Tuesday, 01 December 2015

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Carlisle Utd's mauling at Brentford leaves question mark over play-off bid

Brentford 4 Carlisle United 0: Greg Abbott spent time and effort searching for answers but when he had stopped speaking, a couple of disturbing questions hung in the chilly air in this corner of the capital.

Francois Zoko photo
Francois Zoko on the ball

One – can a team take so many thrashings on their travels and still be credible at the top end of their division? And two – do Carlisle United have any place in a play-off battle if they fall to earth this badly without one important player?

There is no shame in recruiting an able performer and then relying on him, especially when you’re a club whose promotion pushes will always be precarious. But Lee Miller is one man, a single human being behind whom an entire squad and staff cannot justifiably hide.

United have now suffered four meaty blows on the road in League One and this was perhaps the worst of them. In previous four-goal slaughters Carlisle have had some mitigation, such as injury (Miller at Chesterfield), a debatable sending-off (Miller at Hartlepool) and the strength of their opponents (table-topping Charlton).

Miller was absent again, here, last night, but United have had three goes at coping without the suspended Scot and looked less convincing with each step. Dealing with his loss was not a challenge they attacked from a standing start at Griffin Park, but it looked that way, and what we saw here – and what viewers witnessed live on their television screens – condemned Abbott and his team.

In “ignoring” the Sky cameras – such was the pre-match pledge made by the manager and several of his troops – United also managed to ignore Brentford’s goalposts and many of the men in red-and-white stripes. By the time the Bees had accepted their fourth gift, United were utterly enfeebled and grateful that Uwe Rosler’s side called off the chase with 36 minutes to go.

It was at this point that Abbott made his mercy killing, substituting Lubo Michalik after the latest bleak night in that defender’s recent run of questionable form. Had rules allowed, the Blues boss could have re-used his hook left, right and centre, but as it was the rest had to stay out there and get through to the end, without further embarrassment.

They managed that, at least. And even in this dark hour United did not sink down the league table. The insanity of League One is that Carlisle could still, in theory, find themselves sixth on Saturday night if Miller’s return from a ban provokes an improvement and Stevenage begin their overdue wobble. But the trawl for “positives” takes splinters off the barrel if it is pursued any further.

Just as pointless is to try to list the things that worked for the Blues last night. Once Adam Collin’s gaffe allowed Harlee Dean to head the 28th-minute opener, the machine shut down. From that calamitous point on they made further clumsy defensive errors, failed to execute basic duties in midfield and created little around Brentford’s penalty box.

The Bees’ own goalkeeper Richard Lee, was subbed at half-time but he was comfortably his own biggest threat. Carlisle ought to have seen the home gloveman fumbling an early corner and then colliding unnecessarily with Dean minutes later as an opportunity too good to waste.

But the weak spot, alas, was never properly attacked. Paddy Madden was the latest man to deputise for Miller as a central striker but the fare aimed his way was too high and too clumping, and back it usually came from the forehead of Leon Legge: not League One’s most agile defender but a willing barrier to anything sent north. In other areas of Abbott’s retained 4-3-3 system the passing was too shoddy and the movement unimaginative.

You wondered how long neutral viewers would persist with their Monday night entertainment as the game opened to a heavy Frank Simek backpass which Collin had to hack clear, an ungainly act which was swiftly followed by an unforced Legge hoof, a Simek run which took him out of play and then a carnival of confusion between Sam Saunders and Shaleum Logan, who both ran towards a dead ball then hesitated, in unison.

One of the Brentford men even slipped and fell. But moments later the early pattern began to be weaved. From the eventual delivery, Legge found himself in an ocean of green space in front of goal. He headed the chance over, but why was he so blissfully free from defensive attention?

Rosler’s side are seldom afraid to send the ball long into enemy lines and United’s competitive edge in the face of the early barrage can now be written off as deceptive. Lee’s early sloppiness hinted at possibilities for the Cumbrians, and at the other end Peter Murphy seemed in the mood to run the entire spectacle by remote control, but then the nightmares began. Down United’s right, Simek fouled Jonathan Douglas, and in a trice Saunders had bent over a decent delivery which Collin got nowhere near, allowing Dean to rise and score.

That launched the domino rally which was not affected by Brentford’s loss of Gary Alexander to injury. More of his replacement shortly, but in the immediate wake of the striker’s substitution we saw Paul Thirlwell aim a token shot wide and then Clayton Donaldson give Michalik an ungainly problem before Saunders sped onto the loose ball and drilled number two beneath Collin.

More? Well, anything is possible on telly. In the 41st minute, Toumani Diagouraga snaffled a United attack in his own box and mounted a high-stepping charge upfield. This saw the ball transferred to the industrious Marcus Bean and then to Logan, whose cross could not have been flicked more carefully to Saido Berahino had Simek been Brentford’s target-man himself. The Brentford sub accepted the right-back’s glance and then dispatched it across Collin with accuracy and force.

Berahino, a West Brom loanee and England youth international who played on the streets of war-torn Burundi before his family fled to these shores, celebrated his debut goal with unbridled joy, and a couple of minutes later fed Douglas for a shot which Collin managed to parry. Half-time probably came as a downright nuisance to the 18-year-old; those 15 minutes must have seemed like 15 weeks to wait before he could jog back outside and resume his night’s work.

When United re-emerged, it was with Andy Welsh (for Thirlwell) in a rejigged midfield, but once the occasionally-flickering Francois Zoko had served Madden with a shooting chance – Simon Moore saved – Brentford got back down to business. As before, their next goal came after a United attack had been dealt with. As the Bees dashed forward, Bean’s header caught Michalik out of position and allowed Donaldson to advance and feed Berahino, who stepped in from the left and curled a beauty beyond Collin.

There’s no shame in applauding expertise, even when it’s given a leg-up. Expect the gifted Berahino’s name to feature in many more bulletins. It was to United’s relief, at least, that he failed to trouble the scorers a third time: an outcome due, in part, to Danny Livesey’s wholeheartedness in Michalik’s stead and Berahino’s own marginal inaccuracy in the 76th minute, when Douglas had navigated his way around Ben Parker in the ‘D’.

You know something is afoot when the experienced Douglas, whose many strengths have never included a Frank Lampard impersonation kit, is bombing past your defenders and midfielders with regularity. But this was how badly things had drifted for United, who survived further attempts from Saunders and Bean when they had half-chances blocked.

By the time the final humiliation was served by James Berrett, who fell over and then passed out of play, you began to see this as a victory not only for Brentford but for Stevenage, who will soon have sixth place nailed by default if aspirants like Carlisle (and others, like Bournemouth) keep on stumbling.

The good news is that Miller’s cage door now flies open and United need no longer be minus their most influential player. The bad news is that last night he seemed less a talisman and more a fig leaf in a No14 shirt.

ADAM COLLIN - His mistake started the domino rally. There were many other culprits, but keeper was below-par.

FRANK SIMEK - Struggled in defence, passing was often poor and misread the cross for Bees’ third.

BEN PARKER - Started well enough but was then outsmarted by Bees’ frontrunners and raiding midfielders.

LUBO MICHALIK - Caught out for hosts' second and fourth, and his miserable night ended when he was hooked by Abbott.

PETER MURPHY - A controlled effort amid the first-half chaos but even he was off his game after the break.

PAUL THIRLWELL - Captain was barely in the contest as United went under in 13 bleak first-half minutes, then replaced.

LIAM NOBLE - Back in the side but couldn’t make anything happen as Bees midfield were superior.

JAMES BERRETT - A couple of his deliveries deserved better but he couldn’t exert authority where it mattered.

JP MCGOVERN - Not in the game enough and none of his flicks and passes came off around the home box.

FRANCOIS ZOKO - Looked a threat in the early stages but couldn’t beat the Bees on his own.

PADDY MADDEN - Unsuited to line-leading job, ran wholeheartedly for cause but was mostly dealt with by Legge and co.

Subs: Andy Welsh (for Thirlwell 46) – Tried to run at defenders but little joy; Danny Livesey (for Michalik 56) – One of few to emerge with credit. Not used: Mark Gillespie, Tom Taiwo, Jordan Cook

Booked: Murphy

Brentford: Lee (Moore 46), Logan (Thompson 77), Bidwell, Legge, Dean, Douglas, Diagouraga, Bean, Saunders, Donaldson, Alexander. Not used: Weston, McGinn.

Goals: Dean 28, Saunders 32, Berahino 41, 54

Ref: Tony Bates (Staffordshire)

Crowd: 4,292 (250 Carlisle fans)

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