The Tigers bounced back from Saturday’s disappointing performance at home to Burnley with a spirited effort against second placed Crystal Palace. In isolation, the point taken tonight would have been a good one but that Burnley defeat means an overall return of 1 point from 6 isn’t really good enough. A three point return would have been acceptable and it should really have been achieved. For 70 minutes, City made a mockery of The Eagles lofty position in the table playing some stunning football, pressing the visitors into giving the ball back regularly and keeping new England cap Wilfried Zaha very quiet indeed.
Steve Bruce made four changes from Saturday’s debacle. He could’ve made nine and they wouldn’t have had anything to complain about. Perhaps controversially he chose to leave McLean, Simpson and Proschwitz on the bench and employ Aluko and Koren as a front two. It worked beautifully with their movement and ability to drop into pockets of space to link play causing Palace all sorts of problems.
Tigers 3-5-2: [G] Stockdale [D] Chester, McShane, Bruce [M] Elmohamady, Brady, Quinn, Evans, Meyler [F] Aluko, Koren.
It was obvious from the start that Robbie Brady was in the mood as he delivered a wonderful, whipped, low cross in between defence and ‘keeper early on. David Meyler made a committed run into the 6 yard box but just failed to get enough on it to divert goalwards. Palace then freed Bolasie in between McShane and Bruce but his shot lacked the power to trouble Stockdale. It’d be their last shot for over an hour. A double injury to Evans and McShane, who came back on sporting a Terry Butcher headband, broke the game up and it struggled to regain its rhythm for ten minutes or so. Sone Aluko got himself in on the right and shot across goal lifting the crowd and encouraging City to crank up the tempo. Koren and Elmohamady got in each other’s way trying to meet another Brady delivery and Koren hit the side netting with a near post header from an Aluko corner. You felt a goal was coming. As the heavens opened, it really should have. Elmohamady skinned Parr on the right touchline, stayed on his feet as the Norwegian tried to pull him back and then crossed poorly from the bye line. Aluko got across the near post causing enough trouble for everyone to miss the cross which fell to Koren 7 yards out, middle of goal. He doesn’t miss those. Well he didn’t used to! Unbelievably Koren lifter the ball over the bar. We wouldn’t get a better chance.
Palace were all over the place defensively. They couldn’t cope with the movement of our front two. Parr, who was magnificent in two games against City last season while playing wide in midfield, was murdered by Elmohamady. When they got the ball into their quick front three, they were immediately closed down by Chester, McShane or Bruce from behind and Evans and Quinn from in front. Bolasie took to running into people and throwing himself down in desperation. To credit the ref, he didn’t fall for it but it happened so often, I can’t believe he wasn’t booked. I also can’t believe he wasn’t booked for a two footed lunge at Chester. The ref signalled that Bolasie has got the ball but he absolutely did not. And even if he had, Evans was pulled up for an earlier foul, when he clearly won the ball, just because he’d gone in recklessly. Consistency eh? Palace’s other strikers weren’t shy of throwing their weight around and Jermain Easter had already clobbered Evans and Bruce before he was finally booked for leaving Bruce laying again. City continued to make chances leading into half time. Yet another quality cross from Brady was cleared to Koren whose shot was blocked by Ward in a weird crouched position. There was a big handball shout from the players but nothing doing from the referee. Elmo tricked his way past Parr again, clipped a cross to the back post where Quinn arrived late and met it on the volley rolling it just wide of the far post. Garvan then coughed up the ball into midfield allowing Koren a run towards the area. He ignored the run of Aluko and saw his weak shot deflected around the far post. Wrong decision. The half then finished as it started; Aluko crossing this time and Meyler arriving at speed but just not getting the contact on his header. This was the best half of football we’ve seen at home for a while. Nil-nil was a travesty.
City continued to make chances in the second half but it brought a dilemma for Steve Bruce. We were playing so well, creating great oppositions, working the ball wide well and dragging defenders around to create spaces to be exploited. However you felt like it was going to take a striker to convert one of the chances. At some point, SB was going to have to stick or bust. David Meyler picked up a booking for a foul on Jedinak in the midfield. No complaints about the card other than there were numerous other instances were cards weren’t handed out for similar fouls. Quinn was brought down around 25 yards out to the right of goal. Aluko hit the free-kick sweetly but it flew a foot or two over the bar. Quinn then made a terrific run into the right channel and was found by a fine ball from Elmohamady. Quinn’s right foot shot was well struck but straight at Speroni. Aluko picked up the rebound and saw his right foot shot deflected. It could have gone anywhere but ended up smacking the South Stand advertising hoardings. James Chester then strode out of defence, played in Elmohamady (with good advantage played by the ref), Elmo curled a ball across the 6 yard line, Koren couldn’t connect at the near post, Quinn slid the ball wide at the far under pressure from Ward.
Palace replaced the ineffective Easter with ex-Tiger Aaron Wilbraham, miraculously still a Championship footballer. Meanwhile another Elmo cross skimmed off a Palace head to find Koren at the far post. He couldn’t take it down cleanly and Speroni narrowed the angle. Shortly after Steve Bruce decided to twist and threw on Proschwitz and McLean for Aluko and Koren. I’m surprised he didn’t drop Koren into midfield and remove Meyler. McLean made a big difference. Proschwitz might as well not have bothered. I don’t want to get on the guy’s back but he’s not improving and he’s not effective. I hope he proves to be a penalty box poacher because his game outside the box just isn’t there. The emphasis on attacking left us more open at the back and we began to fear their counter attacks. Damien Delaney, who had a steady game on his latest return to the KC, came as close as anyone to opening the scoring, heading Stephen Quinn’s corner just wide of his own goal before City received the first of two big let offs. Palace broke quickly and slid the ball to Bolasie who had a clear run on goal. Brady charged across from left back and cynically tripped their whining winger. It was a red card all day long but the referee gave Brady only a yellow. He seemed to initially stand 35 yards from goal which would have been a reasonable explanation for a yellow instead of a red but after he took Brady’s name, he set up a free-kick 25 yards out. Very odd. Ian Holloway put Zaha up against Brady for the next five minutes to try and trick a second yellow out of him. Brady made a terrific tackle back on Zaha in the box before he fouled him on their right wing. Steve Bruce reacted quickly and swapped Brady for Rosenior. Excellent management.
The Palace fans were feeling a little aggrieved about the Brady yellow and their mood wasn’t helped when the ref gave a blatant corner off Chester as a goal kick. Still, this being a modern ref, it wasn’t long before he was upsetting the home fans instead. Bolasie (again) took out Meyler dangerously while our midfielder was in the air. Meyler was lucky to escape serious injury. The punishment? Nothing. Just a booking for Aaron McLean for expressing his disbelief at the lack of punishment. Both teams then had big chances to win the game in a frantic last 7 or 8 minutes. Elmohamady’s suicidal backpass played in Bolasie on the left but he dragged his shot just wide. Elmo then slid a better ball into McLean who spun and shot instantly, hard and low, but saw Speroni tip it up and just over and just wide of the far post. McLean then climbed brilliantly and met Rosenior’s cross from the left with a thumping header that flew straight into Speroni’s arms. Anywhere else on target and it’s a goal. The last (and biggest) chance fell to Zaha. Quiet for most of the game he sprang into life, beating McShane in the area with a sensational piece of skill only for Stockdale to stand up and beat away his shot. It would have been unjust if he’d scored but he really should have.
So ended a really terrific game. City should clearly have been out of sight before Palace had chances to snatch it late on. Unfortunately our finishing didn’t match the excellent build up play. As I said to start, a point from this game in isolation isn’t a bad one but coming off a poor defeat and with a really tricky run of fixtures up to New Year, it’s not really enough. It’s easy to suggest that the manager should have played a striker or chucked them on earlier but the games not that simple. Once Aluko and Koren left the game, we lost a lot of great movement, our build up play was one dimensional and we stopped creating the positions out wide to get the ball in. It’s a much finer balance than some appreciate. There’s no doubt that we are a really good centre half and a top centre forward short of being a top two side. Hopefully Jack Hobbs is the answer in the first instance. The second is trickier. We are an excellent side. In Jay Simpson, we have a guy who has led the line superbly this season. To improve in that position isn’t cheap and isn’t easy. Charlie Austin would be ideal for us but a) There’d be big competition for his signature and b) his strike partner went for £6m in the summer and Austin is arguably the better player. It’d also mean handing over the cash to Steve Bruce. Now I don’t want to be overly critical because he’s doing a great job but he did get the money in the summer to buy a striker and he bought Proschwitz. That always looked a gamble and it’s showing no signs of paying off.
In every other department tonight, we were excellent. Paul McShane was named the man of the match but it could easily have been Chester. Robbie Brady crossed the ball beautifully while Elmo had a fine game himself on the right. Corry Evans picked up every second ball in the midfield and ran himself ragged. As did the under-rated Stephen Quinn. How the hell has he not got a cap for the Oirish? Meyler was better but not involved enough. Koren’s movement was majestic. If it had been Cesc Fabregas in a Spain shirt, we wouldn’t hear the end of it. Aluko was quieter in the second half but excellent all across the front in the first. McLean made a good impression off the bench. David Stockdale had long periods with nothing to do but earned his corn with a vital late save. That it was a point-saving stop really was ridiculous. We should have had two or three by that point.
We’re still handily placed and haven’t lost too much ground on those around us though we have allowed others below to play catch up. We’ve got a tough run now including Forest and Watford away, Huddersfield at home, Derby away, Leicester and Leeds at home and then Blackpool away. If we’re still in the top six on the 2nd of January after that lot and with the transfer window open, I really fancy our chances of doing well this season. We just need that bit of firepower. Finding it is far from easy. Good luck Brucie!