Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Albion 1-1 Reading

August 7 2012

Forced to guess what the starting line-ups might look like for the FDM’s testimonial game, most followers of his Albion career might have expected Hart, Butters et al to play cameos on a teamsheet they once joined Kuipers on to such odds-overturning success.

As it was, two near-full strength Albion and Reading sides were far more intent on a straightforward pre-season friendly than paying testimony to a man used to being our number one. I saw Richard Carpenter wandering around the West Stand Lower, but that was about as close as former glories got. Kuipers made one fantastic save before being promptly subbed less than 15 minutes in.

Perhaps this is the way forward for testimonials. The crowd was about the same size as those which regularly watched Kuipers for 12 Withdean years, but more might have come had it been pitched as a match-up with a Premier League team, those who never saw him play unwittingly filling the stadium for his symbolic farewell.

Pragmatism over sentimentality wouldn’t have mattered. There was little of the sense of finality testimonials supposedly indicate, because Kuipers is still around the club, even playing against us for Crawley this Friday. It was the same kind of atmosphere as the Mayo and Hart testimonials – both also relatively poorly attended – but this time there was a proper contest to enjoy.

Albion more than matched Reading. Vicente gave us the lead from a penalty after Noone, who started and played well, had been fouled. We deserved to beat a second top-class team in four days, but Robson-Kanu beat El-Abd to a far-post cross late on.

FDM (Kuszczak 15); Bruno, Greer, Dunk (El-Abd 78), Calde; Dicker, Crofts, Bridcutt, Noone (Sparrow 77); God (Toby 62), Barnes (Vincelot 86)

Monday, 6 August 2012

Albion 3-1 Chelsea

August 4 2012

If too much shouldn’t be read into pre-season friendlies, it’s worth turning the page back a year: Albion looked a level below Spurs in a first loss at the Amex, losing 3-2 via an awful mistake by Peter Brezovan.

One summer of careful spending later, with a defence almost entirely resolute in front of the excellent Tomasz Kuszczak, Gus’s side vanquished the champions of Europe with something to spare, looking like promotion contenders.

The Spanish pair, Vicente and Bruno, weren’t with us then, and they have added real class. The winger, who had earlier revealed a hope to stay even longer than a year if the season goes well, played a brilliant early through ball to Barnes, whose cross forced a corner. Bruno, his new neighbour, was constantly getting forward to contribute dangerous crosses, going beyond a midfield which looked far less porous than last year.

Building works meant the away end was empty, with Chelsea fans filling parts of the Upper West. Below them, their team’s ability to control play on the fringes of the penalty area was only hampered by several overhit passes in the direction of Ramires on the right.

A pristine tackle by Bridcutt on Torres resulted in a loud rendition of “what a waste of money”, and then Dunk read his run perfectly as the millionaires tried to break. The standard of play made the game a total exhibition, and the biggest question was whether our parity with the elite was down to the new players or simply a case of everyone raising their game.

Almost all of Chelea’s attacks came down the right, with Ivanovic, Meireles, Lampard and Torres playing endless little passes, trying to crack Calderon and Dunk. They eventually did it when Dunk misplaced a pass to Calde just inside their half. The break down the right finally gave Lampard some time and space in the middle, placing his shot past the advancing Kuszczak from just inside the area. Dunk looked crestfallen, Lampard flicked a thumb to the North Stand.

The lead didn’t last long. From bang on centre, Bridcutt played a lovely pass to give Barnes space to run into on the left. He sprinted a few yards, then crossed low with the outside of his foot to Vicente, who curled a low shot into the only inch of the corner of the net Cech couldn’t reach.

Salvation for Albion’s only mistake of the half, but there was more in store. Buckley broke through at a velocity even Ashley Cole couldn’t match. Cech came out and almost foiled him as he reached the six yard box, but from a difficult angle he cut it back to Barnes, who finished expertly with a crisp drive, leaving one of the world’s best goalkeepers picking the ball out of the same corner of his net, with half the England defence planning more speed drills for the rest of pre-season.

Torres had a great chance to equalise shortly into the second half, but skied a half volley into the empty stand. Then Cech had to palm away a vicious Vicente shot from 20 yards out. Chelsea were looking ragged for the first time. As David Luiz tried to grab the ball after falling to the floor, Bruno controlled it with a backheel and exchanged a series of slow passes with Vicente, advancing 50 yards and allowing the latter to toy with Chelsea’s defenders in the same way most people might mess around with bits of lego.

Barnes’s resulting header had to be palmed away for a corner. Kuszczak started another move from inside the Albion half, throwing to the newly-introduced Noone, who passed to fellow substitute Harley. From his pass, Barnes crossed to Crofts on the edge of the area, who shot well over.

Kuszczak saved from Ramires, but by now Chelsea were visibly backing off where in the first half they might have gone in for tackles, although Torres still ran back to foul Barnes in an improbable collision of two strikers less different than we once thought.

Torres could have scored shortly after, when Dunk played the ball straight to Lampard across the back line. Unselfishly, the midfielder played Torres in on goal, but Kuszczak was out quickly to beat his shot away for a corner.

Torres was subbed ten minutes before the end, and Noone shot just wide from long range in a sign of Albion’s growing confidence. The winger then gave Ivanovic, Cahill and Mikel a hard time with a run which ended with a foul just outside the area. Vicente struck the free-kick inches over the bar.

Hazard shot wide from 20 yards, and then an altercation between Barnes and David Luiz caused carnage. The defender claimed malice after the two jumped in the air but, as play appeared to stop, Crofts ran straight through to slot past Turnbull. Luiz attempted revenge with an elbow, allowing Barnes to be substituted and receive rapturous applause from the North Stand.

Cole and Crofts exchanged shoves, and the Chelsea fans in the Upper West headed back to the pub early. The result was probably unimportant to them, but it was no fluke.

Kuszczak; Bruno, Greer, Dunk, Calde; Bridcutt, Crofts, Dicker (Ryan Harley ees good 57); Buckley (Noone 66), God, Barnes (Toby 89)

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Lewes 0-3 Albion

The Dripping Pan
July 17 2012

Lewes is nicer than a lot of league grounds and a few people I know were heading there, so I decided late to go to this one. What I didn’t anticipate was getting the sixth-last ticket from the Amex office after ringing up first thing on Monday morning.

One wet lunchtime run to Falmer later and my Tuesday night was finalised. Our initial line-up was largely the same as the first 11 last season, with a few notable exceptions. Anton Rodgers started in midfield, and his clever through ball played Buckley in behind the defence just inside the area, but the ‘keeper was out quickly to stop him.

Rodgers then conceded a free-kick at the other end after Lewes broke away, which their number eight curled towards the top left hand corner, making Kuszczak parry. Kuszczak looked steady, if not always certain in possession. You could see why Gus likes him, as a perfect cross-field pass to Vincelot on the left-wing halfway line showed his distribution skills.

Craig Mackail-Smith’s first chance on goal summed up our frustrations with him last season. Calderon dummied from a central position 20 yards out, then narrowed a pass to CMS, who crossed to no-one when he should have shot.

Barnes had the first proper go, low and straight at the 'keeper, but it had been all sparring and no punches until then. There was a nervy moment when Kuszczak was harried into overhitting it to El-Abd after controlling a byline pass from Greer, ending in the familiar sight of El-Abd and their winger on the floor. Free-kick to us.

CMS gave the 'keeper another straightforward catch, and then Bridcutt wobbled the bar with a tremendous dead hit from 25 yards out. Remembering the Carlisle goal from the promotion season, let’s hope it comes off in a league game next time he tries something spectacular.

Gus became vocal just before a short corner at the end of the half, which led to Buckley firing the ball straight into the Albion fans from close range. Bridcutt was about to eclipse his near-miss. He played an absolute beauty of a pass into the six-yard box, completely eluding the defenders. Everyone was happy enough with that, but then Vincelot ran onto it and tapped it back to Barnes, who swept it into the roof of the net.

Gus made a point of encouraging all the subs to get warm at half-time. It was definitely warm inside the clubhouse, where the bar was rammed and chronically understaffed. No surprise for anyone used to trying to get a beer at league grounds at half-time, but a loss for Lewes as anyone who’d stuck around would have been waiting until the start of the season for a drink.

All 11 were changed at half-time, with LuaLua given longer than usual in his perennial role of game-changing winger. True to hot-and-cold form, he began with a zipwire run followed by a tame cross.

Elphick returned as captain, playing his part as we kept the ball for several minutes at a time, with a tiring Lewes bringing on several subs. Just after the hour Kaz beat the right-back easily and cut inside with intent, although the shot didn’t match his run and was pushed away for a corner. Lewes’s first real attempt went about five yards over Brezovan’s bar.

Ben Sampayo was at left-back, but had very little to do on one of those nights where all the opposing defender could do was follow Kaz’s centrifugal force, eventually resulting in a penalty which Hoskins put calmly to the ‘keeper’s left. Perhaps this will be Kaz and Hoskins’ years – they could make a big difference to our season, although KLL went off injured after that foul.

A good evening for our partly-forgotten strikers, as Toby Agdestein's sharpness was rewarded when he latched on to a delicate clipped pass from Bruno (who was very impressive) to score the third.

He resembles Bendtner a bit, not least when he had a sitter cleared off the line after slightly overrunning the ball while through on goal, beating the ‘keeper but giving a defender time to get back. A shame he couldn't get a second, but his lengthy apprenticeship in the Development Squad seems to be paying off now.

Albion have got a few other non-league teams to play next and I’m sure these games help sharpen everyone up. Lewes looked a decent side and seemed determined to show they could mix it with Championship players.

A very solid defence still has Wayne Bridge to come in on the left (El-Abd played 45 minutes there before Sampayo came on) and Vicente will give us more of the craft of Bridcutt’s deft pass for the first goal. Selling out a pre-season friendly reflects the excitement about the season ahead.

First half: Kuszczak; Calderon, Greer, El-Abd, Vincelot; Buckley, Rodgers, Bridcutt, March (new left-winger just signed from Lewes); Barnes, CMS

Second 45: Brez; Bruno, Elphick, Dunk, Sampayo; Ryan Harley is back, Sparrow, Dicker, LuaLua; Hoskins, Toby