A hard fought game ended with three late goals for the home side and a somewhat flattering scoreline against the now champions-elect.
With regulars Mike, Tom and Dave all casualties from last weeks’ trip to Winchmore Hill, there were a few changes to the squad with regulars Lofty and Ryan returning alongside Dave Donovan, making his first appearance since October. Merton had battled hard in a 2-1 reverse against the runaway leaders in the corresponding fixture early in the year, and the 5 at the back approach deployed then was brought back, with Pete, Mustard, Lofty, Vin and Reece lining up across the back. After some debate, in front of them a midfield three of Darcy, Ryan and Neal and a front two of Donno and Denys was deployed. Chappell deputised between the posts, and Dan, Ricky and Joel manned the substitutes bench.
The game started relatively evenly, with both sides working hard without creating too much. For Merton, Pete Jennings almost played in Donno but just overhit the pass, and a few set pieces saw the ball ricochet in the box a couple of times without quite falling to a Merton player. At the other end, Nottsborough were asking some questions down the flanks, particularly overloading vs Reece down the Merton right.
20 minutes in and the first goal came, courtesy of a Merton mistake. Vin looked all set to make what looked like a routine interception, only for the ball to bobble over his foot and put the Nottsborough striker through on goal. Chappell was off his line quickly to close the angle and force the striker wide, but he kept his cool to finish from a narrow angle despite Vin’s despairing lunge on the line. 1-0.
Merton tried to respond, switching to a 5-2-3 to try and close down the opposition full backs; Reece moving to play right in a front 3 and Neal moving to right back. However, they were struggling to create anything of note and the next big chance of the game fell to the home side. With Merton on the attack, Darcy surprised everyone by turning back to his own goal and fizzing a 40 yard defence splitting diagonal back-pass in behind the Merton defence.  With 2 Nottsborough forwards clean through, a goal looked inevitable, but Chappell once again was off his line quickly and blocked the effort on goal. The rebound fell to another Nottsborough forward with Chappell stranded, only for Mustard to block from nowhere, displaying once again outstanding SOD skills.
Merton needed a response, and Lofty summoned Dan from the bench to replace Donno on the 35 minute mark. Not for the first time this season, the change brought a reward. A fresh legged (and perhaps keen to prove a point from the bench!) Dan made an instant impact harrying the opposition and within 5 minutes had levelled the game. The goal was a beauty, an outstanding counter-attack from a Nottsborough corner. Neal cleared the ball which was helped on to Denys in the centre circle. Denys held off three Nottsborough defenders as he waited for Dan to spring past him, releasing a perfectly weighted ball down the inside right channel for him to run on to. Racing on to the ball, Dan took a touch before cutting inside and nutmegging the covering defender, and then curled a low left-footed finish into the bottom corner from just inside the box. 1-1, and Merton were back in the game.
Nottsborough were rattled, passing the ball straight out from their kick off. Merton sensed this was a big chance to push on, and ended the half in the ascendancy, but despite a couple of corners they could not force a second goal before the break.
The half time team talk was an upbeat one. Lofty noted that having played 45 minutes and it being half time, there were still 45 minutes to go and win the game. Bobby Robson-esque. However, having already changed shape and the team and got us back into it, he’d already displayed some excellent managerial chops so we’ll forgive that particular one! The need to keep up the intensity was also discussed – with the memory of the previous game still sharp in the mind where we faded badly in the second half. Denys took a breather with Dan moving up front, and Ricky came on as a wide forward to bring fresh legs to the game.
Merton started the second half as they ended the first. Neal was getting some joy playing the ball in behind the opposition left-back, only for the move to peter out from an intially threatening position. Darcy then just overhit a pass to put Dan clean through on goal following fine work in the middle from Ryan and Darcy. Unfortunately, almost straight after this Merton fell behind.
Nottsborough had been moving the ball well throughout to exploit the space and were getting a lot of joy down their left. This proved Merton’s undoing as a ball played down the left saw the Nottsborough wide midfielder take the ball to the corner of the box, jinking past tackles from Neal and Ryan en-route. He continued to drive inside, feinting to shoot before riding another couple of tackles and then passing the ball into the bottom corner from 18 yards as a despairing Lofty tried to block. Great skill, but Merton were disappointed to have missed so many attempted tackles.
2-1, and Merton needed something. Joel, Denys and Donno returned to the pitch as Merton tried to find another equaliser. A series of free-kicks and corners came and went, Joel coming close to an equaliser with a close range reaction shot following a knock-down from a corner. Darcy then had goal-bound left foot drive headed clear by the full-back. At the other end, Merton were somewhat riding their luck, Chappell tipping a shot on to the crossbar as Nottsborough continued to look dangerous with the ball.
Then, as the game entered the last quarter, the killer third goal came. Chappell came to claim a routine cross only to fumble it slightly. As it bounced it still looked to be the keepers’ ball only for a second fumble to see the ball run loose as an opposition striker challenged. As the ball ran loose outside the box a Nottsborough midfielder gleefully smashed the ball through a sea of players for 3-1. Their wild celebrations showed how big a goal it was.
Merton tried to summon one final effort. Dan almost played in Donno after some sharp work from Reece, before heading a tough chance wide from a free-kick. Great work from Ryan down the right saw him clip in a cross that left the keeper in no-man’s land. Ricky looked all set to convert for 3-2 but just couldn’t adjust his body in time and the chance was lost.
Instead, Nottsborough went back up the pitch and grabbed a fourth. A corner wasn’t fully cleared and a shot driven in from the edge of the box took a deflection off the opposition striker standing in front of Chappell and went in. 4-1. Merton’s legs (and heads) had gone at this point, and after hitting the bar for the second time, a fifth for Nottsborough came as a tame shot slipped through Chappell’s hands. In his defence he had dislocated a finger in the incident for the third goal but manfully continued after popping it back in. 5-1. Game over.
Merton were gutted to have put so much in to come away with nothing, but have to reflect that ultimately a combination of individual errors and a lack of creativity/composure on the ball ultimately cost them. The title dream is over, but promotion remains a possibility if maximum points can be collected from the remaining fixtures.
MOTM: Mike Reed. Honourable mentions for Reece and Dan
DOTM: The returning Donno, who took it well and downed a pint with aplomb.
Mark Chappell
Pete Jennings
Mike Reed
Vincenzo Di Matteo
Simon White
Darcy Yates
Neal Davison
Ryan Gresty
Dave Donnovan
Denys Zhurby
Ricardo Inglesias
Dan Kelly
Joel Ooustheizen
Posted in Match Reports 3s