Paying the penalty

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Blackburn 2-1 Latics
Sunday 1st October 2006

Call it bizarre if you like but my interest in form and league tables is only a recent one. Maybe it was something to do with the years of mediocrity that heralded my watching Latics on a regular basis, maybe it’s just something personal, but I’ve always tended to take each game as it comes. Of course I want Latics to win every game but for me it’s how they go about it that’s important. So for me, the Blackburn game, or at the least the first half of it, was a vast improvement on the other two games that I’ve seen the full 90 minutes of this season.

Despite that, you have to say that there remains a long way to go. Although the lads got the ball down and tried to play football, they struggled to impose themselves on Blackburn. Although the forwards got in decent positions, real chances were few and far between. Although the team worked harder, organisational lapses saw the defence cut apart far too often. In short Latics don’t look like a team at the moment and on the occasions that they do, they aren’t exactly overflowing with confidence.

The opening minutes showed the way, and it is a simple one. With no dilly dallying a Scharner ball down the line saw Boyce heading for the by-line. Heskey’s movement in the box had got him front of his marker and ready to dispatch the full back’s quick, low cross beyond Brad Friedel. With not even 2 minutes on the clock Latics are in front and everything is looking up.

From that point Latics were marginally the better side. With this being Latics, and them proving game after game that 1-0 leads aren’t enough to take home the points they needed to make the most of it. However the possibility of them extending their lead looked less likely as the half progressed. Half chances for Valencia and Camara could have made the difference but as the break approached it looked like the team talk would centre on protecting the slender lead.

Any plans Paul Jewell had in that direction were thrown into disarray three minutes into injury time. All afternoon, Benni McCarthy had looked most likely to spoil Latics fun and so it proved. Some clever running and a cute dummy, from the South African, on the edge of the box had the defence all over the place and put David Bentley in with a chance, as soon as De Zeuuw (uncharacteristically) allowed the ex-Arsenal man to skip past him, you knew what was coming next. The finish wasn’t a simple one, but from the moment it left the striker’s boot Kirkland had no chance, with as good as the last kick of the half it was one all and time to reassess the plans.

It’s a truism that the best time to score is either just before half time or just before the final whistle and as soon as the game restarted you could see why. The goal had done wonders for Rovers and for the first 15 minutes of the half Latics were all at sea, but for Chris Kirkland’s shot stopping the game could have been beyond reach before everyone was back in their seats.

The consensus from neutrals seems to be that this was a decent game between two sides who were both pushing for a win. Latics’s endeavour wasn’t getting them too far though, or at least not until Heskey latched onto a through ball to burst into the box. In a straight race with Oojer, the striker tempted the tackle just at ‘the right time’ and, despite protests, the penalty was beyond doubt.

Looking around the team you weren’t quite sure who’d take the spot kick. I don’t ever remember Heskey being a penalty taker, but elsewhere there were plenty of options, Baines, McCulloch and Scharner would all have no doubt stepped up if required. Then again, surely the man for the day was Denny Landzaat, a 29 from 29 record from 12 yards and struggling to make his mark with the Latics ‘faithful’. In the end it was Todorov that took the ball and placed it, presumably desperate to get off the mark and put him high in the manager’s thoughts for the next game.

It’s fair to say that he made his mark, but for the wrong reasons. A weak shot between the keeper and his right hand post was easily saved, the ball rebounding back to Latics’ new fox in the box who took the chance more like a small dog in a Luis Vitton handbag. A second rebound eventually fell at the feet of McCulloch who could only manage to lift the ball into the keeper’s hands.

I’m not one of those people that will over analyse penalties, you either score them or not, the keeper can get lucky and you can make it easier for him to do so, but I’ve got a new rule of thumb. Don’t ever pitch a debut striker against a substitute goalkeeper, there’s too much romance involved. It also turns out that the Blackburn keeper saved a Todorov penalty when playing for Gillingham last season. More worrying than the miss is why the outstanding candidate, Landzaat, didn’t take the kick. If he can’t boss his team mates then how’s he going to boss the midfield?

From that point in it was inevitable. Jason Roberts was now on the field and although the defence were in the main on top of him he was managing to cause some problems. When the winner came it was a comedy of errors. A long ball that De Zeuuw let bounce had Kirkland, Roberts and McCarthy converging on the edge of the box. As the keeper swung his boot Roberts nicked the ball off him and put his strike partner in front of an empty goal. At first glance something had looked wrong and replays showed that the linesman had missed McCarthy being two yards offside for the initial ball.

The game closed out with chances for either side, but on balance another result would have been unfair. Blackburn had looked the stronger side and had the better of the chances. There were positives from the game, not least that the style of play was what the manager seems to want, if they keep playing that way things may come together but if not at least he’ll be able to see the weaknesses. There’s two weeks before Latics play again which gives Jewell plenty of time to work out where things are going wrong the only problem being that half his squad won’t be there to work on the solutions. It’s only United next mind, so it’ll be alright.

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