Monday, 28 February 2011

Motherwell 2 Celtic 0

When asked post-match about how Motherwell were able to stop Celtic, Sky Sports pundit Neil McCann hit the nail on the head when pointing out that Motherwell had successfully nullified the threat from Celtic’s full-backs, especially the in-form Emilio Izaguirre.  Even with ten men against Rangers, Celtic were able to push the Honduran and Mark Wilson forward, effectively making them wingers, and feel confident that Daniel Majstorovic and Charlie Mulgrew would deal with a 2 v 1 situation at the back.  Against Motherwell it was a different story.  Chris Humphrey and Jamie Murphy both possess a lot of pace and both played wide and high up the pitch, meaning that, given their threat on the counter attack, they caused Wilson and Izaguirre to think twice before their forays into the Motherwell half.  Despite this, there were certain times in the match - towards the end of each half, for instance - where the Motherwell wingers focused on getting behind the ball with the rest of their teammates.

Motherwell started the match in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation with John Sutton leading the line.  Stephen Craigen was injured so on-loan Blackburn defender Gavin Gunning was moved into the centre of defence with Steven Hammell returning at left-back.  Francis Jeffers was left on the substitutes’ bench with Ross Forbes coming in to form a central midfield three with Keith Lasley and Steve Jennings.

With Beram Kayal suspended, Celtic lined up as expected.  Lennon opted for his favoured 4-4-2 formation although he altered the shape slightly.  Against Rangers and Dundee United recently, Kris Commons played as an out-and-out winger, whereas Scott Brown took up a more tucked in and less advanced role.  This time Commons started slightly more infield and Brown more advanced than usual.

Celtic surrendered a soft goal within two minutes but their frailties had been exposed prior to this when a Mulgrew error let Humphrey in.   Mulgrew was at fault again for the goal, this time waiting for Fraser Forster to come and collect the ball, allowing Sutton to sneak in between them and touch the ball past the Celtic goalkeeper before rolling the ball into an open goal.

Celtic’s response was to remain patient and to try to force openings but, by their own standards, they rarely threatened the Motherwell goal.  Motherwell’s midfield three of Lasley, Jennings and Forbes were excellent throughout and got behind the ball at every opportunity.  They offered terrific protection to the defence and never gave the Celtic midfield a moment’s peace, pressing high before returning into position.  Moreover, when the home side did hit on the counter attack, they moved the ball quickly and precisely and always seemed the more likely of the sides to score.

When it became clear that the initial game plan wasn’t working Lennon changed his side’s shape to a 4-3-1-2, moving Commons into the hole just behind the strikers and Brown into central midfield with Sung-Yeung Ki and Joe Ledley.  Admirably, Lennon is not afraid to make changes early in matches rather than stubbornly sticking to his pre-match tactics -see the recent Old Firm Scottish Cup clash for another example of this - but on this occasion Plan B was just as ineffective.  With 4-3-1-2 possessing such a narrow midfield, to be successful it requires the full-backs to provide width and, as noted, Motherwell successfully prevented this.

The second half took a similar pattern to that of the first.  Motherwell doubled their lead from the penalty spot through John Sutton then sat back and attempted to catch Celtic on the break.  Yet again, when Motherwell did get forward they put together some excellent passing moves and looked the more dangerous of the two sides.

Lennon had switched back to his original formation at half time but brought on Georgios Samaras and Efrain Juarez for Anthony Stokes and Mark Wilson within minutes of conceding the second goal.  The change at full-back was enforced due to injury although the change in attack was a tactical decision.  Celtic had started the match with two out-and-out strikers, both of whom were reluctant to drop deep and link with the midfield.  Samaras provided this option but with the Motherwell midfield now sitting deep and protecting their lead, he struggled to find the space to have an effect on the game.

As well as the midfield offering plenty of protection, Motherwell’s young centre-back pairing of Shaun Hutchinson and Gavin Gunning marked the Celtic strikers out of the game and won the physical battle when they faced up to long direct passes.  The pair only started together due to the absence of captain Stephen Craigen and have given their manager Stuart McCall a big decision to make when he names his side for Saturday’s trip to Inverness.

Celtic came close from a Mulgrew header and through a curling shot from Commons, which was saved superbly saved by Randolph in the Motherwell goal, but by this stage in the match Motherwell had almost everyone behind the ball and were restricting Celtic to very few chances.

In conclusion, Motherwell stopped the Celtic full-backs from having an impact on the match by fielding two pacey wingers high up the pitch against them.  Humphrey and Murphey not only kept Wilson and Izaguirre pinned back but they also defended from the front, pressing at every opportunity.  This is a luxury not afforded by many sides in the SPL, including Celtic’s next opponents Rangers.  Nevertheless, this was not the only reason for a Motherwell victory here.  They harassed the Celtic midfieldfrom start to finish and rarely afforded them time and space in dangerous areas.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Sporting Lisbon 2 Rangers 2 (3-3 on aggregate)

An injury time goal from Maurice Edu sent Rangers through to the last sixteen on away goals where they will face PSV Eindhoven.

Sporting dropped Andre Santos, Leonardo Grimi and Christiano de Oliveira from the side that lost 2-0 to Benfica on Monday, brining in Abel Ferreira, Alberto Zapater and Evaldo.  Joao Pereira and Yannick Djalo were fielded either side of Helder Postiga in attack, yet they hugged the touchline more and cut inside less than the wingers had in the first leg.  This was partly due to the fact that both started on their natural side - whereas in the first leg the wingers were inverted -and partly down to Rangers congesting the central areas.

Rangers resorted to the 5-4-1 that served them during their Champions League campaign, dropping Kyle Bartley from the defensive midfield role he took up in the Old Firm into central defence alongside Davie Weir and Madjid Bougherra.  Steven Whittaker took up a central midfield position with Steven Davis on the right, while John Fleck and Ricky Foster were brought in to replace Nikica Jelavic and Steven Naismith.

As expected, Rangers’ strategy was to sit in as deep as possible and restrict Sporting to few chances.  They refused to press the Sporting defence and midfield at all and this allowed Sporting to patiently build from the back.  Matias Fernandes would often drop deep to receive the ball and Pedro Mendes strolled in front of the back four playing short, simple passes.  Sporting looked to get their wingers on the ball but they failed to either find the space to run at the Rangers full-backs, cut inside or get in behind them as the Rangers back nine effectively stifled these areas.  Only when the match opened up later on did Djalo and Pereira finally find the space to make a mark on the match.

El Hadji Diouf started as the lone striker but failed as a target man.  He barely won any of the long balls aimed towards him and was ineffective in holding up the ball.  When Rangers did attempt to play the ball out on the ground rather than direct, they put some nice passing moves together, with Davis sometimes moving inside to form a central midfield three.

Rangers took the lead on twenty minutes through a Diouf header.  In possession, the Rangers back three would spread apart and the full-backs would move high up the pitch.  Bougherra passed the ball towards Foster who almost let it run past him but managed to touch it towards Davis just infield.  Neither Mendes nor Zapater picked up the run of Davis and he darted down the right wing before sending an inch perfect cross to the unmarked Diouf.  Anderson Polga was the closest to Diouf and failed to put him under any pressure but he was not helped by the poor positioning of right-back Abel.

Rangers’ formation could now do exactly what it was set up to do, protect a lead.  Sporting’s play became more hurried than it had been before the goal and they resorted to long range efforts on goal, chips over the Rangers defence and long diagonal balls that were for the most part wayward.

Even when you pack a defence in the way Rangers did, decent opposition will still get a chance to score and all their good work in the first half was undone by a Pedro Mendes strike minutes before half time.  Poor communication between Bartley and Weir meant that the ball fell for Postiga and his lay-off was finished expertly by the former Rangers midfielder from the edge of the box.

The second half began in a similar manner to the way the first had with Sporting patient in their build up and Rangers packing the defence.  It wasn’t until the sixty-fifth minute that Walter Smith abandoned his ultra-defensive approach and began to play more openly.  Unsurprisingly, given the fragility of Sporting in recent months, Rangers seemed capable of taking the game to their opponents and it wasn’t long until they made substitutions and moved to a more attacking formation.

Vladimir Weiss was a straight swap for Fleck on the left wing and Davie Weir was withdrawn for Lafferty.  Ten minutes later David Healy was brought on to replace Diouf and join Lafferty in attack in a 4-4-2 formation but before the Northern Ireland international could even touch the ball Rangers found themselves 2-1 down.

The danger seemed to be over when a combination of Bartley and Sasa Papac won the ball from Sporting substitute Carlos Saleiro.  Instead of clearing the danger, Papac allowed himself to be challenged and Pereira’s cross was headed in by Djalo, the smallest player on the pitch.

It seemed as if Rangers were out but some shocking Sporting defending allowed them to snatch an equaliser at the death.  Foster was able to easily cut inside Djalo and feed the ball through for Healy.  Three Rangers players were waiting at the back post to tap in the low cross but it was Edu who got the final touch.  In the lead up to the goal, not only did Evaldo fail to step out and provide extra cover for Djalo on Foster but no one followed Healy.  Furthermore, when Healy received the ball there were four Sporting players in the box and not one of them were either marking or goal-side of a Rangers player.

In the end, Walter Smith’s game plan of restricting Sporting early in the match and then scoring late on worked, even if not quite the way he intended it.  Two lapses in concentration seemed to have cost Rangers the tie but they were saved by some awful Sporting defending.  When Rangers did abandon their ultra-defensive approach they exposed the frailties of the Portuguese side and it’s a wonder they didn’t go for the kill earlier on in match.

Accies not quite finished yet

Hamilton’s 1-0 defeat at Pittodrie on Tuesday coupled St Mirren’s 1-0 victory away to Motherwell last night means that the Lanarkshire club now sit eight points adrift at the bottom of the league, albeit with an extra game to play.

Even though their run of results have been nothing short of dire during the current SPL campaign - two league wins all season (none of them at home) and only eight points from their last twenty-two matches - on recent performances they appear not to be far away from beginning to pick up points and put some pressure on their closest relegation rivals.

With Hibernian’s recent form of three victories in their last three matches, the relegation fight looks set to be battled out between Hamilton and second bottom St Mirren, who will face each other twice before the season is out.  As mentioned, St Mirren managed a victory at Fir Park on Wednesday night, however, their form has also been poor and the only goal of that game came courtesy of a terrible playing surface which caused the ball to take an unnatural bounce, giving Motherwell goalkeeper Danny Randolph no chance.

Despite Hamilton’s poor season, they have actually been one of the most interesting teams tactically in recent weeks.  Billy Reid has persisted with three central defenders for most of the season but has recently moved away from a back five towards a 3-1-3-3 formation whilst in possession, 3-1-5-1 without it, similar to that used by Greece during their Euro 2004 success.  This is how Hamilton lined up against Motherwell on Saturday:

The formation means that they always have at least one spare man at the back and are never overrun (in terms of numbers anyway) in midfield.  The tactics are working defensively: they aren’t conceding too many goals, haven’t conceded from open play during their last two matches and have only come undone by two contentious penalty decisions.

As mentioned, they are now playing with one player in front of the back four, Gavin Skelton, with five across the midfield just in front of him.  When they regain possession the two widest players – against Motherwell it was Jim McAllister and Flavio Paixao, whereas against Aberdeen it was Flavio Paixao and Dougie Imrie – race forward to join Mickael Antoine-Curier in attack and form a front three.  On their day these players, especially Imrie, can create and score goals and Antoine-Curier has also shown that he can put the ball in the net if given the service.

It is scoring goals as opposed to conceding them that is Hamilton’s downfall at the moment and if Reid could just get a bit more out of his front three then they would start picking up points and getting closer to St Mirren.   The problem for Hamilton as I see it is that they play with three central midfielders, a sitting player behind them and wingers.  Against Motherwell, Hamilton started with a central midfield three of James Chambers, Mark Carrington and Jon Routledge and each one of them held their position throughout the match, apart from covering the flanks when their side conceded possession high up the pitch.

One way of possibly resolving this would be to play one of the three in a more advanced role, linking play between defence and attack, or else fielding a more attacking player instead of one of them.  With Skelton just behind the midfield, Hamilton would still either match up man for man in central midfield against, say, the 4-2-3-1 of Hearts or else have a man advantage when lined up against a 4-4-2, such as that of Aberdeen.  When defending against Motherwell they had their back three to contend with John Sutton and Francis Jeffers, Skelton man marking Jamie Murphy and this still left the five across the middle to deal with Keith Lasley, Steve Jennings, Ross Forbes and the advancing full-backs.  With Jennings sitting so deep in the Motherwell midfield, Billy Reid could have afforded to field a more attacking player in the central midfield area and not leave himself overmanned there.

Hamilton have lost some top quality players since last season with James McArthur and James McCarthy moving to Wigan and Brian Easton returning to Burnley after his loan spell and Billy Reid has had neither the cash to replace them nor the same quality coming through the youth ranks.  In spite of this, Hamilton are still within touching distance of St Mirren and should not be written off just yet.

Hamilton were in trouble towards the end of last season, granted not as desperate a situation, yet ended up finishing as one of the form sides of the SPL.  Those feats will most likely not be repeated but with the way they are currently playing, two matches against St Mirren still to come and slightly easier fixtures to come post-split, they may just surprise a few people and make this relegation battle all the more interesting.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

St Mirren 0 Hibernian 1

Hibs secured a vital three points against fellow strugglers St Mirren in a very poor match in Paisley with Francis Dickoh heading home with three minutes remaining.

The home side brought Jim Goodwin and Jure Travner in for David van Zanten and Lee Mair and lined up as 4-4-2/4-3-3 depending on the position of Paul McGowan, who began on the right of the three central midfielders but regularly moved forward to join the attack.  Travner provided the width on the left side from full-back.

Hibs again opted for a 4-1-3-2 with Ian Murray and Matt Thornhill missing and Liam Miller and Martin Scott brought in to replace them.  Victor Palsson started just in front of the back four and just behind a central midfield three, although David Wotherspoon would often drift wide right.  Derek Riordan began just off Akpo Sodje in attack and would switch between dropping deep and wide and forming a front two with Sodje.

Both teams began by hitting long balls towards their respective target men.  For St Mirren, McGowan and Craig Dargo would often stay close to Michael Higdon in the hope that one of his knock downs would come their way.  On one occasion McGowan managed to get on the end of a Higdon flick and cut the ball back with Graham Stack out of his goal but the Hibs defence scrambled the ball clear.

The best chances of the first half fell to Scott who struck the woodwork twice.  The first of these came when Wotherspoon worked some space for himself on the wing and sent a lovely cross towards the near post.  Scott’s header was a fraction away from opening the scoring with goalkeeper Paul Gallacher stranded.  Scott was one of the better players on the park and covered a lot of ground, often getting beyond the forwards, and also put in a shift defensively.  He has been the most impressive of the six new signings, providing the necessary battling qualities and energy that Hibs were sorely lacking prior to his arrival.

There was little to report in a less than eventful first half as both sides cancelled each other out in midfield and failed to hold the ball up effectively when attacking.  The match took a pattern something along the lines of: goal kick, long ball, throw in, free kick, corner, goal kick, long ball ad nauseam.

Hibs were the first side to get the ball down and play a little football and their most likely source of creativity came from Wotherspoon on the right.  St Mirren’s shape was such that they had no out-and-out left midfielder which had the consequence that the Hibs youngster was afforded time to run at St Mirren left back Travner.  He set up Riordan who shot straight at Gallacher and towards the end of the half he again sent in a decent cross from the right which was inadvertently turned towards his own goal by Marc McAusland.  Luckily for the St Mirren right-back, Paul Hanlon’s touch took the ball wide of goal rather than towards it.

As the first half drew to a close, McGowan had a shot from the edge of the penalty area which was saved comfortably by Stack and at the other end Scott hit the bar for a second time after he got on the end of a Dickoh flick on.

No changes at half time in terms of personnel or in terms of formation and the second half was a scrappy (and almost as non-eventful) as the first had been.  Yet again, Hibs were the more likely to get the ball down and pass it around but they failed to create any decent chances.  Riordan had another poor shot saved and from the resulting counter attack Craig Dargo was unlucky in his attempt to chip the goalkeeper after being sent through by McGowan.

Colin Calderwood then withdrew Miller and the ineffective Sodje and replaced them with Lewis Stevenson and Colin Nish.  Nish was a like for like swap but Stevenson took up a left sided midfield role with Scott pushed in to the centre.

Most of the chances – if you could call them that – were from set-pieces and it was no surprise that the only goal of the match came from a corner.  With three minutes remaining, Callum Booth sent an inswinger towards the back post.  Paul Hanlon rose above John Potter to head the ball across goal and Dickoh was there to knock the ball into the net.  St Mirren manager Danny Lennon will be furious with his defence considering three of them were within touching distance of Dickoh when he scored, yet each of them were caught the wrong side and didn’t put a in decent challenge between them.

Overall it was a poor match in which both teams resorted to long ball regularly.  Higdon was the most successful of the target men and Sodje struggled to hold the ball up and bring the Hibs midfield into play.  Hibs were the more capable side of getting the ball down but created little from such attacks.  It was no surprise that the only goal of the game was a result of a set-piece.

The win lifts Hibs further away from the sole relegation spot and after winning their last three matches they can begin to look up rather than down the table.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Celtic 3 Rangers 0

Davie Weir was at fault for the first two goals in a very one-sided Old Firm match yet was not the only player responsible for the terrible Rangers performance.  Celtic were sharper, better in possession and created all the best chances whereas Rangers surrendered possession time after time and failed to trouble Fraser Forster in the Celtic goal.

Neil Lennon made one change from the 3-1 win at Tannadice a week ago, bringing in Georgios Samaras for top scorer Anthony Stokes.  In the past the Celtic manager has opted for a lone striker system against Rangers but, aware of his opponents potential tiredness, decided to field Gary Hooper alongside Samaras in a 4-4-2 formation.  Scott Brown again played a tucked in right sided midfield role - in a similar fashion to the previous Old Firm match - with Kris Commons more advanced on the opposite flank.

Rangers made three changes from the draw with Sporting Lisbon on Thursday, restoring Steven Naismith, Nikica Jelavic and Kyle Bartley at the expense of Vladimir Weiss, Ricky Foster and Kyle Lafferty.  Sky Sports laughably suggested that Rangers were to start 4-3-3 but they lined up 4-5-1 as usual with Naismith and El Hadji Diouf wide and Bartley the most defensive of the midfield five.

Within three minutes, Steven Davis was caught in possession – something he was prone to in the Europa League match in midweek – which resulted in Bartley being booked for a challenge on Brown and meant he was unable to effectively play the defensive midfield role.

The match took a while to settle down with both teams hitting long, direct passes.  Rangers, as is usual away to Celtic, sat deep whereas the home side were more intent on pressing their opponents high up the pitch.

Celtic’s play became more settled and within fifteen minutes they had opened the scoring.  Diouf was either given the freedom to roam the pitch by Walter Smith or else took upon himself to drift over to the opposite flank from which he started but either way it led to the opening goal.  When Rangers lost possession Celtic broke down the left through Emilio Izaguirre and Commons.  The attack drew Steven Whittaker out of position which left space in behind him and, in turn, brought Madjid Bougherra out of position.  Commons slipped the ball inside to Hooper and his touch at the edge of the penalty area took the ball past Davie Weir as if he wasn’t there.  Lennon described it as “world class” after the match and even though Hooper’s touch was clever, it was more a case of the poor anticipation and pace of the ageing centre-back.  The touch put Hooper one on one with Allan McGregor and he finished coolly.

Izaguirre has shown himself to be the best attacking full-back in the country this season and since Diouf isn’t the most disciplined of wingers, it was an error to field him in this position.  Davis would have been a more suitable choice but, with Lee McCulloch missing through injury, Smith decided that he was needed in the centre of midfield.

Smith responded by switching Diouf with Naismith but the within five minutes they were opened up on that side once again.  Jelavic, who struggled to get involved all afternoon, gave the ball away and Celtic quickly broke.  Samaras sent Izaguirre racing down the left which was only made possible by Weir’s awful positioning.  He was at least five yards deeper than the rest of his defence and only attempted to step out when the pass was actually played.  Izaguirre crossed the ball towards the back post where Hooper was on hand to slide the ball home.

With around thirty minutes played Rangers managed to put together their first decent move involving Whittaker, Jelavic, Naismith and Bartley which culminated in their first effort on goal, however, by this point Celtic were happy to sit back and protect their lead until half time.

At half time Lafferty was brought on for Naismith as Rangers lined up man for man against their opponents.  Davis moved out to the right, Lafferty took up the left sided role and Diouf was pushed into a more advanced position.  The change improved Rangers but they almost found themselves 3-0 down when Brown’s header was cleared off the line after McGregor misjudged a Samaras cross.

Rangers were now taking the game to Celtic, getting Whittaker and Sasa Papac forward more and making the Celtic defence work for the first time in the match, however, this only lasted until Lennon was forced into a change.  Ki Sung-Yueng was brought on due to an injury to the impressive Beram Kayal.  Even though the switch was not tactical, it improved Celtic as the South Korean made sure that Celtic retained the ball better than they had done for the first fifteen minutes of the second half.

Rangers’ play soon became rushed again and Walter Smith made his final substitution when he replaced Diouf with David Healy but the Northern Ireland international made little impact on the game.

Rangers gave the ball away cheaply all afternoon and were punished once again when Commons made it 3-0 with twenty minutes remaining.  Both Maurice Edu and Sasa Papac handed possession back to Celtic in quick succession and when the ball was eventually worked to Commons at the edge of the box, he cut inside a half-hearted challenge from Bougherra and sent a tame shot down the middle of the goal.  McGregor completely misjudged the flight of the ball and allowed himself to be beaten too easily.  The 3-0 scoreline was no less than Celtic deserved in a match that they completely dominated.

Overall Celtic completely outplayed their rivals in every department.  They retained the ball better, created better chances and defended well.  Rangers, on the other hand, were very, very poor.  Davie Weir’s passing was often wayward, he lacks any kind of pace and was at fault for the first two goals which effectively ended the match.  It would be easy to put this down to a one poor performance but the signs have been there for a while now that he is rapidly coming to the end of his career.  Nonetheless, he was not the only Rangers player at fault on the day.  The midfield failed to serve or support Jelavic and they were impotent for the entire ninety minutes.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Motherwell 1 Hamilton 0

A poor match on a poor surface at Fir Park was decided by a contentious penalty decision.  Motherwell dominated for large parts but were poor in front of goal.  Hamilton failed to trouble Darren Randolph in the Motherwell goal despite enjoying some spells of possession.

Motherwell kept the same personnel and shape that brought back three points from Pittodrie in midweek.  This meant a 4-4-2 diamond formation with Francis Jeffers and John Sutton in attack.  Keith Lasley and Ross Forbes were deployed as carilleros, with Steven Jennings the holding midfielder and Jamie Murphy in the hole behind the strikers.

Hamilton stuck with a back three in a 3-1-5-1 which became 3-1-3-3 when attacking.  Gavin Skelton sat in front of the back three and was tasked with man marking Murphy, a job he successfully carried out as Murphy failed to make an impact until later on in the match when he was pushed up front and Skelton moved to left-back.  Flavio Paixao and Jim McAlister started deep on either side of midfield but were quick to support Mickael Antoine-Curier and form a three-pronged attack when in possession.

Hamilton’s tactics were to get ten men behind the ball when Motherwell had possession and to hit on the break.  McAlister and Paixao were the obvious outlets but were let down by Antoine-Curier who failed to hold the ball up effectively.  They started reasonably well with most of their play focused down the left and with Paixao making diagonal runs to join in on that side.  However, they failed to create any clear cut chances and their early pressure was short lived.

With a diamond midfield inevitably being narrow, Gavin Gunning and Tom Hateley were expected to get forward and provide width for the home side.  Young central defender Shaun Hutchinson was comfortable coming out of the defence with the ball to start off attacks and had an excellent game defensively.

On twelve minutes Motherwell came close to opening the scoring.  Forbes cut inside Paixao on the wing and his excellent low cross across the face of goal was narrowly missed by Sutton.  Motherwell then began to dominate and managed to pass the ball around well, something manager Stuart McCall has instilled since taking charge, despite the poor surface.

Another chance on half an hour, this time a Jeffers header from a Forbes free-kick, was saved well by Tomas Cerny and it wasn’t long until Motherwell broke the deadlock.

Sutton let a Lasley cross run across him and, in a way that his brother would have been proud of, fell to the ground all too easily.  Martin Canning, who has a bad habit of conceding penalties, seemed fairly innocent on this occasion.  He did have his hands on Sutton without actually holding him and it was surprising to see Crawford Allan point to the spot.  The same player stepped up to send Cerny the wrong way.

A Forbes free-kick from the edge of the box was saved well by the Czech goalkeeper as the first half drew to a close.

Hamilton began the second half in much the same way as they did the first, applying pressure on the Motherwell defence.  They should have equalised when Jon Routledge crossed for an unmarked McAlister who headed over the bar.

The game then entered a rather disjointed period in which Motherwell seemed happy to soak up pressure and hit on the counter attack.  Billy Reid then made three changes to his side in the space of ten minutes.  Gary McDonald and Ali Crawford were straight swaps for the ineffectual midfield pair of James Chambers and Mark Carrington and Nigel Hasselbaink replaced an increasingly frustrated Flavio Paixao, joining Antoine-Curier in attack in a 3-1-4-2 formation.

Two of the substitutes combined almost instantly when Crawford fed Hasselbaink but his shot was well above the target.

Motherwell then made two changes of their own, moving to more of an orthodox 4-4-2, with Forbes and Jeffers leaving the field to be replaced by Steven Hammell and Chris Humphrey.  The reason for this was largely defensive for two reasons.  Firstly, to neutralise the potential threat of McAlister who had now moved to the right hand side.  Having Hammell and Gunning on the pitch meant that they could double up on him whenever he ventured forward.  Secondly, because Motherwell now had some natural width in midfield their full-backs were not required to move up the pitch as often.

This forced Hamilton to change their own shape although their actual formation was difficult to pin down for the rest of the match.  At first it seemed that they had maintained their back three with Skelton and McAlister as wing-backs, however, Canning would often cover the right back area and allow McAlister to attack.  They continued to switch between four and five at the back for the remainder of the match.  Skelton was most likely intended to be more attacking yet was unable to due to the threat of Humphrey.

The change in shape from Motherwell brought about all it was intended to apart from the goal that would have ended the match as a contest.  In the final twenty minutes they reduced Hamilton to one chance from a set-piece, which Mark McLaughlin blasted high and wide, and created four decent chances of their own.  Each one came through Humphrey, whose pace was causing Skelton all sorts of problems, and each one should probably have ended up in the back of the net.  The Motherwell winger crossed for Sutton who headed straight at the keeper and Murphy did no better from his two chances.  Humphrey then decided to do it all himself after being sent down the line by Hutchinson but his own effort was too high.

Overall this was not the most interesting match tactically.  Hamilton can feel slightly aggrieved with the manner in which they conceded.  Motherwell deserved the win on chances created, most of which came about after their tactical switch, but were awful in front of goal.  Hamilton defended well until they were chasing the game when they inevitably left themselves exposed defensively but will be disappointed at not working Randolph in the Motherwell goal.  If Billy Reid can take anything from this match then it is that this formation could potentially be effective in future matches.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Rangers 1 Sporting Lisbon 1

A subtle change in formation at half time from Walter Smith allowed Rangers to dominate the second half but some poor tracking back from Vladimir Weiss and Steven Davis cost them a 1-0 win late on.

Rangers lined up as 4-4-1-1 with El Hadji Diouf just off Kyle Lafferty in attack.  Steven Whittaker was on the right of midfield, with Davis moved into the centre and Weiss deployed on the left in the absence of Steven Naismith.  Ricky Foster started at right-back in what was otherwise a familiar back four.

Sporting Lisbon lined up as 4-3-3 with Yannick Djalo and Cristiano de Oliveira either side of Helder Postiga in attack.  Alberto Zapater was preferred to Andre Santos in midfield three with Maniche and deep-lying playmaker Pedro Mendes.

The opening five minutes saw Rangers start the better of the teams.  It was clear from the off the Diouf was to be given a free role and link the play between midfield and attack.  He dropped deep and wide and caused the Sporting defence problems all night.

Once the game settled down it was Sporting who controlled the half.  The extra man in the centre of midfield was telling and full-backs Joao Pereira and Evaldo looked to get forward at every opportunity. Djalo was also looking dangerous and would often join Postiga to form a front two. Rodriguez was more inclined to stay wide and had a quiet match overall.

Sporting completely dominated possession in the first half and controlled the pace of the game, whereas Rangers’ play was rushed and disjointed.  Lafferty failed to effectively hold up the ball and squandered all the chances that did come his way.

The main feature of the first half was the central midfield battle.  Davis was expected to dictate play for the home side but wasn’t given any time on the ball and was often caught in possession.  The trio of Mendes, Maniche and Zapater bypassed the Rangers midfield with ease.

When Rangers did get forward in the opening stages, they looked most dangerous when Weiss drifted inside, creating space for Sasa Papc to get forward.  This threat seemed to be nullified when Djalo and Rodriguez switched sides, due to Rodriguez being more disciplined and taking up a wider position that Djalo.  Djalo and Rodriguez switched positions periodically throught the match.

Rangers finished the half by creating a few opportunities but this time down the right.  Lafferty had two headers, one from a terrific Whittaker cross that he should have scored and another chance saw Diouf pull wide right and fed by Madjid Bougherra.  His run pulled Anderson Polga and Pedro Mendes out of position, Whittaker ran inside to the space created but his shot from the edge of the area was saved well by Rui Patricio.

At half time Walter Smith tweaked his formation ever so slightly which stopped Sporting’s midfield dominance.  He moved Whittaker into a slightly more tucked in role and instructed Diouf to concentrate on drifting wide right.  This had the consequence that, at times, Rangers were 4-5-1 with Diouf wide right and Whittaker forming a midfield three with Davis and Edu.  At other times Diouf would drop into deep central positions and link up with the Rangers central midfield more.  Whether Whittaker made wide runs or central runs seemed to depend on the position of the Senegalese international: if Diouf pulled wide Whittaker would drift inside and if Diouf dropped deep and central, Whittaker would go wide.  The move also saw Davis take up a more advance role and he and the rest of the Rangers midfield enjoyed more space in possession than they had in the first half.

Rangers instantly looked a better side and created a chance within twenty seconds of the restart.  Foster’s long ball was flicked on by Lafferty, Whittaker got in behind the Sporting defence to meet the knock-down but his shot was saved.  The urgency of Rangers, along with the tactical change, allowed Rangers to dominate.  Sporting looked lost without the ball and were uncertain on how to deal with the movement of Diouf.

Diouf was now covering large areas of the pitch and was even found in his own half starting off attacks.  In the sixty-fifth minute Diouf beat Rodriguez and to get to the byline.  His cross was turned behind by Pereira and Rangers scored from the resulting corner.  Weiss’s inswinging corner was met by the head of Whittaker who had beaten Polga to the ball at the edge of the six yard box.  Whittaker is not well known for his heading abilities but it seemed that Polga was more interested in the man than the ball on this occasion.

Sporting then made two substitutions with around fifteen minutes remaining as they pressed for an equaliser.  Carlos Saleiro was a straight swap for Rodriguez and Maniche was replaced by Matias Fernandez.  Fernandez took up a more advanced role and spent a lot of his time on the left.

Rangers began to sit back and allow Sporting more possession.  All Sporting’s attacks were focused down the left with Evaldo getting forward, Fernandez and Zapater drifting wide to join in and Djalo and Saleiro taking turns to do the same.  Inevitably, this left huge gaps on the other side of the pitch but this was only taken advantage of in the eighty-eighth minute.

Mendes, Zapater and Djalo formed a triangle and passed the ball around Edu and Davis with ease before Djalo fed Fernandez just outside the Rangers penalty area.  He played a short pass to Saleiro and moved into the box.  Weiss failed to track the overlap of Pereira as he was sent down the wing by Saleiro and the cross was headed in by an unmarked Fernandez.  Bougherra instinctively moved towards his own goal and with neither Edu nor Davis following the Chilean international, he was able to simply nod the ball past Alan McGregor.

It was the first time Pereira had had the ball in an advanced position during the half and the first time Sporting had attacked down that side in the same period.  Up until then Davis, Edu and especially Whittaker had done a fantastic job of quelling the threat from their opponents but a couple of moments of laziness turned a fantastic result into one that leaves Rangers needing at least a goal next week in Lisbon.

Rangers v Sporting Lisbon Preview

Both teams should line up in a similar fashion this evening.  Walter Smith has employed a lone striker system for most of the domestic campaign and with being short of options in attack will likely stick with something similar.  The big question will be whether he decides to stick with the five-man defence of his Champions League campaign or else move towards something resembling 4-5-1.

One option would be to field Kyle Bartley in the holding midfield role, a position he took up against Motherwell recently, which would give him the option of switching between four and five at the back during the match – Bartley is naturally a centre-back.  Should he chose to do this, Smith will be unlikely to field Jamie Ness alongside him, due to their lack of experience, and will likely opt for Maurice Edu and Steven Davis instead.

The other main decision for Smith is who to deploy as the lone striker.  With the loss of Kenny Miller last month and Nikica Jelavic cup-tied, El Hadji Diouf would be the obvious choice to provide the necessary movement and link up required for the role, however, with Steven Naismith struggling with injury he may be forced to play Diouf wide and go with Kyle Lafferty up front.

Should Naismith not make it then Vladimir Weiss will likely replace him, although Smith also has the option of Diouf in attack with Davis and Weiss wide, bringing in Ness to the centre.  Nonetheless, as mentioned before, this would leave a very young central three with an average age of less than twenty-one.  Whoever is chosen to play on the left-hand side of the Rangers midfield will need to remain disciplined and aware of the attacking threat posed by Sporting’s Joao Pereira .

Sporting Lisbon head coach Paulo Sergio has experimented with various formations in the Europa League this season but has stuck with a 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 for most of the domestic season.  The loss of striker Liedson a fortnight ago to Brazilian side Corinthians means that Helder Postiga will lead the line but the main worry for Sporting will be who plays behind him.  Simon Vukcevic has recently fallen out with his coach but may still find himself starting due to lack of options.  Chilean winger Jaime Valdes is missing through injury so it will be a toss up between fellow countryman Matias Fernandez – a bit-part player this season – and Yannick Djalo, who has only recently returned from injury.  Vukcevic is left-footed but will start on the right and cut inside whereas Fernandez, whose preferred position is that of an old-fashioned number ten, will likely drift inside.

This may allow Rangers full-back Steven Whittaker space in front of him that we know he can exploit.  Whittaker is the more likely of the Rangers full-back to get forward and has shown a willingness and ability to get involved in attack.  Just how much freedom Walter Smith is willing to allow him is another question.

Thus, it looks likely that both teams will line up similarly which means the outcome may come down to how attacking or defensive each side will be.  For a start, first legs of European ties tend to be tight and cagey affairs.  Add to this that Rangers are notoriously defensive in European competitions and the fact that Sporting have conceded five goals in their last two matches against lower-league opposition  - a 3-3 and a 2-2 - and the smart money is on a match where either team will be unwilling to give too much away.  In saying that, Rangers will be aware of their opponents’ poor defensive record recently and with being at home may break with tradition and attempt to take the game to Sporting.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Article on The Terrace Scottish Football podcast website

Just wanted to point you in the direction of a great site that I have appeared on today:

In it I argue that Webster may not have been so wrong for engineering his exit from Tynecastle and that the Hearts support should back him or else risk disrupting the momentum the side currently has.

The site has many other blogs worth checking out as well as a weekly podcast that is well worth a listen.

I'll be back tomorrow night/Friday morning with a report of the Rangers v Sporting Lisbon match.