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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

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Notts County leave Carlisle Utd swamped on heavily-watered pitch

Notts County 2 Carlisle United 0: One title, at least, is safe. Notts County might be well down the road in their attempt to pilfer Carlisle United’s play-off spot but there will be no challenge from this historic club for the Blues’ Groundsman of the Year crown.

Lubo Michalik photo
Lubomir Michalik, right, clashes with Notts County's Ben Burgess

So marshy was the surface on which Carlisle tumbled to their third straight away defeat that there were genuine fears Chris Chantler might fall down a rut and not be seen again. At 6ft 7in, Lubo Michalik’s head was just above the waterline.

The best way of coping was to ensure the ball was not very often in contact with the stodge down below. Hence Notts County’s goals, which resulted from a high cross, headed in, and then a peach of a free-kick which was curled into the top corner.

Alan Sheehan’s set-piece, which put the Blues out of sight here, belonged on a better canvas than the one provided by the world’s oldest Football League club, who probably laid their turf back in 1862 as well.

So barren were areas of the ground, and so liberally were they watered before both first and second halves, that you wondered whether League One’s sixth-placed team were preparing a nature reserve instead of a suitable arena for a ball game.

Let this not be read as an explanation for United’s latest setback on their travels, since it was not boggy ground which enabled Jonathan Forte to elude defenders as he rose to score in the 33rd minute, nor did the wet grass necessarily cause Paddy Madden to scuff the shot that could have given the Blues a sniff of a result.

Carlisle, yet again, must account for avoidable goals heading into their net when a game is otherwise crisp and even. No debate there. You just wish the weekend entertainment could have been served up on a pitch which had less in common with Sunday morning clogathons and was more in tune with the third highest level in the land, where there are more carpets now than ever before.

Such was life, however, for the Blues two days ago. Both teams had to get by on County’s sodden land, which is shared with Nottingham Rugby Club.

Keith Curle’s team managed their affairs better, basically, and the way Stuart Nelson hurled himself extravagantly to save a routine Peter Murphy free-kick in the 74th minute suggested United had simply not done enough to extend the home goalkeeper across the afternoon.

No wonder he felt like muddying his jersey; this was not a day when the hosts’ custodian was overworked.

Creativity remained on a low setting for most of the spectacle, with United’s best attempts thwarted by an outfield player (Jeff Hughes, who cleared Lee Miller’s header off the line) and then their own inaccuracy (Madden’s miss, and a later miscued attempt by JP McGovern).

Adam Collin was not tested much more, in truth, but Forte was allowed one free go at the target too many, and then the loan striker troubled Lubo Michalik into the foul from which Sheehan worked his magic.

“There was nothing in the game, nothing between the teams, our group is as good as their group,” said Greg Abbott. “The key is goals. You have to take your chances.”

To the naked eye, there was indeed not much of a quality gulf between these close rivals but the key business was that Notts pounced on a couple of loose moments and then set United a challenge they could not meet.

It leaves the Cumbrians reliant, again, on their strength at Brunton Park, where they are unbeaten in 12. As in 2008, when a promotion push was propped up by a formidable home record, Carlisle are down with travel sickness at an inconvenient time. No goals and no points have been taken from three journeys in 2012, with a distressing 10 goals heading into their own onion bag in that time, and with further testing trips to come (Bournemouth, Colchester and MK Dons are next).

Before then, Chantler will at least get the chance to establish himself in two home matches (against Rochdale, tomorrow, and Bury four days later) and prolong the encouraging work he showed here, which started when United’s latest left-back broke down his flank and linked with James Berrett, who bustled his way forward and fed Madden for a decent early try.

Out of the scuffles, next, emerged Francois Zoko, and a dribble which ended with McGovern slotting Madden through before the offside flag went up.

These, though, were sporadic moments of flair. Otherwise it was a general slog, with tackles and blocks witnessed considerably more often than clean passes, as Michalik (back in for the injured Danny Livesey) strained to keep the pacy Forte in check and Chantler did his best to rein in the persistent Alan Judge. This the latter man did, mainly, whilst also making a couple of dashes infield to bail out the Blues. In the centre, meanwhile, Hamza Bencherif was putting his meaty presence into the contest, although without much guile when a couple of half-chances came his way.

United’s clearest opening came from the corner flag on 22 minutes, when Berrett’s outswinger was met by Miller. But Hughes diverted it away, United’s line-leader was otherwise frustrated in his attempts to find opportunities – and then came the six-minute spell that did for the Blues.

Forte, first, wrestled his way past Murphy and failed, just, to make anything of his freedom. Moments later, however, things were depressingly different, as Judge made enough crossing space to drive over a deep delivery which was finished clinically by Forte, after the borrowed Southampton man had peeled away from Michalik and profited from his space.

The lesson about taking advantage from a rare breakout was clear, but it was rammed home again, for effect, when Michalik clipped Forte shortly afterwards and Sheehan produced a 25-yard special which Collin was unable to reach. So the leaks continue – Carlisle are conceding two a game, on average, this year so far, with a plug still nowhere in sight.

Before the half was through, the Blues finally constructed a useful attack around Miller, which led to a Berrett knock-down and a Madden volley that cleared the bar. But when their first chance of the second period passed by – Berrett’s cross, Madden’s smart movement but flawed 12-yard finish – you began to fear that Carlisle simply did not have enough in their arsenal to get a point on the board.

So it proved. Zoko, always willing to carry the ball but without a cutting end result, saw one half-hearted effort blocked by Bencherif. Murphy nodded a corner wide and then Bencherif and Taiwo traded bookings for cynical trips. Abbott hooked the latter man along with Madden, throwing on Liam Noble and Jordan Cook, but Curle’s earlier substitution (a midfielder, Gavin Mahon, for a striker, Ben Burgess) had indicated his willingness to crowd United out for the rest of play.

The scheme worked, in so far as United’s best remaining offerings came from Murphy, whose free-kick troubled Nelson less than his spectacular save implied; Cook, who skinned a defender but then shot weakly; and McGovern, who emerged in space to the left but clipped the chance into the side-netting. It was not nearly enough, and at the death it could have been three for the hosts, but Collin saved from Forte after Michalik had misread a high ball.

Curle, who now has four wins from four since replacing Martin Allen, entered office with a desire for “free-flowing, entertaining football” but a more functional method can be expected to continue at Meadow Lane as long as things remain so heavy underfoot. Nothing wrong with that, of course, if the victories keep coming – and it’s up to the Blues to respond in their own way, once they’re back on more familiar soil.

ADAM COLLIN - Little the keeper could do about either goal, was otherwise secure enough.

FRANK SIMEK - Generally steady but still not at his best, and was sometimes troubled by high balls .

CHRIS CHANTLER - Another creditable showing on his second start, he saved United more than once.

LUBO MICHALIK - Started solidly on his return to side, but later struggled to keep Forte in check and seemed culpable for both goals.

PETER MURPHY - Pitch didn’t suit his passing game, whilst at the back he battled to restrict County’s forwards.

TOM TAIWO - Wholehearted as ever but midfielder was not at his best against Curle’s middle men.

JAMES BERRETT - Made a few promising contributions, including the cross from which Madden should have cut the deficit.

JP MCGOVERN - Tried to get on the ball but it wasn’t happening for the Scot, who fluffed a late chance.

FRANCOIS ZOKO - Showed a willingness to run with the ball and test defenders but end product was scarce.

PADDY MADDEN - His appetite up front led to a couple of decent chances, but his finishing wasn’t up to the mark.

LEE MILLER - A mainly frustrating day for the line-leader, who couldn’t inspire United this time.

Subs: Liam Noble (for Taiwo 67) – A few decent deliveries; Jordan Cook (for Madden 67) – One dynamic run but couldn’t finish it. Not used: Mark Gillespie, Andy Welsh, Stephen O’Halloran.

Booked: Michalik, Taiwo, Murphy

Notts County: Nelson, Freeman, Sheehan, Edwards, Chilvers (Stewart 90), Bencherif, Bishop (c), J Hughes, Judge, Forte (Demontagnac 88), Burgess (Mahon 58). Not used: Burch, Harley.

Goals: Forte 33, Sheehan 38

Booked: Bencherif

Ref: Carl Berry (Surrey)

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