Alex McLeish persevered with the O'Connor and Kevin Phillips strike pairing, and made a couple of changes further back. Cameron Jerome came into the side in something of a wide left role (though I'll mention that later), whilst also on the left, Franck Queudrue replaced the injured David Murphy. To the surprise of a lot of people at the ground, newly signed Nigel Quashie (where did Blues pull that one out of?? I never saw that coming...) was on the bench, alongside the recalled Marcus Bent, youngster Jared Wilson and eternal substitutes Colin Doyle and Mehdi Nafti. There were no places for James McFadden or Quincy - presumably injured.
I'm not really going to split this game into a "first half" and a "second half" like I normally do, because it didn't really work like that. Basically, despite those who may see the scoreline and think "what a load of rubbish", for the first 55-60 minutes, Blues played as well as I've seen them play all season. There was crisp passing, good movement, overlapping and they were unlucky not to be two or three up by the hour mark. O'Connor had hit the post twice in the first half with fine solo efforts - and I'm not just talking about them clipping the post and going wide, but bouncing right back into the goalmouth and Palace luckily escaping.
Part of Blues' better football was the fluidity of the formation (or lack of) that they played. McLeish has been showing himself to be flexible when it comes to formations, systems, etc. Whilst Jerome started from a wide left-ish, he basically drifted all over the place and generally supported the front two. On the right, Seb Larsson tucked inside more to give the feel of a more solid midfield trio, alongside Lee Carsley and Kamy Agustien. The narrower midfield meant that the full-backs, Stuart Parnaby and Queudrue, had license to push on more and support attacks, which they both did well. It all, well, kind of worked, apart from putting the ball in the back of the net. Blues very rarely resorted to long balls and the movement and passing was much better than it has been of late.
However, after about 55-60 minutes, Blues seemed to hit a wall. It was a little bizarre really, as if they'd kept going as they had been doing, I'm fairly confident that they'd have scored. However, they seemed to resort to a more direct game (perhaps in frustration at not breaking Palace down) and it meant that the impetus was lost. Bent replaced Jerome (who was pretty awful in the second half) and so the direct ball was used even more often, whilst Queshie came on for Agustien.
It was getting to the point where you thought it was going to be one of those days - either a drab 0-0 in the end, or even Palace nicking a winner. However, as Blues piled on the pressure late on, the ball dropped to Phillips in the area, and it was a good job it did. Other players may have rushed the chance, but Phillips took his time, hit the target, Julian Speroni saved but his parry rebounded off O'Connor into the back of the net. It was fortuitous in the way it happened, but for it to happen, O'Connor had to be following the shot up, and he was.
O'Connor thoroughly deserved his goal, as it was undoubtedly his best performance in a Blues shirt. I've recently criticised the selection of O'Connor and Phillips up front if you're playing a more direct game, but Blues' system tonight suited them a lot more. They were both able to get the ball into their feet, lay it off, spin defenders, generally drop deeper to influence play (McFadden-esque) in some ways, and both were excellent, but O'Connor in particular. Most of the best moves in the first 55-60 minutes involved him. Indeed, it highlighted that Jerome suits the more direct approach in many ways, as he looked out of sorts with all the passing and movement that was going on. Horses for courses and all that.
One disappointment for Blues will have been Larsson's performance again. He's really not performed that well this season. He certainly hasn't been awful, but he's nowhere near the high standards that he's set for himself. Countless times last night play broke down around him because of his lack of positional sense. I'm not sure if the aforementioned tighter, inside role meant that he felt the need to bemore disciplined, but all the threat down the right came from Parnaby and he had little support from Larsson until late on when Blues were chasing the game. Larsson's greatest talent at the moment seems to be in disputing the award of throw-ins - he's still as good as ever at that.
As for Quashie, well it was hard to judge. He didn't necessarily look full fit and he was thrown into a situation where the team were chasing the game. What I will say is that he looked to get forward as much as possible (though that may have been down to the team chasing the game). The first bit of play once he'd come on involved a forward flicking a ball on, and Quashie had already read that and made the run beyond the defender, which was nice to see. His touch looked a little off, but his forward running at least helped Blues drive the game on a little more.
And finally, a mention for one other individual - the referee, Nigel Miller. He was outstanding. Lots is being made of referees again at the moment, with this Respect campaign and all the rest of it, but respect to Mr Miller. He produced only one yellow card (when it was blatantly deserved) and let the play flow throughout. He didn't blow up for minor things like a lot of referees do, constantly interrupting the play - he let the game flow, and it helped. He only gave fouls when they were genuinely fouls, rather than just someone falling over. He allowed players to get stuck in and compete in the air, and I thought he was excellent. 10 days or so ago, during the Wales U21 v England U21 game at Ninian Park there was a Romanian referee who did the same (but was perhaps too lenient) and the commentators, Martin Tyler and Barry Horne, made the point that after 20 minutes or so of consistent refereeing like that, the players realise what they can and can't get away with, the line is firmly drawn, and it makes for a better contest. The same can be said of last night - everyone knew where they stood with Mr Miller, there was barely a single dispute about any of his decisions and he made Rob Styles look even more incompetent than he already is (if possible).
So, another win, and in truth and scoreline that didn't reflect the performance - certainly not the first hour. Normally a team chasing a game deserve their goal for the pressure in the last 20 minutes or so, but that wasn't the case here - Blues deserved their goal for what they'd done in the first hour, and thankfully they got it. Maybe now they can kick on? Had one of O'Connors early efforts gone in, the flloodgates could have opened here. That early goal is what Blues need, and the signs were more promising tonight.