Rumble in the Jungle – Stoke report

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Stoke 2-2 Latics
Saturday 12th December 2009

Not so much of a jungle, but the grass was certainly long enough to require the odd machete or two, which could explain some of the tackles thrown in on Jordi Gomez (that was a “chopper” pun in case you missed it) in this full blooded, winter warmer of an almost derby.  Of course long grass doesn’t usually lend itself to footballing sides, but when your team is used to sharing a pitch with t’rugby then it should be no bother.

My biggest concern coming into the game had been exactly how Latics would cope mentally with Stoke’s usually robust approach to the beautiful game and for once they did more than ok on that score.  Not only did they start like last week hadn’t happened but they stood up to some rough and tumble, choosing to stick to the strange business of kicking the ball to each other.

And the character didn’t stop there.  They didn’t fold when they lost the lead for the first time, they didn’t collapse during their customary post half time wobble and they didn’t lose their way after conceding a mere 57 seconds after scoring a goal that will be long remembered in these parts (and wider).  Remember the “shooooooot!” any time that Leighton Baines got the ball anywhere in the opposition half?  Well imagine what it’s going to be like anytime that Figueroa gets the ball anywhere (between now and January at least).

Overall, Latics were again clearly the better team on show, but again failed to turn good possession into something more and again failed to maintain a good balance between increasing attacking pressure and maintaining a solid defence.  Of course that wouldn’t have been helped by the second-half reintroduction of Paul ‘Franz Beckenbauer” Scharner to centre half and Jason Koumas’ run in Hendy Thomas’ shoes.

For their part Stoke created a run of excellent, and nerve wracking, chances during a 20 minute spell before Latics regained some semblance of control.  At that point last week they were 3-1 down and the game was beyond them, this week things were level and Latics really should have gone on and won the game.  As it was they closed the game with ten minutes of concerted pressure, excellent skill and a good few chances of their own, but it wasn’t to be.

Figueroa’s goal aside, the rest of this game will get somewhat lost in the debate that will no doubt ensue on the standard of refereeing on show.  Mike Dean should have been stronger with Stoke earlier; it might have saved Gomez some bruises and Scharner the opportunity to feel aggrieved. 

Should he have had a penalty?  Well the same referee was happy to give Pompey one a few weeks back for a bit of pushing and tugging, so why not here?  Of course you’d get 10 penalties a game if they started giving them, or maybe defenders would stop relying on wrestling to defend set pieces.  As (I never thought I’d find myself quoting him in a positive light) Dion Dublin said, what’s wrong with trying to head the ball away?

The Latics penalty?  Well of course it was, you’d struggle to find a more obvious trip, but of course it should never have come to that.  The liner on that side clearly struggling with straight lines as he returned the favour of letting Jordi Gomez run a yard offside by letting Thomas Sorenson get a yard off his line before Rodallega tickled the resulting spot kick.  Justice served, but you can’t help thinking that the world would be a better place if referees could get the simple things right.

From the fans point of view it was, surprisingly, one for the neutrals.  Some quality football, a dose of passion, a soupcon of controversy and some goals chucked in for good measure.  The coming up to Christmas Saturday lunchtime billing screamed “contractual obligation” about ten times louder than it did “watch this” but there was plenty to keep you away from the shops.

Was the result a fair one?  I want to say no, I want to say that Latics deserved to win because of the quality of their play, because of their dominance over most of the game and because they had more chances.  But it’s the same old story and they lacked the edge that would have made the difference, the majority of their chances were easily saved from mid to long range.  Worst of all they conceded a period of pressure where Stoke had the Latics defence reeling and the fans covering their eyes (well I was at least).

So overall things were probably as they should be, I’d say that it’s hard to know which of the two managers would be most happy with the outcome, but as I’ve never seen Tony Pullis with a smile, it’s not that much of a conundrum. 


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