Sunday, March 01, 2009

Gardner's question time

Bolton 1 - 0 Newcastle United

On another miserable afternoon in the North West, a solitary goal from substitute Ricardo Gardner was enough to condemn us to defeat and plunge us back deep into the relegation mire.

Not the most inspiring opening paragraph, I grant you, but then it was that kind of afternoon.

With Damien Duff injured and Kevin Nolan, like teammate Danny Guthrie, denied a reunion with his former employers (though thanks to suspension rather than injury), Chris Hughton restored Spiderman to the side and also handed the fit-again Obafemi Martins a start. A potent combination of pace and attacking endeavour - or so we thought.

Bolton created the best opportunities in the first half, but we were thankful that they all fell to Johan Elmander, the £10m Swede seemingly intent on proving himself a prize turnip. First he brushed aside a couple of challenges inside the box but had his fairly feeble shot past Steve Harper swept off the line by Jose Enrique. Then an incisive passing move down the Bolton right ended with the striker blazing high over the bar from six yards. To complete his hat-trick, he squirmed a poor volley wide of the far post.

Elmander's strike partner Kevin Davies was proving a handful for last week's man-of-the-match Sebastien Bassong, the Frenchman guilty of clumsy challenges on several occasions, one of which could easily have resulted in a spot-kick. We've conceded more penalties than any other Premier League side so far this campaign (nine to date), but mercifully Alan Wiley chose to maintain Bolton's record of not having been awarded one all season rather than to extend ours.

One of the few bright spots of the first half was Ryan Taylor's delivery from set pieces. From one superbly curled free-kick from deep Shola Ameobi crashed a diving header off the base of the post, only to be ruled offside, while it was from a Taylor right-wing corner that Martins forced Jussi Jaaskelainen into an excellent save, clawing away a header that bounced up off the turf. The Nigerian went on to squander arguably the half's best chance, sending a header wastefully wide when left free at the back post following a four-on-three break.

The only other point of interest in the first half - other than Monkey's Heed's presence in the stands - was a pointless and childish spat between Nicky Butt and Bolton's Matt Taylor. Both were booked but, for raising their hands and going temple-to-temple, a more officious ref might have produced red cards. Not exactly the example Butt's supposed to be setting as captain.

So, a familiar story at half-time - the points there for the taking if we believed in ourselves, upped our game and went about things in the right way in the second period. And a familiar story at the beginning of the half - our opponents having been told the exact same thing and actually acting on it.

I can only assume that the fact Ricardo Gardner had only just entered the fray as a half-time substitute meant he was able to sneak completely unmarked into the box to apply the finish to Matt Taylor's cross. After all, with his flying dreadlocks, daft tufty beard and swaggering run, he's hardly the Invisible Man.

The goal failed to kickstart the game, the Trotters content to sit back and us clueless in the attacking third. Most frustrating of all was Spiderman, who - for all his energy, application and dynamic breaks down the left flank (where he easily had the beating of his full-back) - consistently failed to produce the key shot, cross or pass we were praying for. It was like a knife continually scraping against solid rock. When one foray was halted illegally on the edge of the box, Ryan Taylor curled his free-kick wide.

The pressure finally began to tell in the last fifteen minutes. Ameobi wasted at least two opportunities with tame efforts, we were desperately unlucky to see a penalty appeal waved away when Jloyd Samuel flung his arms in the way of a goal-bound Fabricio Coloccini shot, and Peter Lovenkrands failed to take advantage of an unorthodox assist from the stumbling Steven Taylor by firing wide of the post.

Given the circumstances, in which losing 2-0 or 3-0 would have been as bad, Hughton's decision to withdraw Martins for Captain Pasty was mystifying - why not take off Enrique, switch to a back three and boost our attacking power? As it was, I can hardly recall the Captain touching the ball before Wiley blew the final whistle.

Still no win after falling behind this season (never mind the comeback kings, we're not even the comeback peasants...), but even a point would have been precious. Blackburn's win at Hull combined with unexpected and unwelcome results for Middlesbrough and Stoke mean we're now once again just two points off the relegation zone.

It's never a good time to play Man Utd, but to have to do so when in the midst of an awful run of form against sides from the North West, when without our four first-choice central midfielders (Butt limped off in the second period to join Guthrie, Nolan and ASBO on the sidelines), when we seem to have lost our way to goal and when we're in such a precarious league position is very bad news indeed.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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