Not much of a return for seven hours of travelling, in all honesty.

Immediately, we were two-nil down. From Granville's superb cross from deep on the left, Goater rose higher than his marker and thumped a header against the bar. It fell for Berkovic, who seemed to fanny about for an age before finally forcing the ball past Baardsen.

If there was anybody with sufficient reserves of optimism to be hopeful of a comeback, even they would've given up when Paul Robinson was dismissed ten minutes later. In truth, he was rather unlucky, appearing to be tripped and falling when his boot caught the breaking Berkovic. You wonder whether a second booking was strictly necessary for a relatively minor offence on the halfway line.

That said, it's worth pointing out that others were rather more fortunate. There were far too many flying challenges here, indicative of a failure to get close enough to opponents and deal with them in a more controlled way. In particular, Blondeau, who'd been already booked for a clattering foul in the first half, was extremely lucky that he didn't make contact with the intended target of a scything challenge on the touchline. And Galli was later thankful for the referee's lenient decision to show the yellow card for his hack on the goal-bound Tiatto. So, honestly, it's difficult to complain about finishing the match with ten men.

The rest was pretty miserable, obviously. It was enlivened slightly by Heidar Helguson, whose sheer hunger was refreshing, but there was no escaping that unarguable scoreline. Indeed, it might still have been worse - Baardsen again saved from a Tiatto drive, before Vernazza's ill-advised dallying in his own half led to a break for Charvet and a shot into the side netting.

Appropriately, it ended with another City goal. That goal should've and would've come from Tiatto's determined break towards the box, were it not for Galli's illegal intervention. But, after the referee had let the Italian off with a booking, Stuart Pearce enforced his own justice by flashing the free kick past the wall and past Baardsen. Heads down, groans of despair, black thoughts of a long journey home.

For now, there are no conclusions. For now, there's nothing. This team remains a blank canvas, such is its current lack of, well, anything much. Naturally, there's time to get it right, to find a way of making that midfield work, to look for a reliable method of creating chances, to sweep all the worries aside. Yes, there's time....

Mind you, it'd be quite splendid if we didn't have to endure too many matches like this while we're waiting....