Drawing a blank on a European awayday.
On Tuesday, Manchester City went to Romania to face the team currently sitting in second place in the Romanian League, Steaua Bucharest. City thrashed them 5-0, missed two penalties, and quite frankly could have run up a cricket score. Steaua, like their close Bucharest rivals Dinamo, have dominated Romanian football with forty-one league titles between them, shared almost equally, and are the two biggest teams in the country.
Two days later we visited the same country and traveled forty miles south of Bucharest to play against the Romanian champions, Astra Giurgiu, who won the title for the first time last season. This season they are in some disarray and have made a poor start, currently occupying ninth place in the league. Astra themselves have spent the majority of their existence in the lower leagues, and are considered to be a much smaller club than the two big Bucharest teams. We could only draw 1-1.
The result could have been so much better. Shortly before the Astra equaliser we missed a golden opportunity to extend our lead to 2-0 which would effectively have put the tie to bed. Substitute Marcus Browne’s breakaway was excellent but his unselfish pass across the goal still left Antonio with a bit to do. I reckon he would still have been disappointed to miss the target though. It’s amazing how often missed chances lead to a goal shortly afterwards at the other end and this is exactly what happened a minute or so later. Slack defending at a corner, with Byram seemingly retreating from his original position covering the near post cross, and Collins making an uncharacteristically flimsy challenge for the ball, allowed our opponents an equaliser that perhaps they deserved for their spirited fight back in the second half.
……we looked increasingly vulnerable when Collins came on and we changed to a back three.This gave our opponents the initiative and was perhaps a tactical error by our manager.
In the opening period headers from debutant Calleri and Antonio, who looked more comfortable in an attacking role, almost gave us the lead. Then just before half time an Astra defender inexplicably handled in the area. The referee spotted the infringement and Noble calmly netted the spot kick, his twenty-eighth successful conversion from the spot from thirty-one attempts, including fourteen of the last fifteen.
When comparing our result to that attained by Manchester City it emphasises how far we are away from challenging at the very top. However there was not a lot in the Astra Giurgiu performance to suggest that they should block our path into the group stage when we meet them in the return in Stratford next week.
Defensively our young back line of Byram, Oxford, Burke, and the more experienced Ogbonna coped quite well, but we looked increasingly vulnerable when Collins came on and we changed to a back three. This gave our opponents the initiative and was perhaps a tactical error by our manager. Obiang was tidy as a defensive midfielder and plays a similar role to Nordtveit. Bilic seems to prefer our new recruit whereas personally I like Obiang and I think it will be a loss if he is on his way out as persistent rumours are suggesting.
In attack, Calleri looked as if he could be useful, although it was difficult to tell in this one game. The jury is still out on Tore although he looked a little better than he did against Chelsea. Carroll is Carroll and needs better service to benefit from his strengths. Antonio looked quite good playing in an unaccustomed attacking role! He was certainly our most promising and dangerous offensive player. Valencia continued to run down blind alleys.
I look forward to seeing us attack teams with Ayew, Carroll, Payet, Feghouli, Lanzini, Kouyate, Noble and Antonio, although how many of those will, or can be, fitted into the team (or even matchday squad) at once remains to be seen. Because of injuries that is a long way off, and it will be interesting to see if the club has the willingness to invest in further attacking players, especially recognised goalscorers, before the transfer window “slams” shut in a couple of weeks time. Surely if Valencia and Sakho leave then it is a must.