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Functional Potters lack our gloss finish!


John
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Nine points from three games in an 8 day period is Championship form. OK lets not get too carried away but as we enter the festive period we now look realistic Champions League contenders as we prepare for a 6 pointer against Arsenal and a home game against mid-table Liverpool!

This was the sort of game we would not have won at home last season and it was a game we did not having squandered a 2 goal advantage late in that game in a game on which our season turned. This result may prove just as important as all good sides have the ability to win games that they don’t really deserve to on the balance of play. The same Stoke outfit turned up yesterday and were determined to make it very difficult for us once more. They pushed up to give us no room to play in midfield and they did much to minimise our flow of crosses from wide positions. On balance they did not deserve to go home empty handed and they had a lot of the possession other than in the crucial last 10 minutes when it mattered most but you don’t always get what you deserve in football and a team who were prepared to match us for effort went home pointless possibly due to the fact that Beattie spent most of the time warming the bench after his recent reported naked scuffle with his boss rather than presenting the goal threat they clearly lacked. But enough of Soap Gate!

I think I can hear the Bee Gees singing “Tragedy” as I write with a tear in my eye thinking of the gloomy trip after the game for our Staffordshire neighbours. Tony Pulis may bemoan a refereeing decision that went against them but we have suffered the odd dubious decision against a big 4 outfit in the past. Other teams will have to accept that there is a new big 4 team on the block who will rightly expect to get the rub of the green that has been up until now been the exclusive preserve of the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. So did Sidebe gain an unfair advantage when he went for the ball with Warnock that would have given them a first half lead? To quote Arsene, “I did not see it” but I’m glad referee Probert did and I respect his authority and back his decision 110%. To quote another boss from yesterday, as Rafa said yesterday the referee’s performance yesterday was “perfect”.

My player ratings from a game that has left us fourth, just 2 points behind Manchester United and 8 points clear of Liverpool are:

Brad Freidel – 6 – Very little to do but what he did he did with his usual competence.

Luke Young – 7 – A great block on 64 minutes to deny the tricky Tuncay an opportunity to equalise on 64 minutes. Spent less time moving forward than he usually does due to the pressure Stoke put us under but he was a rock at the back.

Richard Dunne – 7 – Solid as he always is. The selling of Richard may have proved the decision that cost Mark Hughes his job because they already had a better defender at their football club than the ones their millions brought in at great cost. But, their loss was our gain!

Carlos Cuellar – 8 – Another very good performance that threatens to leave James Collins sitting on the bench for much of the festive period and beyond unless Martin decides to try to rotate our three central defenders over the next five games we face within a 2-week period. Did very well with just over half an hour left to take the ball off Whitehead’s foot inside the box with a tackle that needed to be 110% right after Tuncay had played him in.

Stephen Warnock - 6 – Not at his best yesterday and was beaten a few times which he will have been disappointed by. The burning question for me is was he being very clever when he went down under Sidebe’s challenge on 31 minutes in the knowledge that he had no chance of getting to the cross? The free-kick was given, their goal disallowed although many of us feared it would be given and our run of wins continued.

James Milner – 8 – MOTM - Our best midfield player by a distance yesterday and was involved in everything positive that we did.

Stiliyan Petrov - 6 – Not quite at his steadying and influential best. Stiliyan was unable to find the time on the ball or the room he usually does in the midfield against committed and industrious opponents. Hit a good shot on 15 minutes that Sorensen was only able to parry to Gabby whose shot he then saved with his feet.

Stewart Downing – 6 – Not quite as impressive as in recent games and may have found a third game in 8 days so soon after a long lay off hard to manage. Hit a well worked free kick a couple of feet wide on 40 minutes when Ashley had looked the likely taker of the free kick up until Stewart hit the ball.

Ashley Young – 7 – Our main wide threat yesterday. Hit a splendid cross for our winner on 61 minutes after Downing switched the ball to him out wide and Big John does not miss from there. Hit a good in swinging ball towards the near post on 33 minutes cross that Carew was not quite able to turn in under pressure from Higginbotham.

Emile Heskey – 6 – Replaced on 22 minutes due to injury. Made space well using his body strength to ensure that Downing’s skidding dead ball found its way to Dunne whose waist level header flew harmlessly over. Now looking a proper centre forward following a run in the side.

Gabby Agbonlahor – 6 – Might have had a couple of goals yesterday but worked hard and his all round play continues to stay at a level of what he had produced this time last season. Foiled by Sorensen’s feet when he latched onto that parry from Petrov’s effort on 15 minutes and then had a shot blocked by Higginbotham on 59 minutes.

Substitutes:

John Carew – 7 - Replaced Emile on 22 minutes. Chested down a ball from Young well on 53 minutes that he then hit his shot well over. Headed our winner when he connected with Ashley’s superb cross on 61 minutes but needs to watch those goal celebrations as the corner flag went into the lower Holte at some pace!

Steve Sidwell – 6 – Replaced Downing on 80 minutes. Might have settled our nerves on 87 minutes when Carew headed down to Gabby who found Steve with room on the edge of the box but his shot bent inches wide of the post. He had a second opportunity 2 minutes later when Milner found him in space from a corner but he hit his shot high and wide. Did some decent late defensive work on 92 minutes when he got a good block in and then moments later when he played the ball out of his own box and away from danger.

Up the Villa & a Happy Christmas to all my readers!

John Lewis

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The ref was poor, the team looked tired, Warnock had a bit of a mare at times, but given the efforts they've put in over the past week or so, most of that was to be expected. Stoke didn't have their shooting boots on at all, either.

I agree Milner was again the best player on the pitch, one pass to Gabby that he didn't read was fantastic, and his general play was just excellent.

I hope they rest up well for another burst of games, and don't go out on the lash and ruin their chances.

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