Defence collapsing the moment pressure is applied. Young players out of their depth. Keeper all over the place. Powerless manager with no idea how to respond. Don’t know who that could possibly describe. Oh hang on, it was us, the last time we played Stoke at the Britannia.
It seems a whole world away now, so much so that I had to double-check the
facts. This was the absolute nadir of our season with a comically, criminally awful performance. We began well enough but then Bale, all wide-eyed and ruddy cheeked innocence in the face of the physical onslaught, desperately stretched to redeem an error. Mistimed rather than malicious, he tried hard, too hard. He was dismissed and Stoke scored from the penalty. We looked promising for a while with ten men and equalised, then came the long throws and the crosses and the lightweight midfield were blown away in the wind. Gomes flapped and danced, then injured Corluka as he came out, the Croatian being stretchered off. Outplayed by Stoke, derided by their gleeful fans, down to ten men, bottom of the league, could it be worse. Well yes – we finished with nine men after Dawson was also sent off. But we had the last laugh over those Stoke fans, oh yes. They sang ‘you’ll be sacked in the morning’ but actually he lasted another 6 days! That showed them….
If anyone doubts our progress under Redknapp, just read the last couple of paragraphs. This appalling defeat will in hindsight be seen as the turning point. Having spent a fortune on getting his man, Levy and Commolli then left him high and dry with a squad ill-equipped for the rigours of the Premier League. Stoke’s steamrollering of our midfield flattened any hopes of a recovery. Levy took drastic action and it’s been pretty good since then. What’s that aitch, something about two points from eight games? Give it a rest why don’t you.
The problems after Christmas this season was the first blip since then but just as we’ve recovered, along comes an injury crisis that could really do for us. Here’s a team: Cudicini, Walker, King, Woodgate, Lennon, Bentley, Jenas, Huddlestone, Rose, Defoe – add a left back and we’ll take on all comers, except that they are all injured. The news of Defoe’s’ hamstring is a bitter blow. We can reorganise – Pav and Crouch have done well enough when they have been on the pitch together lately and Crouch is staying tighter to the rest of the team, therefore he’s not isolated. However, this is the time when we want to be at our very best. We’ve become used to managing without Led and Woody, although I have been grieving over them this week. Take a moment to reflect on just how good those two are.
But in adversity were sown the seeds of recovery. Gomes was brave, playing with damaged ribs, and he has come through that ordeal to become one of the best keepers in the league. Bale and Dawson went away, chastened, and once the wait was over have made magnificent use of their opportunities.
A win will be hard to achieve but that’s the target. It’s not a must win match at this stage of the season blah blah cliché blah but however tough it will be against Stoke, there’s Chelsea, Arsenal, City and United to come. Stoke are well drilled at the back and in Shawcross have a fine centre back. It’s not just their workrate: they move with direction and purpose to support the man on the ball and get it forward quickly without resorting to kick and rush. We must employ our passing game. At home they must come out more than they did at the Lane, but as we press we must recall that game and the sucker punch that did for us. Do what we do well and we can win.