Stoke City 0 Blues 1 .. Ron's Report

Last updated : 30 December 2009 By Richard Barker

At a press conference last week, Alex McLeish said that he was running out of superlatives to describe the current Blues side.  That was before a four point return from Chelsea at home and Stoke City away - something Manchester United or Arsenal would have been happy with.  Liverpool would have settled for two glorious defeats.

When Blues were five or six games unbeaten, it was enjoyable.  When that went to eight or nine games, it became a delight.  Now, well, it's kind of unreal.  It doesn't seem to fit.  It's just not what happens.  Not to Blues anyway.

The last three games have been genuine tests - a much improving Everton side away, Chelsea at home, and Stoke away.  There will be teams (and not necessarily bad teams) who will lose all three of those fixtures.  After a run of "easier games" when Blues won five on the spin, these next three games over the festive period were real, genuine tests.  To come through the lot with the unbeaten record still intact, well, it truly is a magnificent performance.

This was the first time had come up against the "new Stoke", having not met in the league for three seasons.  In that time, Stoke had gone from being a dull, functional but ultimately crap side playing in front of about 14,000 fans in their shiny stadium to a dull, functional side playing in front of about double the amount of fans who've jumped on the Premier League bandwagon.  Those fans now create a fearful atmosphere by singing some Tom Jones song and shouting "Rory! Rory!" whenever they get a throw-in.  Scary.

Stoke were up for the game - it was obvious early on.  Everyone goes on about them at home anyway, so you don't need me to bore you with it.  Still, with their current poor form, they'll have seen this as a game to try and bounce back in, and their players and fans were at it from the start.  It was obvious pretty early on that Blues would be up against it and that it'd be a long afternoon.

The current Blues side, however, is made of sterner stuff than many that have gone before it.  At Everton, at home to Chelsea and here at Stoke, Blues have had to endure torrid opening twenty minute spells but have got through them (relatively) unscathed.  Premier League Blues sides of the past may have lost all three of these games by considerable margins, but not the current crop.

The first half wasn't spectacular, and pretty much consisted of Stoke bombarding Blues from open play, throw ins and corners and Blues surviving, sometimes more by luck the judgement.  Blues looked like they could potentially be dangerous on the counter attack, keeping the ball well at times, but their final ball let them down on a number of occasions with James McFadden particularly wasteful from out on the left, hitting the first man several times when well placed to cross.

Blues got the breakthrough early in the second half.  I was in the fourth row, right by the corner flag, so trying to see what happened at the other end was tough.  In fact, it took the whole Blues contingent what seemed like a minute to realise that Cameron Jerome had scored.  There was a bit of a scramble in the penalty area following a Blues corner, and the ball dropped to Jerome who spun and hit the ball goalwards.  Then you couldn't see the ball, and the next thing was that a few Blues players were running away with their arms in the air.  Presumably Jerome had scored and Blues therefore led 1-0.

With all the pressure that Blues had already had to withstand, you sensed that it'd be a long 40 minutes or so.  Stoke took the game to Blues immediately and Joe Hart had to make two stunning saves within minutes of Jerome's goal as Stoke piled forward.  However, Stoke seemed to gradually wear themselves out, and the worst that Blues had to put up with was between 50 and 60 minutes, rather than in the last ten o fifteen, as you'd expect.

By the end, Stoke had thrown on Ricardo Fuller and Mamady Sidibe, and whereas James Beattie (who was superb in the air) and Sanli Tuncay had been a little cleverer with their play, what with being decent players, all Fuller and Sidibe did was find themselves offside or foul Blues defenders.  Suddenly Stoke were wasting Blues' time for them, which was nice.

There is a hint now that Stoke have been found out.  Blues' current run has been built on a defence who love kicking and heading things away, so for Tony Pulis to think that an aerial bombardment is the right way to go, well, it smacks of naivety a little.  When you have decent players like Matthew Etherington and Tuncay, you need to try and show a bit more nous.  Lumping the ball forward may have worked for a season, but it's showing signs of failing now.  Anyway, sod them, that's their problem.

As for Blues, well, I go back to my first sentence above - I'm running out of things to say.

One thing that I will say, however - particularly as January approaches rapidly - is that even if Blues only make one signing during the transfer window, they have to make it Joe Hart.  He has been absolutely superb of late (and for most of the season, despite those bizarrely knocking him early on).  Goalkeeper is a unique position, and one that in some ways is taken for granted sometimes.  Look at any team having any degree of success, and it's based on getting a top goalkeeper in between the sticks for a period of time and building from there.  Schmeichal and Van der Sar at Old Trafford, Seaman and Lehmann at Arsenal, Cech at Chelsea, then the likes of Howard at Everton, Schwarzer for a long while at Middlesbrough and now at Fulham.  The list is endless.  Teams who chop and change goalkeepers struggle.

Blues currently have the best young English 'keeper around at the club, and it would be criminal not to move heaven and earth to try and tie him down for the future.  At best, you've got a top goalkeeper for the next 12-14 years.  At worst, he continues to be as good as he has been and a major club comes in for him three or four years down the line and you have to sell him for £20m.  You cannot underestimate the importance of a top goalkeeper, and finding one at the right age.  Perhaps on a slightly different scale, but Juventus identified one in Gianluigi Buffon nearly ten years ago now, paid a ridiculous figure (£28m) for him, and look at the value for money they've had for him since.

If you can find a goalkeeper like Hart, I personally think you have to do everything you can to keep him.  £8m?  Do it.  £10m? Do it.  £14m?  Well, if the money really is there, do it.

Yes, he belongs to Manchester City, but with their current situation, this could be the perfect time to move in and take advantage.  If they won't sell, obviously there's not a lot Blues can do.  However, I would say that every player has a price - even one at Manchester City.  Hart's from is such that, come the end of the season, he could seriously be England's first choice goalkeeper at the World Cup.  If that's the case, Blues can kiss goodbye to signing him.  Blues will never, ever have a better opportunity to sign a top, top goalkeeper at a perfect age to develop, improve and give years of service.  They have to do everything they can to take it.

As for the rest of the side, as 2009 ends, you have to give them unbelievable credit for what they've achieved.  Blues' last game of 2008 was a dire 0-0 draw at home to a Swansea City side who comprehensively outplayed them.  A year on and a division higher, Blues have gone 11 games unbeaten (including fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton), sit seventh in the Premier League, above Liverpool, and are closer (points wise) to Manchester United in second place than Everton in eleventh.  Blues are closer, points wise, to the title than the relegation zone.

It's been a very, very good, 2009 - particularly the last couple of months.  If 2010 can get anywhere near to matching it, we're in for one hell of a ride.

Happy new year everyone.