Jamie raises the question over in the comments at CCN of how well we actually played on Saturday. It was something I thought about after the briefest of telephone conversations with Nick that night as he reckoned that Bolton played poorly and made us look good. I don’t necessarily agree with that argument and Roy Hodgson rejected it out of hand in his post-match interviews.
To suggest we were gifted three goals and therefore we won is rather a damning indictment of the way we played. I’d suggest three goals was a fairly scant reward for the number of times we got in and had chances to score.
He’s right. We played some excellent football and coped very well against the third physical and long-ball favouring side we’ve faced in a row in the league. We have always been a bit vulnerable to the up and at ’em style popularised by the likes of Allardyce (you’ve only got to recall how we wilted under pressure in the second half last Wednesday) but the way Hangeland and Hughes stood up to Kevin Davies and company was perhaps the best part of the afternoon.
The second best thing to come out of that performance was – for me, anyway – the manner in which we used the ball. I’ve already noted before that Roy’s very much an Italian manager and some fans have been quick to criticise the way we move the ball around. We are content to have posssession and the momentum sometimes only builds towards the end of our attacks. There were ocassions when we zipped the ball around pretty quickly at Bolton and you could argue that the first goal was directly brought about by a defence-splitting ball from Simon Davies, where the Welshman tried to force the issue. It would be remiss not to add that goals one and two also owed a lot to Andy O’Brien’s defensive ineptitude.
We’ve now reached 20 away wins in the top flight (the Reebok now joins Eastlands and Ewood Park as the only grounds where we’ve won twice in the Premier League), although our record on the road remains shocking. Is it too much to hope for a late away resurgence like the one that carried us to safety last year? Perhaps. But I do feel we could still nick a few wins away from the Cottage. They might be crucial if we harbour genuine ambitions of pushing on above ninth place. The defeats by Hull and Blackburn have probably robbed us of any chance of European qualification – slim, though it might have been – and there’s always the prospect of successive beatings at the hands of a fired-up Manchester United and a newly in-form Liverpool to bring us back down to earth.
We’ve still got to play all three of the contenders in the ‘title race’ (I’d be happy to enter into a bet with anyone who thinks the trophy will be leaving Old Trafford come May). Strange as it may still sound, I think our best chance of getting anything from any of the top three will come at Stamford Bridge. We won’t roll over against United as we have done in the two recent games (surely not?) and I can just see a gallant failure, like the time Ronaldo sprinted half the length of the field before drilling in a last-minute winner at the Putney End a couple of years ago. Liverpool could be in a healthy enough position to play what Benitez believes is his full-strength side when they visit us in April and I’d fancy the passion of the derby to see us raise our game against Chelsea as we did just after Christmas at the Cottage.
To come close against the top three and even improve on our league position (which still fills me with joy every time I scan the top half of the table), our midfield will have to be at it’s best. Fortunately, Dickson Etuhu’s got plenty of recovery time between games now and I felt Murphy was back to his best on Saturday. We may not see as much of Olivier Dacourt as we once thought we might – it’s entirely possible that he’ll be heading back to France in the close season. Whether we’ll get to see Giles Barnes in the first team is one of those intriguing questions that only time will answer.
It was great to see Simon Davies back to his best again out on the right. I’m of the firm belief that his below par performances this season have been the result of Roy sticking him out on the left. He performed well there at the tail end of last season but it seemed that the whole team had a bit more license to go for it in those frantic last few weeks. He scored a good goal and his reaction after scoring (which is always something to see) was brilliantly captured by this photo.