At half time it was a question of how many goals that we would win by rather than whether we would win. They appeared to be just what we had needed to face last night namely a team that had less confidence and were in worse form than ourselves. At the end we proved to be just the team for a club at the bottom of the league to have faced. At half time it was Alex Neil’s managerial future that looked likely to be under more threat than Steve Bruce’s at the end of the game. What a difference a referee can make!
Preston had offered no threat up front and little resistance at the back in the first half, but a spot of dressing room half time cup throwing had them taking the game to us at the start of the second period. The referee’s subsequent intervention when he gave the visitors a very soft penalty and then compounded that by sending off our captain left us in disarray. Chester’s challenge on Nmecha was an innocuous one and if the referee really felt compelled to award a penalty then that should surely have been adequate punishment.
Had it not been for that sending off we might well have been in the top six rather than two points off the play off places this morning. I suspect that we would probably have weathered Preston’s early second half efforts and cruised to a comfortable win, but it wasn’t to be. Had we been in any sort of form we would have been out of sight before Chester’s dismissal because the Preston defence made our own look almost solid up until then!
The referee changed the course of this game, but we too readily surrendered the initiative when we went down to ten men last night. Other teams go down to ten men and it doesn’t have the same devastating impact upon them as it did on us yesterday. We should have tried to add another goal when we were still a goal ahead rather than negatively rely on a defence that is brittle even with Chester in it to hold out for the rest of the game. When we did move forward in stoppage time their defence showed itself to be as leaky as it had been in the first half. We left it too late to find out.
If there is one player and one position that we cannot afford to lose a player for most of a second half and for another game due to an unwarranted suspension, then it’s James Chester and our central defence.
Why did a player who has scored one goal in 7 years step up to take a vital penalty? Our designated penalty taker may have already been substituted and others may have been sitting on the bench but Bolasie who had already scored wanted to take it and surely Jack or McGinn should have also been ahead of Whelan in the queue to take the spot kick? They should have prised the ball out of the substitute’s hands.
My player ratings from a game that we looked like winning at half time and then did again with the last kick of the game but didn’t are:
Mark Bunn – 4 – Surprisingly it was he rather than Moreira who replaced Nyland and Bunn doesn’t inspire too much confidence either does he? Came out of his area on 24 minutes to get his feet to the ball before Robinson and blocked a cross at his near post on 50 minutes. Sent the wrong way from the spot by Johnson for their first on 56 minutes. Gallagher’s 79th minute free kick went past a poorly lined up wall and our keeper for the day left too much room to his left to allow their second to creep between him and the near post. Their 86th minute third from Moult appeared to go straight past him. Gathered a 66th waist high shot from the left edge of the box from Robinson and kept out a 79th minute. Perhaps Burnley could spare us one of their three keepers in January?
Ahmed Elmohamady – 6 – Hit a couple of decent crosses and had a decent enough game.
James Chester - 6 – His sending off left me wishing we had Mile available on the bench to bring on.
Axel Tuanzebe – 6 – Finally played in the centre and looked well worthy of retaining his place last night both with and without our captain alongside him. Moved a loose ball forward to Bolasie to hit in our third.
Alan Hutton – 6 – Might have got to the corner that led to their third.
Birkir Bjarnason – 6 – Looked comfortable and increasingly effective in the middle in the first half. Pushed to the ground at the far post to ensure he did not get his head to McGinn’s late corner and give us our late penalty.
Conor Hourihane – 6 – Faded in the second half but he was not alone in that.
Jack Grealish – 6 – Hit a 14th minute shot from the edge of the box over the bar. Showed some fleeting signs of still having the ability to run a game in the first half.
John McGinn – 6 – His challenge on the touchline allowed Abraham to run on to hit home our second. Has not quite seemed to take games by the scruff of the neck in the way he had been doing of late but it’s asking a lot of him to do it on his own every time.
Tammy Abraham – 6 – Scored our second and what should have been decisive goal on 37 minutes when he ran into the box from the left and stroked the ball past Maxwell into the corner of the net. Unlucky to be substituted on 56 minutes following the sending off to make way for a defender.
Jonathan Kodjia – 6 – Had a 9th minute downward header from a Hourihane free-kick blocked at the near post and was found by Elmo inside the box on 16 minutes but his shot was deflected by Maxwell at the near post across the face of the goal and out for a corner. Scored our opener on 26 minutes when Hourihane swept the ball wide to Elmo whose cross was headed past the keeper and into the far corner of the net by Jonathan. Had unusually done some work in his own half in the first quarter of the match less involved in the second half prior to being substituted.
James Bree – 6 – Replaced Abraham on 56 minutes. Got a good block in on Fisher at the near post on 81 minutes.
Yannick Bolasie – 6 – MOTM - Came on for Kodjia on 74 minutes and hit our 91st minute equalizer in at the near post. He must be starting games now.
Glenn Whelan – 4 - Replaced Hourihane on 83 minutes and made a difference but unfortunately not a positive one. Showed acceptance of responsibility by taking the spot kick that should have given us a late winner on 96 minutes but his decision cost us the game because his penalty was poorly hit to the keeper’s left and was just begging to be saved. Just because the ball was in your hands when the penalty was awarded does not mean you have to take the penalty Glenn when you are ill equipped to do so!
Up the Villa!