The Tigers entered a much improved performance against Sunderland but came away empty handed again, conceding another stupid goal and failing to break down a stubborn home defense. Backed by a terrific army of fans, City started and finished well but suffered a sucker punch bang in the middle.
Phil Brown sensibly reverted to a 4-4-2 formation with 4 changes in personnel. Boateng replaced the suspended Ashbee while Duke, Barmby and Mendy dropped to the bench with Myhill, Kilbane and Marney replacing them. The obvious selection seemed to be Kilbane on the left, Fagan right, Marney and Boateng in the middle and Geo up front with Manucho. However, PB, chose Kilbane alongside Boateng with Marney wide right, Geo left and Fagan up front. Whilst it wasn't the way I would have gone, I can see why PB did it, Kilbane gives good experience in the middle, Fagan gives a lot of energy up front and Geo has impressed coming off the left wing recently. Having Marney on the right though, is a waste of time, as history should have told PB.
City enjoyed a good first half. We did plenty of pressing and looked ambitious. Myhill had to be alert twice early on, racing off his line to gather bravely at Cisse's feet and then denying the same striker by racing from his area to head the ball clear. After that, we looked comfortable for 40 minutes, save for a couple of free-kicks in dangerous areas. We looked competitive in the centre of midfield and pressed them well. Our forwards applied good pressure and we were able to get the ball forward quickly and win set pieces. We had some free-kick's in good positions and a couple of long throws but looked most dangerous from the numerous corners we forced. All were swung in delightfully by Geo and caused havoc. We couldn't quite find the clean connection needed from the balls in or when we picked up the second ball. Marney saw a shot deflected wide, Geo chipped on the volley just wide and Boateng had a goal bound shot blocked. Fagan appeared to spurn a good shooting chance when Turner headed Boateng's dink across goal and another Turner header across goal was begging for a touch from a Tiger. Ricky Sbragia, who looked like a mannequin that had escaped from Sports Direct, was a worried man. Despite being regularly penalised by the pathetic excuse for a referee, Mike Dean, we coped well at the back with the pace and power of Jones and Cisse. Cisse was able to con the referee time and again. He made a fool of Mr. Dean. He made some poor decisions but had no choice but to book Turner for stupidly blocking the 'keeper during an attempted kick out and Kilbane for a tackle that was so late, he's still making it. As the first half came to a close, the allotted 3 minutes injury time seemed to puzzle most fans. Marney and Davenport had both spent some time injured but 3 minutes seemed awfully generous. In the third of the three minutes, we sloppily conceded a corner. It was hit poorly to the near post where Zayatte rose for what looked an easy clearance but could only head into the air. Manucho won the second ball but headed out to Reid who delivered into the box, it was flicked on and Cisse headed in at the back post. There was a suspicion of offside but a bigger suspicion of abysmal marking. A good half's work was ruined in 15 seconds.
We cam out in the second half knowing we had to chase the game but nearly let it drift beyond our reach. Cisse was allowed to run clear on goal but his low shot was saved terrifically by Myhill, diving to his left. As the ball came back in, Myhill again gathered bravely. Minutes later, a neat Sunderland move found Carlos Edwards in tons of space on their right, he crossed beyond the back post and the header across goal was nodded in by Jones on the goal line. Thankfully, this one was chalked off for offside. That let off galvanized City and we took the game to Sunderland for the rest of the half. They had three good chances on the break but otherwise, we wee in control and did all of the pressing. The Sunderland supporters got more and more agitated with their teams failure to push out but we forced them back time and again. Boateng picked up all of the pieces and passed the ball well and kept us on the front foot. Due to some poor decision making, some awful execution and some really good defending, we never really created more than two or three chances. Boateng lashed a half volley inches wide about half way through the half. Then with about 10 to play, a terrific cross from Ricketts found Folan at the back post but, stretching, he could only head just wide. That was the best chance we had of salvaging something. Later on, Mendy beat two in the area and dinked a ball to the back post where Fagan headed back across goal but no-one was following in. Despite the pressure and numerous changes of position and personnel, we couldn't find a way through.
Myhill returned to the starting line-up and justified the decision immediately, making one great save, being brave and quick off his line and handling brilliantly. His distribution was slower than Duke but safer and barring one kick that ran straight through to Gordon, his kicks gave one of ours a chance to win the ball. Ricketts had a mixed game. He was generally good, coping well with Cisse when he pulled wide and providing good support going forward. It would have been nice to see him get a bit closer to Reid at times as the tubby winger was allowed too much space out wide. Dawson didn't really get anywhere near Edwards out wide. When he had to defend inside the box, he did it well but he struggled in the open spaces. He was poor in attacking areas and after half time, didn't get involved in attacking at all. Turner was superb in the air but made some stupid challenges. His booking was ludicrous and he was possibly lucky to stay on after going into a challenge arm first. In their box, he was a handful but on three occasions, he cost us good attacking position by blatantly pushing defenders in the back. Zayatte had his best game for a while. He was terrific in the air against Jones, made some fine challenges and anticipated Jones' movement pretty well. He made the best pass of the game to find Mendy with a raking 60 yard ball out to the right wing. Unfortunately, he made a mistake leading to their goal and the defensive unit went missing when the ball back in found Cisse all alone.
With Ashbee missing, it was great to see Boateng back in the middle. He did a tremendous job on the whole, passing well, picking up fine defensive positions and working hard to harass their midfield when they passed half way. At times, he's caught in possession, perhaps because he can't accept that he can't run or muscle his way out of positions that he would've done 5 years ago? We all thought he'd scored when his volley fizzed just wide of goal. It would've been well deserved too. Kilbane put in a performance that was much, much better than the one we saw at Wigan a few weeks ago. He looked more comfortable in the middle with Boateng, won a lot of the ball in the air, was strong in possession and passed sensibly. He mistimed on tackle badly but otherwise, he competed well and wasn't found wanting in the middle of the pitch. Marney struggled out wide, didn't really deliver and didn't really protect Ricketts either. He tried to get himself in wide positions but didn't have the confidence to go at anyone or put in a killer ball. Geo had his poorest game out left for a while. He was well covered by Edwards, who got close to him everytime he got the ball and forced errors from him. His set piece delivery was terrific and he was a goal threat on a couple of occasions but didn't create anything from the wide area. In the first 20, he had some good possession but couldn't use it to his advantage. Barmby didn't get a great deal of time to affect the game and didn't in an attacking sense, He made two terrific ball winning challenges though. Mendy was introduced in the last quarter and did his best to get sent off again. His first input was to stupidly foul Cisse as he was going nowhere on the wing (and away from goal). He then picked a fight with Richardson after taking offence to a perfectly fair tackle and as they went head to head, one appeared to gently head-butt the other. In fairness to the ref, it was difficult to see who was the culprit and he had the choice of sending off both or letting them stay on and he made a good decision, letting them off with a stern warning. He then opened them up twice and had two other chances to deliver but dallied once and shot wildly the other time.
We worked hard up front but rarely looked like breaking through. Dan Cousin was on the bench but wasn't chosen to take part even though we were losing so you'd imagine he's still not right. Fagan was better than he has been lately, spending less time getting into scraps and more time trying to get on the ball. He struggled with some of the longer balls, trying to fight bigger defenders for the ball but worked tirelessly and showed his versatility, starting up front, then moving to the right and then left midfield. He needs to show a bit more conviction when the ball drops in the box. Manucho also worked hard and was nearly rewarded when he charged down two defensive clearances but the ball didn't fall for Fagan. He showed a neat touch at times and some good ability on the ball. Unfortunately, when it mattered, he made terrible decisions. He slashed a shot at the corner flag when he had three men in the box and then whacked the ball into the crowd with his left foot from a ridiculous distance, hitting a shot that was never on. When Folan came on, he won far more of the ball in the air than Manucho had managed all game. Folan had a decent impact on our game, giving a good option wide and winning headers that caused some trouble. He missed our best chance and didn't show great strength on the ball when challenged. Without Cousin, we look lightweight at the front.
For the second time this season, we played well against Sunderland and got no reward for it. I'm not sure if it's a positive or a negative that we played quite well this week. After all, we still ended up empty handed. If we'd played this well last week, I'm sure we'd have beaten Middlesborough. We're now in big, big trouble, only three points above the relegation zone. We all identified a run of winnable fixtures back in January that we were sure would see us safe. Unfortunately, they've all come and gone, bar one, and we haven't won any of them. It would take an optimist to imagine we'll get anything from the games with Liverpool, Man United, and Aston Villa. That puts a lot of pressure on the home game with Stoke and the away game at Bolton. Though if there is any justice, we'll get battered at Bolton and win 1-0. We now play Liverpool at home and then don't play until Monday May 4th. It's not that unlikely that we'll kick-off against Aston Villa in the bottom three. If we drop in, it's very, very hard to imagine us getting out again. 2 points out of a possible 18 from 6 relegation 6 pointers means we've now got 5 games to save a season that was once incredible. Take some encouragement from the fight we showed today though. There's plenty of spirit in the camp. We need an electric atmosphere next weekend. We need to frighten Liverpool out of their boots, on and off the pitch. It can be done. Believe.
Ratings: Myhill 8, Ricketts 7, Dawson 7, Turner 7, Zayatte 8, Marney 6 (Folan 7), Geovanni 6 (Mendy), Boateng 8 (Barmby), Kilbane 7, Manucho 6, Fagan 6.