Before the match, I audaciously predicted West Ham to win 3-1 with an Andy Carroll brace. In hindsight, I’d have taken a 1-0 victory with the solitary goal being scored off of Robert Huth’s back following a Shawcross clearance from a corner.
I think we all knew the game would be physical, cagey and tough, but I was a bit surprised by how blatantly dirty it was. The opening goal was a well-rehearsed training routine that Jonathan Walters did well to tuck away. As practiced as Walter’s run was Charlie Adam’s block on McCartney. I think NFL scouts have taken note. Even Tony Pulis in his post-match interview acknowledged it.
That said, it was a very good goal, and you just have to move on. It set the tone for the rest of the match (the physicality, I mean), and it’s always tough to come back from an early goal against a team with a good defensive record (far different from a team with a good defence).
On top of that, we did not play well in the first half at all. I don’t think there was anyone in particular to blame, but we just seemed a bit flat, and we saw ourselves being pick-pocketed in midfield, out run, and out fouled, and we really struggled to string together any sort of real attacking move.
As the half wore on we started to gain some momentum, and it made me contemplate on what I had just witnessed. We had witnessed Stoke playing their asses off and creating one good chance off a corner. That was the zenith of Stoke City Football Club. What mattered would be how we adjusted and reacted at halftime. To get back into the game would take some real team character…
(Imagine Big Sam spewing fire at half time)
And our boys responded brilliantly, with a sharpness and energy hardly seen in the first half. Our adjustment was to play at a higher tempo and more on the ground than in the first half, which showed A) yes, every fucking pundit out there, we can play good football and B) We don’t panic. We knocked the ball around with skill and confidence, and really dictated the play.
We had Stoke in a vice, and throughout the half we kept tightening it. Our renewed energy paid off almost immediately, with O’Brien’s well taken strike (his first in the Premier League) coming in the 48th minute. Tomkins and Reid were exceptional at nullifying any threat Crouch and Co. produced, and apart from a couple of counter-attacks that were stopped by offside calls, we never looked like conceding again.
The real question, after the equaliser, became if we could get a winner. Noble, after being understandably frustrated during the first half, began to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and was the architect of some of our best attacks. Diame’s tireless running and movement off the ball freed up so much space for Noble to establish a good passing game, and O’Neil was simply faultless in the second half and was almost rewarded with what would have been a splendid goal.
O’Neil was 33/39, or 85% passing, created 3 chances, and got the assist. I feel he, along with Noble and Tomkins, all could have bagged the man of the match award. And while Nolan may have had a bit of an off day, with an effort he puts away 9 times out of 10 going straight at Begovic, he made up for it with his energy and willingness. Maiga had a fairly dismal first half, but started to improve as the game wore on. Despite the number of times he needlessly gave the ball away, when he did attack he looked rather dangerous and was involved in some fantastic moves down our left-hand side.
It’s a pity that none of his crosses did find Andy Carroll, but credit to Maiga for actually looking to pick Carroll out each time, rather than just blindly hoofing it. As for the big man, I simply feel bad for him. He did what he could to influence the game, and won 12 of his 21 aerial duels, often holding the ball up extremely well before support arrived, but he was up against Huth and Shawcross the entire game, two of the dirtiest bastards you are ever likely to see partnered in the center of a defence.
Carroll was held on every set piece we had, and I’d be willing to bet he received his fair share of elbows to the ribs. He seemed understandably pissed when he came off, but some fans took this as him sulking, and I have to disagree. I think he was simply frustrated at being the lone front man getting kicked all over the park by Shawcross and Huth and not once getting a call. He worked tirelessly for the team (made 5/8 defensive clearances) and put in an excellent tackle on the far touchline. And did you see the way he celebrated the goal with O’Brien? It made me think he genuinely feels a part of the squad now.
I know Stoke were dirty. Everyone knows Stoke were dirty. Shawcross, Huth, and Cameron were all at their “best”. At one point in the fist half, Carroll went for a header on the edge of the area and Shawcross and Cameron didn’t even bother trying to play the ball, but instead put all their weight and elbows into Carroll’s back.
For some inexplicable reason the foul(s?) weren’t given. In fact the referee hardly called anything against Stoke, so they were allowed to play “their game”. But you know what? We have to consider ourselves unlucky at not getting all three points, but we should all be extremely proud of the way the team responded in the second half to draw level, completely dominating the play.
A point, while maybe disappointing before the match, was a very positive result at full time and in this current fixture list from hell, I’ll take a well-earned point. I’m proud of the team, happy they responded so well, and relieved we were able to rescue a point whilst miraculously not having half our team stretchered off.
That being said, I think I speak for everyone when I say fuck Stoke!