West Ham 2 Blues 1 .. Ron's Report

Last updated : 12 January 2011 By Richard Barker

There was the Ipswich semi-final back in 2001 and then there were some play-off semis from 1999 to 2002, but I can't remember Blues being involved in one since the Millwall games in 2002.

The players and manager, of course, have more experience of these types of games from times with other clubs, youth football, etc, but we, as fans, aren't necessarily that experienced when it comes to the two-legged ties.  I have deliberately tried to avoid reading any comment before writing this (I've read none at all, in fact), because I think you need to be as rational and sensible as you can be after a first leg game.

Quite simply, very, very rarely is a two-legged tie decided in the first leg.  Occasionally some deluded manager panics and messes around with your formation so you lose 4-0 AT HOME to Barnsley, but generally nothing's settled in the first leg.  That is very much the case here.

Was this a satisfactory resuly for Blues?  Just about, yes.  Was it a disaster?  Not at all.  Was it a missed opportunity?  Definitely.  Could it have been better?  Yes.  Are Blues out of this tie?  No chance.

I think you get the point anyway… you can read anything you like into this result.  As is so often the case, the truth will be a somewhere in the middle of all of the extremes.

So, let's firstly look at the negatives to come out of this…

Firstly, Blues' first half performance was pretty poor.  This does come down to the set up, to some degree.  I was genuinely torn about what team I would have selected.  Part of me felt Blues should go 4-4-2 with Matt Derbyshire up front with Cameron Jerome.  The other part of me thought that a form of 4-4-1-1 with Hleb behind Jerome was best.  When the team was selected, it looked like it was the latter.  However, that's not how Blues started.  Hleb went wide left, Keith Fahey tucked inside alongside Barry Ferguson and Craig Gardner with Seb Larsson on the right.

The outcome of this is that Jerome was horribly isolated, Blues completely failed to retain the ball to any degree and West Ham swamped them.  It was 1-0 fairly early on and then Blues tried to get a bit closer to Jerome, but he was still isolated.  Two months ago, at St Andrews, West Ham showed that offensively they're pretty decent.  Sit back and they'll come onto you.  They have pace, power and drive in forward areas and they can hurt you.  At the back, they're poor.  This little snapshot of West Ham seems fairly basic, but it's also accurate.  The last thing that you should do against them is allow them to have the ball and invite them on to you without troubling them at the other end.  You have to make them work defensively.  You absolutely have to.  That's how you get results against them.  It's not rocket science.  However, Blues failed to do this at all in the first half, conceding possession, sitting back and hoping for the best.  It's not the way to play against West Ham.

The Blues defending for the two goals was also poor.  Ben Foster will be looked at on both (although Scott Dann did impede him on the first), but before it even became an issue for Foster, Blues should have done better on both.  The first was dreadful.  How West Ham were able to keep the ball alive and drift it across the face of the Blues goal a couple of times, I don't know.  Blues were hesitant and weak, which is unlike them.  Then there was Liam Ridgewell extending his arms so as to leave a cross to fall to Mark Noble who scored.  It was very, very poor.

The second goal was obviously against the run of play, but David Murphy let Scott Parker cross too easily (Murphy otherwise was excellent, but that's because Blues were attacking and he can do that), Ridgewell was out of position and Roger Johnson let Carlton Cole get his shot away too easily.  Yes, Foster should have stopped it, but the nick from Johnson just meant he got his feet caught and it was one of those nightmares for a goalkeeper.  I said a few weeks back that Foster's fantastic but we'll have to accept he'll make two or three mistakes a season.  This was one of them.

When Blues were on top in the second half, did they do enough, especially with a man advantage?  Incidentally, the Victor Obinna sending off really confused me.  I saw him kick Larsson in front of the linesman, but he never flagged, Phil Dowd never gave anything, play carried on whilst Larsson was on the floor until Blues put it out, then Dowd sent Obinna off and gave Blues a free-kick.  How did that happen?  Why wasn't it instantly a free-kick?  There was no advantage as West Ham were attacking?  It was a bit bizarre, but the right decision was made, if in a strange way.

Anyway, did Blues do enough?  Well, they couldn't have had any more possession - they had the ball almost constantly in the second half.  They pinned West Ham back and they simply couldn't get out.  Blues never opened West Ham up though, which was a bit of a concern.  Ridgewell's goal was a header and Blues' best two chances were both headers (Murphy and Zigic), but otherwise Blues couldn't get at West Ham, despite the possession.  The issue, as we all know, is that bit of creativity in the final third.  Did Blues miss a trick by keeping Hleb on the left and playing Gardner behind Jerome?  Possibly.  Certainly when Hleb got involved, he looked like the one who could make something happen, but all too often it was left to Gardner to dribble into the West Ham defenders 30 yards from goal.  Hleb was excellent, by the way.  Blues need to fully utilise him whilst they can.  It's a pity more aren't on his wavelength.

So, whilst Blues' second half performance can't be faulted in terms of commitment and pressure, and the ball retention was far better, you still can't help but feel that they didn't do enough in that final third.  When you're camped thirty yards from the opposition goal and you're looking to pick a clever pass, you need someone like Matt Derbyshire making the clever runs that he does off the last man.  Derbyshire was an unused substitute.  You can only wonder what he was thinking after his Millwall performance…

Finally on a questioning nature, I have long been an advocate of David Murphy taking free kicks.  I saw a lot of those he scored for Hibs and his ability on set pieces in fantastic.  He is genuinely a threat.  Due to playing with Seb Larsson and James McFadden, until Saturday I can't remember him taking one for Blues.  On Saturday, with Larsson on the bench, he scored a screamer.  He got it up and over the wall from 18 yards and it was a great finish.  Here, Blues had two free kicks in dangerous areas.  Gardner took one and dragged it wide.  All he ever tries to do is drive it and he often scuffs it or hits the wall.  Larsson took the other.  I have no idea why, after Saturday, Murphy wasn't given an opportunity.

Blues are not out of this tie by any stretch though.  They learned their lesson at half-time - to get at West Ham you have to pin them back, you cannot sit back yourselves.  Blues will have no option but to do that in the second leg and it'll work in their favour.

What you also have to bear in mind is that West Ham are in a really difficult position now.  How do they play the second leg?  Do they themselves sit back and hope to hold on, allowing Blues on to them?  Do they try and get another goal and potentailly leave themselves open?  It won't be easy for them to work out how to play the second leg, whereas Blues know exactly what they need to do.  That should favour Blues.

Also, let's not forget where West Ham are in the league and that their last away game was a 5-0 defeat at Newcastle United (who just lost 3-1 to Stevenage).  Blues should not fear West Ham.  Blues do need to respect the forwards that they have (Cole, Piquionne, Sears, Hines, Stanislas - I presume Obinna will be suspended) as they have pace and they can hurt you, but Blues should fancy beating West Ham.  They should have fancied it a few months ago, but failed, but they should fancy it now.

The fact is that if at the start of the season we'd been offered this situation now, we'd have all taken it.  2-1 is not an ideal result, but thankfully Blues are very much still in it.  I did have a genuine fear (especially as the first half progressed), that Blues would be out of the tie before the second leg.  It would have been, as they say, "typical Blues".  They're not though.  The position should have been better - no doubt about that.  It was a missed opportunity and anyone who says otherwise is, unfortunately, wrong.  However, it's not an opportunity that's gone.  It's still there.  It can still be taken.

Three of us were in the car on the way back and all three of us, when asked, still said we expect Blues to go through.  It won't be easy, but it never is.  This is very evenly poised now, but Blues are right in it - that's the main thing.  I still suspect that they'll go through - they'll just have to do it the hard way, which is fine.