Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Derby County 1 v Birmingham City 0 - EFL Championship

Tuesday 27th December 2016
SkyBet EFL Championship
at the IPRO Stadium (Pride Park)
Derby County (0) 1
Darren Bent 64 pen
Birmingham City (0) 0
Admission £32 Programme £3
Attendance 32,616 (inc 3,119 away)
Blues went into today's game just two points behind their hosts, sitting in eleventh place in the Championship table having lost three and won one of their last four games, a run that includes the fairly one sided going over they suffered at Newcastle United.
Of course, City have made more headlines off the pitch than on it, since that ill fated trip to the north east, because in spite of them only being three points off of third place at that time and having just beaten Ipswich Town at home in the midweek aftermath of the defeat at St. James' Park, the club's new owners Trillion Trophy Asia sacked the highly rated and popular first team manager Gary Rowett, who had worked wonders at the club since he took over at the helm, and replaced him with Giafranco Zola.
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Zola only had the opportunity to take just one training session before his first game in charge, against Brighton & Hove Albion (at home), who are battling for top spot with Newcastle... and the Seagulls scored two late goals to pinch the three points from that Saturday evening game after Lukas Jutkiewicz had headed Birmingham in front in the 52nd minute.
There is a very strong rumour circulating, that the club's new owners have given Zola a list of transfer targets to pursue in the forthcoming transfer window.
You really can't make some of these takeover sagas involving overseas investors up, can you!?
And even if you did people would dismiss a lot of the tales relating to their strategies and demands as being fictional creations of a vivid imagination, because they seem too far fetched to be real.
The truth is often stranger than any fiction in the current climate.
By contrast Derby County have won five of their last six league matches at home and were set to claim a new club record if they could keep a seventh consecutive home clean sheet (in league matches) this afternoon, which of course they did and that particular milestone never genuinely looked like being under any threat whatsoever for long spells of this game.
Although it is worth noting, that a Rams side did suffer a 2-3 defeat at Pride Park in the Checkatrade EFL Trophy, against Mansfield Town on November 8th.
Since that reversal against the Stags, Derby had won five out their last six games, prior to today... and drew 2-2 at Fulham in their final outing before the Championship's unnecessarily long Xmas sabbatical.
Of course, the Rams had a 'headline' managerial change of their own earlier in the season, when Nigel Pearson left the club on 27th September, while on 12th October, Steve McClaren returned to the club he had played for from 1985 to 1988 and managed from 2013 to 2015, before he'd moved onto Newcastle United who dismissed him in March of this year and installed Rafa Benitez into their hot seat, with one eye on starting from scratch and rebuilding their team which was facing inevitable relegation from the Premier League. That plan B is evidently reaping dividends now then, though it has alsoworked out very nicely for Derby County too.
Musical chairs anyone!?
Bring me sunshine?
Yesterday, all four teams that are currently occupying the play off berths: Reading, Huddersfield Town, Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday all won, with the latter picking up three points on the road at Newcastle United. Earlier today Brighton & Hove Albion picked up an  easy three points against Queens Park Rangers in a lunchtime kick off, which saw the south coast side leapfrog over the Magpies to regain top spot in the Championship. I watched the second half on one of the screens beneath the Toyota Stand when I arrived at the iPro Stadium and bad pun intended, the Seagulls were flying today!
Ah, it was Brian Clough & Peter Taylor all along.
The crux of Birmingham City's dip in results of late, was highlighted right from the early stages of the game, whereby the players who had ground out results in a manner that wasn't always aesthetically easy on the eye, under Gary Rowett, by being hard to beat, containing opposition sides and smothering their creativeness, while hitting them on the counter attack and basing their game plan on a solid foundation of resilient hard graft and application, don't fit into the new manager's attacking and pressing tactics, because although they are all good players, very good in a number of cases, few of them are technically great.
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Dave Mackay a Hearts and Rams legend.
I didn't realise he had half a leg missing!
Rowett had devised a system whereby he got the the best out of the resources at his disposal, which he had fashioned out of a team of players that he had assembled within a strictly limited budget.
But Gianfranco Zola doesn't play the game that way, though it might have been wise of him to adapt his approach temporarily to utilise the strengths of the players he has at his disposal, until he can bolster his squad in the January sales, so to speak, with the calibre of players required to play his desired high tempo passing game.
Birmingham offered very little in the final third today, because having reached such a position, their players struggled to find that extra spark that was required to unlock this ultra efficient Rams defence, that Steve McClaren has impressively built his team's recent meteoric rise around.
Granted, Blues were without their main striker Clayton Donaldson and the width provided by Davis Cotterill, but you could also point out to the fact that Zola had left Che Adams on the bench today and he could have been the perfect foil for Lukas Jutkiewicz in a two pronged attack, because he is one player who has the ability to play himself out of a tight situation.
When I heard the City manager say in his after match press talk, that he thought his side were unlucky to lose today, I put it down to the fact that it would be unprofessional for him to say publicly "We weren't very good, we were half decent across the back, but didn't penetrate in the last third and that is down  to the fact that you can only piss with the cock you're given... and it was very cold out there today!", though to be fair he never actually said that he thought Blues should've won either.
What he did actually go on to say was: "That sort of thing happens all the time in the box, players put hands on each other like that and it happens every week. Normally these penalties are not given.
"They did not threaten us. We did not look threatening either and I think 0-0 would have been a fair result. The missing thing was the productivity in the final third."
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Truth is, the visitors only really forced the issue right at the end (after the belated introduction of Adams), by which time Derby had parked the whole row of park and ride buses laid onto take supporters to the city centre after the game, across the face of their goal.
Under Rowett, Blues possibly had just about enough in their arsenal to scrape into the play offs, but they were nowhere near the finished article that could've competed at a higher level, if by some quirk of fate they had actually gone and won promotion..
But time stands still for no one, not even a popular manager whose club supporters had a great affinity for, and now the 'Bluenoses' attentions must focus upon how and if Zola is going to salvage this season now. If he is to do so, then he's going to have to pluck some fairly impressive rabbits out of his hat in the new year.
Moments after the Rams had gone ahead, their fans mocked Zola and the travelling Blues fans with a boisterous chorus of "There's only one Gary Rowett!", but the Birmingham contingent spontaneously echoed the chant, by way of a tribute to their former boss, who was present in the guise of a media pundit, and as a pointed expression of their frustration at what was unfolding out on the pitch.
It is indeed, as the Italian pointed out himself "a marathon not a sprint", but with so many teams jockeying for position, Blues can't afford to lose too much ground during this period of transition.
But, like I said after their capitulation at Newcastle, Blues look like a good promotion bet for next year, rather than the current one.
Meanwhile, Derby currently look like a better bet to sustain a realistic push for the end of season four team lottery, there is certainly a feelgood factor and upbeat mood around Pride Park and a belief that better times are just around the corner.
Not that the home crowd raised the roof noise wise especially (while the visiting support belted out an impress array of club anthems at full volume all afternoon), until after Darren Bent sent Tomasz Kuszzcak the wrong way from the penalty spot on sixty four minutes after Michael Morrison was adjudged to have fouled Richard Keogh as the two of them wrestled for position in  the area.
After the game McClaren went as far as to say that he had highlighted how closely the visitors defence weere marking his players from set pieces and corners to the match referee Graham Scott at half  time.
It was one of those decisions that you'd be disappointed to be on the wrong end of, but wouldn't feel even an ounce of guilt about if you were the beneficiary.
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And if McClaren had got into the referee's head with his pointed observation, then well played him for tapping into the under rated science of sports psychology. Many an up and coming aspiring young manager could learn a lot from such actions.
Ranting and raving at match officials will never get you anywhere, subtlety however, does have its merits.
And from then on in the Rams upped the ante and looked more relaxed than they had done at any time before during the game, especially during the first half when the two sides were overly cautious and only created three reasonable goalscoring opportunities among them, with Darren Bent failing to convert two chances, that were both set up by Johnny Russell... much to the amusement of the large away following who took no encouraging to remind him about his former employment at Villa Park
and Birmingham's Lukas Jutkiewicz badly miscued a shot, after a through ball from Jacques Maghoma had sent him on a clear run with just Scott Carson to beat. Jutkiewicz is good at getting balls in the hair on target... but I'll leave it at that.
In his post match analysis the Rams manager hit the nail squarely on the head, quipping: "We got better and stronger in the second half and upped the tempo, we created chances, got the goal and then defended well at the end to get the points" before ominously adding "Birmingham were waiting to be beaten and we took it to them", which was just about as hard of a reality slap as he could have delivered across the smarting cheeks of any Blues supporter within earshot.
He was dead right though.
Derby's Will Hughes was presented with the man of the match award (possibly because his name sounds like ewes), though personally I thought that two of his team mates: Brad Johnson and Johhny Russell had both done more for the Rams cause today. Given a little more time, Hughes, an industrious and clever midfielder is going to be an asset to the full England team. I've seen him in action numerous times for the Under 21's and the former Mickleover Jubilee youngster has come a long way in a short time, as has the former Oadby Town and Ilkeston attackinh midfielder, twenty year old Che Zach Everton Fred Adams, who impressed today after finally getting on. I can foresee the day when these two line up alongside each other for the full national side.You saw it here first ;-)
Once the Rams had taken the lead, they weren't about to surrender it, not with players like Keogh running themselves into the ground.
Former Derby player Ryan Shotton did well today, ticking most of the boxes from my pitch side vantage point, but collectively, his team were lacking the will and composure to take the game to the home side, One could suggest that they had set out their stall for a goalless draw, it certainly looked that way at times.
At the outset of the game, Zola's side had retained possession and passed the ball around well, without actually making much headway into in opposition territory, in fact I did note that I thought they were actually over passing the ball, when such an approach wasn't proving to be effective and they really needed to adopt a typical away team performance, of containing Derby and then hitting them on the break. I fully understand that such an approach isn't going to help the team develop and become serious promotion contenders any time soon, but football at this level is a results based industry and Blues have now only picked up three points from the last fifteen that were available to them.
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I always liked the way that Gianfranco Zola played the game, with a smile on his face and unlimited amount of trickery in  his feet. But even though it would be something quite special if the St. Andrews faithful could be treated to anything like a fraction of innovative skill and entertainment that Zola provided as a player, that kind of talent won't come cheaply and though I am all for players expressing themselves and doing something that bit special when thy are on the ball, I do think that the ingratiating star of international football, will have to cut his  cloth accordingly for a while yet.
McClaren will stand Derby in good stead, they have the players who can up the tempo and turn on the style when needed and can also close down games and out maneuver sides to grind out a result like they did today.
Derby just about deserved to win today and err,,, Birmingham didn't.
FT: Derby County 1 v Birmingham City 0
Both of these sides are in action again on Saturday, when Derby entertain Wigan Athletic, while Birmingham travel up the M1 to take on Barnsley at Oakwell
Sadly I was unable to attend my second scheduled game today, which was going to be Ollerton Town v Teversal's evening kick off.
Because, to cut a long story short, I broke the big toe on my left foot in bed on Xmas Eve and it had swollen to such a size as I painfully hobbled back towards my car from Pride Park, the only place I was bound for on the way home from there was the outpatients depatment at Worksop hospital, where I received some strapping, antibiotics and painkillers as a late Xmas box. While being advised that I was to rest up with my foot elevated 'for the time being'. 
Yeah, like until tomorrow night!