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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

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Liam Noble helps reignite Carlisle Utd play-off bid

Carlisle United 2 Rochdale 1: Greg Abbott has fallen back onto two old faithfuls in an attempt to keep Carlisle United’s motor running as spring approaches. The most important of the pair? You can take your pick.

Zoko goal photo
Francois Zoko scores

For the first, United’s manager has plunged into Brunton Park history and rejoined the two centre-halves who formed the defensive barrier when the Blues last made a tilt at promotion. Danny Livesey and Peter Murphy, veterans of 2008 and further back, are united again and the result last night was just enough defiance to keep Rochdale at bay.

The other familiar move was from more recent times but it might prove just as telling, maybe more.

When Carlisle were clunking and grinding through an unsatisfactory first-half, Abbott saw what was required. On, at the break, went an extra midfielder (Liam Noble) and Carlisle fanned out into the tactical shape which had seen them at their most effective through their productive winter.

With Lee Miller as a single, central spearhead, and Francois Zoko and JP McGovern in supporting, attacking roles instead of more orthodox wide midfield positions, what we saw from minute 46 onwards just had a more recognisable feel. Those players mentioned, and others, seemed more comfortable with the arrangement. In the end Carlisle crafted so many openings they could have won by a distance.

They didn’t. But all that extra pressure and potency did lead to two goals, which was enough to put three more points on the board and tighten the screw on their rivals which had come loose at Notts County and on other recent away trips. McGovern and Zoko won this game for the Cumbrians because they could. The ball was in the right places often enough.

“You can say what you like about me as a manager – hopefully you play your part and do what you think is right – but the players have to go out and perform. They’re the ones under pressure.” Abbott, who said these words at full-time, was just as keen to highlight an interval “dust-up” as a reason for last night’s improvement but he cannot have failed to note down the way his strategical change paid off as dramatically as his team-talk.

If this is the way forward, and not just a 45-minute perking up, the loser might be Paddy Madden, and that is no slight on the young Irishman whose personal progress has been flagged up by Abbott and his fellow players these past few weeks. But if the immediate gains are best pursued with Miller down the middle, Zoko left and McGovern right, with three industrious men further back, then that is the way the manager will surely be tempted to go against Bury in three days’ time.

As for the rearguard men, the same. Last night you watched Livesey and Murphy going about their pre-match heading practice and gave thanks that Abbott has not needed to organise some speed-dating between unfamiliar colleagues after Lubo Michalik’s form crash. Instead of reaching out on loan, the Blues’ manager has asked the club's two longest-serving players to help correct the defensive faults which have seen far too many goals disappearing into Adam Collin’s net of late. It cannot be a bad thing, as the defining days of the season approach, that Livesey and Murphy know each others’ games inside out.

Their resolve was certainly tested in the early stages here, as Rochdale passed and moved their way into United’s territory with a vigour that belied their status as League One’s 23rd-best. From an early free-kick Michael Symes grappled with Livesey and the resulting bobble was cracked over the bar by Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro. A couple of minutes later, Murphy had to make a sliding block from Gary Jones, after Collin had pushed away a Symes attempt.

These were demanding times for United, who took some time to find their range. Nicky Adams’ buzzing wing play kept Dale ticking over nicely, with only a spooned Zoko shot to report from the other end.

In was something of a slog, desperately needing someone to put their foot on the ball and exert some authority on the uncertain middle ground. Either that, or some out-of-nothing inspiration, such as the brilliant turn and pass from Zoko which died on Miller’s heavy first touch.

Murphy, then, met a McGovern corner and saw a firm effort blocked, but it otherwise remained a grind, for the most part, with Stephen Darby, the visiting right-back, snuffing out most of Zoko’s dribbles and feints. At least Livesey, in United’s half, was getting to grips with the sizeable Symes when Dale’s experienced middle men (Jones, Jason Kennedy) were able to advance the ball forward.

Carlisle’s struggle for potency was captured by an indirect free-kick late in the first half, after keeper David Lucas had handled Dean Holden’s backpass in the box. Murphy touched, McGovern thudded it into the wall, and that was pretty much that. But then Noble jogged on for the start of the second period, and after Akpa Akpro fired a shot wide for Dale, United’s improvement began.

Zoko, at last, eluded Darby twice and forced a pair of corners. Chris Chantler, competing diligently at left-back, then served up a scoring header for Miller which the offside flag killed. Tom Taiwo contributed a fine, saving header downfield before United surged back with a James Berrett near miss, and then the opener: a superb, shoulder-dropping run from Zoko, a perfect lay-off from Miller and a measured 12-yard finish from McGovern.

Carlisle had earned this lead through their enterprise and there should have been further goals. Noble, eager for the ball, went close with a 25-yard hit, Miller cracked the bar after controlling a free-kick from the ex-Sunderland man and Berrett, freed by the extra midfield man to support attacks more often, grew in stature.

Dale’s first-half promise was now a memory but a pair of their own subs, Ashley Grimes and especially Andrew Tutte, did add some quality; when the former went down under Murphy’s challenge and was denied an ambitious penalty, the manager John Coleman responded with some ripe language which seemed to echo around a sparsely-filled stadium.

The latter then ran through excessive space and shot an inch wide, but it still alarmed when Dale then found their leveller, courtesy of a quick free-kick which was advanced to Tutte on the right wing and then crossed for Kennedy to glance home. But Carlisle are rarely denied at Brunton Park these days, and from their next proper attack, two minutes later, their lead was restored, as Noble’s cross bounced over Miller but was buried, low and true, by Zoko’s left boot.

United’s African seems so addicted to hitting late goals at the Warwick Road End that this 76th-minute strike seemed a trifle early. In the event, he could have added more deeds to his 12th goal of the season, when he sped past Darby and squared for Miller (Lucas saved, point-blank) and then fed Noble for a miscued attempt, before embarking on one more swaggering run and a shot which curled past the post.

Tutte, a former Manchester City contemporary of the excellent Chantler, drew one final parry from Collin before things were done, and then Carlisle could tack the bonus of a late Tranmere equaliser against sixth-placed Notts County onto their latest productive night at home – their 13th successive game, in fact, when their stronghold has not been breached, often thanks to the magic of Zoko. Can they play here every week?

ADAM COLLIN -  Not tested unduly by Dale but made a couple of sharp stops when needed.

FRANK SIMEK - Grew into the game after the break and gave McGovern some useful support.

CHRIS CHANTLER - Got his defensive job done and again looked comfortable on the ball and in the pass.

DANNY LIVESEY - His battling qualities were stamped all over this victory. Led with his trademark aggression.

PETER MURPHY - A steady display alongside Livesey, did not let the side down at the back.

TOM TAIWO - Struggled to impose himself early on but some of his later defensive work was impressive.

JAMES BERRETT - Looked off-colour during first-half struggles but rose in influence after break.

JP MCGOVERN - Seemed more like his old self in second half and took his goal nicely.

FRANCOIS ZOKO - United’s matchwinner frustrated in first 45 minutes but came to life afterwards. The catalyst.

PADDY MADDEN - A couple of good link-ups with Miller early on but otherwise quiet and replaced at break.

LEE MILLER - More influential after the break and gave centre-halves increasing problems.

Subs: Liam Noble (for Madden 46) – Added bite and quality. Not used: Mark Gillespie, Andy Welsh, Jordan Cook, Lubo Michalik.

Goals: McGovern 57, Zoko 76

Booked: Berrett

Rochdale: Lucas, Darby, Widdowson, Long, Barry-Murphy, Kennedy, Adams (Grimes 61), Jones, Holden, Akpa Akpro (Tutte 67), Symes. Not used: Twaddle, Edwards, Jordan.

Goals: Kennedy 74

Booked: Widdowson

Ref: Colin Webster (Northumberland)

Crowd: 3,694

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