Latics 1-1 City
Saturday 1st December 2007

A hunk of huff and puff between a couple of slices of stupidity, garnished with an unkind refereeing decision may not seem like the ideal snack to take away the relegation blues, but when you’re a team that’s been starved of points, goals and hope, you’ll take what you can get when you can get it. Any way, enough of my lack of breakfast, let’s get on with Saturday’s game.

Thirty seconds from kick-off and Steve Bruce must have been choking on his claims that he was now in charge of a better squad than the one he left behind at Birmingham, the fans would have been wondering if anything could possibly get the squad back on the right tracks and Titus Bramble, well… who knows what he was thinking? One look at him and you could see that he wanted the ground to open up and swallow him (not that far away a possibility at the JJB), but surely he’s had enough of that felling in the past to know, especially when facing your own goal, that simplicity is always the better option.

You could go on at length about his decision making, but it’s been done to death, both over the weekend and in the past, and we should leave it with the thought that we knew what we were getting and should be thankful that, so far, this sort of thing has been the exception rather than the rule. The new manager knows a thing or two about playing in that position and hopefully he can help Titus stop it happening on a too regular basis.

A 1-1 draw against a City side looking to European qualification isn’t a bad start to the new manager’s reign, it could have, and maybe should have been a more productive result, but the key thing in this game was always going to be stopping the rot. There may have been many of the usual suspects on the pitch on Saturday, but taking the opportunity of the fresh start there was a bit less of the soft-centre about them.

Not that this performance was a cure all. Scharner and Landzaat still look a mismatch in the middle of the park and the former, despite being in the right place at the right time for the equaliser, still struggles to look like he knows what he’s doing. Elsewhere, Koumas continues to leave Kilbane exposed and despite some nice periods of play both he and Valencia don’t seem to be able to create any sustained attacking pressure. You can’t escape the feeling that we’ve just got a surfeit of round holes, with only square pegs to fill them.

Marcus Bent may have grown a little in people’s estimations over the last few weeks. His hard work in the lone role meaning that he’s escaped much of the criticism thrown at his team mates. However the return of Emile Heskey put Bent’s abilities in stark contrast, blowing away any doubts about the importance of the number 9 to Latics’ cause.

Not that Bent did badly; he just doesn’t stand up in comparison. Whilst he looked alright when partnered with Heskey for the first hour or so, he didn’t create too much once Emile’s tight hamstring saw him retire for the afternoon.

Heskey’s departure saw another, hopefully less fleeting, return for Ryan Taylor. His placing on the left hand side of midfield may have seemed a little strange but it allowed Koumas to move into a more natural, and possibly, in the longer term, more fruitful position behind the lone striker. It also gave him a half an hour on the pitch, something that may prove vital if Latics are to manage without Mario Melchiot over the next few games.

The conclusion from your first look at Melchiot’s challenge on Steven Ireland would depend almost entirely on where you were sat. For some a fair block on a 50-50 ball, for others a daft two footed lunge in an unimportant part of the pitch, in a nothing period of the game. Even on closer examination you’d forgive either side of the argument. There was no such dilemma for Mike Reilly though and, without even pausing to let the right back apologise for his actions, the red card was out.

What is clear is that there were far worse challenges over the weekend that had far less drastic consequences. Mikel’s sheer dangerous scissor tackle on Scott Parker on another day would have resulted in a broken leg and Diouf’s assault on Arbeloa was just reckless, neither challenge apparently warranted any more than a yellow card. Of course not everyone can get the rub of the green and if Melchiot feels hard done to then he should look and see what the Dowd/Rennie dream team did for Robbie Keane.

The real criticism for Reilly though is reserved for a couple of other decisions. Isaksson’s save from the resulting chance means that the free kick following a panic inducing pass from Samaras will be forgotten just as the consolation corner means that no-one was that bothered about him missing Richards knocking the ball out of play with his arm. His last decision of the afternoon though will go down as the one that cost Latics three points.

Again it’s more of a debating point than a cut and dried case, but it’s one that raises a regular question throughout the game, does a handball have to be deliberate for the referee to give a free kick? Proceedings at Filbert Street mean that we all know where Ian Holloway stands on that one and we can only assume that Reilly sits on the same side of the fence, he wouldn’t be caught not giving big decisions against a ‘big’ club would he?

The letter of the law contains no reference to intent though, relying instead on the much clearer concept of gaining advantage. Surely when a player is struggling to control a ball and gets a little bit of help from an appendage, whether flailing or nicely by his side, he has gained advantage. Look at the City players’ reactions to the incident and, almost to a man they glance at the referee and breathe a sigh of relief, the culprit, Etuhu, looking suitably sheepish about the whole thing.

Latics may be in a position where they have to take their points where they come, but they can be excused a little disgruntlement that they didn’t get more from this game. Without the penalty incident the result would have been a fair one, the game chalked up as a hard fought draw and the fact that Latics dominated proceedings would have gone down as a positive sign for the weeks ahead.

The draw doesn’t take away those positives and whilst getting into double figures would have been nice, a win against Bolton next week will still see us leapfrog them and in all likelihood out of the relegation places. There was enough in this performance to suggest that could be a real possibility, but a lot will depend on which Bolton turns up.

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