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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

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Carlisle Utd denied victory after a string of missed chances against Walsall

Carlisle Utd 1 Walsall 1: Carelessness comes in many forms. Somewhere in west London, a big cheese at Chelsea will soon wake up to the thudding headache that says the Stamford Bridge club have let a Champions’ League-winning manager and a World Cup-winning coach slide through their fingers in the space of 17 months.

Carlisle action photo
Lewis Neal is tackled

A few miles further north, several light years away from the vortex which claimed Luiz Felipe Scolari, another team in blue had their car-keys-down-the-drain moment in the last 24 hours.

In Carlisle’s case, it was their basic wastefulness on the grass which brought on this morning’s migraines, and not the kind of boardroom insanity which pushed an illustrious manager onto the bonfire after 25 Premier League games.

Cumbrian supporters left Brunton Park after last night’s draw with Walsall not knowing whether to applaud their patchwork team’s spirit, or curse their repeated lack of attention to detail close to their opponents’ target. Greg Abbott’s response was to do both in decent measure.

In an even-handed post-match briefing, the Blues boss pointed the torch at three debutants, two players returning from lengthy exile and a couple of other selection changes and effectively challenged us to argue that such a hastily-pieced together team could have performed more coherently from minute one to 90.

Soon enough, however, United’s series of squandered first-half chances played back on his mental reel and brought the following statement, which came without fear of argument: “If you defend poorly at one end and don’t take your chances at the other, you’re going to get beaten more often than not.”

A general sturdiness at the back, typified by Evan Horwood’s excellent return to the colours after a three-month league absence, meant that only the second box was checked in Abbott’s analysis. “It’s still a point gained in the circumstances,” added the manager, but that stretched credibility just a touch when you tallied up the glaring opportunities which Carlisle ought to have converted from a position of strength.

Paul Thirlwell’s 19th-minute howitzer pushed United ahead from the toughest chance of the game. In the 25 minutes that followed, Cleveland Taylor, Danny Graham, Joe Anyinsah and Lewis Neal all tossed away seriously makeable openings to fire Walsall out of sight.

The 84th minute penalty pocketed by Michael Ricketts, after a crafty tumble in the box by the Saddlers’ French winger Sofiene Zaaboub, was the moment that profligacy swung back in Carlisle’s face. Annoyingly, it also extended United’s winless sequence to four, ahead of Saturday’s joyless Valentine’s Day trek to Brighton.

The best of what United put on display last night was equally visible in that first half. Namely, Lumsdon’s competent return to league action after a living hell of back and ankle injuries; Horwood’s brisk reintroduction at left-back in place of Michael Liddle (on international duty with Eire Under 21s); Lewis Neal’s largely encouraging debut down the left wing; and Richard Keogh’s strong comeback at centre-half in Danny Livesey’s absence.

And, of course, Thirlwell’s startling reinvention as a goalscoring midfielder. His third goal of the campaign after four barren years was his sweetest – a ripping 22-yarder after Neal’s shot had been blocked on the edge of the box. It erupted onto a game which had been of modest quality for 19 minutes, notable only for a scare at United’s end which saw Mark Bradley set up Jabo Ibehre to score after a Zaaboub free-kick, only for an offside flag to terminate the Saddlers’ celebrations.

Thirlwell’s goal, however, heralded a spell of Carlisle dominance. Three minutes after the captain’s strike, Horwood threw over a fine cross which Graham glanced into Taylor’s path, only for the winger to smash the chance over the bar. Then, after Ben Williams tipped away a Bradley header, United spun back downfield and organised a fine opportunity for Graham, via Peter Murphy’s pinged ball out of defence and Anyinsah’s jinking run. But Carlisle’s top scorer swung hastily at the chance and pulled it wide.

Shortly after, Anyinsah mistimed his slide onto Graham’s cross, and another chance disappeared. Finally, the lively debutant Neal squandered two decent openings, first misdirecting a cross from promising territory, then slicing wide when put through by the persistent Taylor.

Across Brunton Park, that old truth about failing to capitalise on territorial dominance was now being given airtime. Supporters were entitled to fear a Walsall comeback, since Carlisle’s wastefulness meant that one lightning strike was all the stuttering visitors required in the second 45 minutes.

It came, eventually, after a long period of sluggish play from both teams, in which Carlisle’s flow of creativity slowed to a trickle, and Chris Hutchings’ men eventually emerged into the contest, with the experienced Stephen Hughes rising as a midfield force and former Blues left-back Paul Boertien performing with increasing quality.

For United, Tony Kane rose from the bench for his debut after David Raven succumbed to a dead leg, and later Michael Burns made his maiden appearance at left-back in place of the cramp-affected Horwood. Michael Bridges also trotted on for the final 17 minutes, by which time Carlisle had absorbed another Bradley header, fended off a shot by the awkward substitute Ricketts (expertly repelled by Keogh) and scrambled away Walsall’s other threats to their state of well-being.

Then came the sting. A shame that it should be Thirlwell to give away the late penalty, since it came towards the end of another high-quality performance from the skipper. But the flighty Zaaboub, with some earlier dramatics, had already showcased his readiness to hit the turf at the slightest contact.

So United’s captain was probably asking for trouble when he dipped his foot into a penalty-box tackle and watched Zaaboub plunge to ground. Ricketts made short work of the spot-kick, and two points were ripped from Carlisle’s hands.

All three, in fact, nearly went down the chute when Bradley nipped onto a Keogh clearance and boomed a volley millimetres over in the final minute. The public disquiet a Saddlers winner would have caused would have been hard on Carlisle’s players, who brought a sight more to the table here than they did 10 days earlier against Colchester.

Still, up there on the screen were the precise reasons why United will challenge our nerves at every turn between now and May. Together, their gutsy attitude in adversity, and a near total lack of cold blood in enemy territory, form the kind of infuriating cocktail which will guarantee headaches aplenty in these parts as we speed towards spring.

 

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