The Tigers moved into the 5th Round of the FA Cup with a win over Millwall at the KC Stadium. Despite rarely getting out of first gear, City were too good for our mediocre opponents whose attempts to turn the game into a war, both on and off the pitch, were unsuccessful. The game was dire for the most part but the important thing for City was to sidestep a potential banana skin with as little trouble as possible.
City looked very good in the first 10 minutes, passing the ball around easily, defending well and putting them firmly on the back foot. We were rewarded with the opening goal. Ricketts won one of many free-kicks on the right hand side, Andy Dawson delivered beautifully and Michael Turner headed low into the net. From there, the game descended into a battle. Millwall's intentions had been clear from the moment Izale McLeod elbowed Zayatte clean in the face in the opening 2 minutes. We couldn't find any rhythm and it didn't help that every time we crossed the half way line, we were kicked, pulled or pushed. The lack of movement in the last third and poor decision making in wide areas meant that we rarely created chances. At the other end, Millwall's only sniff came from a City attack. Ashbee, unable to play forward, passed back to Tony Warner from half way. The 'keeper had already miscontrolled one back pass and looked nervous. He controlled the ball but then slipped as he tried to kick it, allowing McLeod to nick the ball and bear down on an open goal. Somehow, Warner managed to grab at the ball from the ground. He was penalised for handling a back-pass, though it looked as though McLeod had touched the ball before he gathered it. Regardless, it was a massive let off as McLeod looked certain to score. They wasted the indirect free-kick, shooting low and wide. As the game grew tempestuous, Andy Dawson emerged from an aerial challenge with blood pouring from a head wound. Neither the referee nor linesman saw anything so it went unpunished. The midfield scrap and attacking stalemate continued until first half stoppage time, when Ricketts and Turner failed to clear on our right allowing them to centre the ball where Neil Harris shot wide, under pressure from Zayatte, when he should certainly have scored.
The second half continued in much the same vein. As an attacking force, we had too many poor individual performers which meant that while we had plenty of the ball, we failed to make anything of it. Despite the complaints in the last week about playing 1 up front, this game proved beyond doubt that the system is irrelevant if your midfield doesn't work and ours didn't again. The manager has had to move to address that and whoever makes way for the new-boys on Wednesday night can have no complaints. The referee took centre stage in the second half, breaking up the game every five seconds. After an hour of being kicked from pillar to post, he finally booked a couple of Millwall players. They offered no threat whatsoever. We were poor and we beat them comfortably which shows how bad they were. Their only tactic was to try and make it a fight but we have far too many players who've come from that level very quickly for that to have an effect. Manucho missed our best chance when he headed straight at the 'keeper after great work from Featherstone before Ian Ashbee scored his annual goal. Cousin found himself with the ball outside the area, stumbled through a challenge and then rolled the ball across the box for the oncoming midfielders. It fell perfectly for the shot but fell to Ashbee ("Oh no, not Ash!") who leathered the ball into the top corner. A beauty from the skipper that capped a fine individual performance.
Defense was our strongest point. Aside from a mad few minutes where Turner gifted the ball to McLeod, Zayatte swiped at thin air while trying to clear and Warner miscontrolled the back pass, we looked comfortable. Turner's defending wasn't always pretty, he launched one clearance higher than the West Stand, but he mad every challenge necessary, as did Zayatte, who took his second clobbering in his last 3 appearances. As a pairing, they were strong, unbeatable in the air and quick over the ground. As the game went on, we saw another of Zayatte's Maradona-esque runs up the pitch. He'll score with one of them one day, mark my words. Ricketts took advantage of the space out wide and the lack of pace of their full back, getting himself forward at every opportunity and into good positions. Warner, like Matt Duke in the last round, dealt superbly with everything that came at him in the air, looked calm and assured, distributed well and started attacks quickly. Unfortunately, with the ball at his feet, he was a liability. Boaz Myhill's ability to kick under pressure is massively under-rated. The defence was completed by the return of Andy Dawson. The man who Peter Taylor didn't trust to play away form home in the third tier has developed into a guy who improves a Premier League defence. He was calm on the ball, strong in the challenge, brave and delivered well from set pieces. We'll find out now if it was a coincidence that our form dipped in his absence.
Midfield was the weakest link again. Ashbee is excused criticism, he was excellent. He cleared up most tricky situations by getting into terrific positions, nicking the ball and passing it easily. Marney worked hard alongside him but delivered nothing. His energy is an asset but wasted if he doesn't improve his passing. Garcia also worked incredibly hard and made some terrific runs in behind their defence without being picked out. He was occasionally strong and direct in possession but often just not good enough. On the other side, Halmosi was very rarely anything but abysmal. His touch is heavy, he has the turning circle of an HGV, he's got no acceleration and doesn't react at all to balls played in for him behind. When the ball fell to him to hit a volley in the first half, he swiped at thin air. His only contribution was a nice run and pass to Cousin that he made whilst being knocked to the floor. He's easily the most disappointing aspect of the season so far. Featherstone did a fine job when he came on but didn't look likely to trouble the first team in key games.
Up front, it was a tale of two strikers. One was terrific; strong in possession, keen to find space, made runs wide, linked up well with his mates and defended set pieces brilliantly. The other was Manucho. Cousin put in his third successive fine performance. He still plays with his head down and could release the ball much quicker at times but he put in a good shift overall. He needs someone to play off him though, to buzz around looking to pick up the pieces from his flicks and his hold up play. Manucho just wasn't it. He didn't react at all when the ball went in behind and didn't show for the ball when it came forward. Barring one or two nice touches, he wasn't involved in build up play at all and his contribution in the box was limited to one tame header and two wild swipes at goal. One thing he and Cousin had in common was the absolutely stupid regularity with which they were flagged offside. It wasn't even as if they were trying to steal a yard on the defence to score either, they were caught a long way from goal through pure laziness. Folan came off the bench and put himself about but with little success. He was lucky to stay on the pitch after making a stupid late tackle while on a booking.
The important thing was to make sure we're in the draw. We're long overdue a good Cup run. Another nice home draw would be nice. While we made it through, several of the players who were given a chance to play did their cause no good at all. Warner will surely only play again if Myhill and Duke are unable to walk. Halmosi blew another chance, there won't be many more. Phil brown has shown his ruthless streak already this season; just ask Wayne Brown, Marlon King and Stelios. Garcia isn't an option as an attacking wide player but may see action in games were we set out to destroy rather than create. I'd like to see Browny go with the 4-4-2 again at West Ham. Hopefully with Kilbane on the left of midfield and Mendy on the right, Bullard in the midfield with Ash and Fagan up front with Cousin. That would leave Geovanni available as an impact substitute. I'd imagine PB will try to squeeze Geo into the starting line-up though, perhaps in the 4-3-1-2 that served us so well, with Kilbane playing as the left central midfielder. Either way, it should be a cracking game.
Ratings: Warner 6, Ricketts 7, Dawson 8, Turner 7, Zayatte 7, Garcia 6, Halmosi 5 (Featherstone), Ashbee 8, Marney 6, Cousin 8, Manucho 5 (Folan).