Merton 4s v Astolat Athletic FC – 9th February 2013
We travelled to Guildford knowing a tough semi-final awaited us. Astolat have swept and mainly crushed all before them this season. We had our own unbeaten record to protect and knew it would be nothing but a tight battle. We were going to have to be at our best to win.
Our pre-match preparations were unfortunately disrupted when a car containing Essex, Micky and Giz turned up 5 minutes before kick off. What also did not help was Essex throwing up several times just before kick off after his own personal brush with the ongoing meat crisis. They had stopped at McD’s en route and Marc’s burger contained not only beef, salad and gherkin but also an added serving of shower gel sauce courtesy of a team mate. Not what anyone needed before our biggest game of the season.
Not unsurprisingly we started the match quite slowly. Astolat were quick, strong and confident and exploited our uncertainty with our 4-2-3-1 shape by bursting quickly forwards via their full backs, particularly from their left, and through their capable attacking midfielders. Astolat forwards dangerously got to the byline a couple of times but our defenders coped very well, as they did all game. Denys had a tricky half-chance volley early doors but couldn’t quite get the right connection.
After 15 minutes we made the right decision to change our shape to match Astolat’s 4-4-2. Immediately we looked more organised, positive and creative. Astolat were pegged back and Paul Ellis in goal was a virtual spectator for the rest of the half. Denys again got close to opening the scoring but couldn’t quite get his head to a far post cross at close range and used his hand instead, earning a yellow card.
We grew stronger, playing some nice football at times, as Astolat became increasingly ragged and frustrated.They gave away numerous free kicks throughout the game, earning several bookings. It was very clear that they were unsure how to react to a team who would not roll over and who gave as good as it got (in their leaguecampaign for example, Astolat are: P8, W8, F57, A6). it was obviously a novel and uncomfortable experience for them; but we should regret that we did not score from one of our many free kicks, especially as their keeper was no taller than 5’5″ in his boots, and was never truly tested.
Having said that, Astolat defended extremely well all game, particularly after they were down to 10 men in the second half. Half time perhaps came a little to soon for us, as we were pressing strongly for the first goal.
The second half started and the pattern continued. We pressed without creating many clear chances, Astolat competed and defended well but continued to commit more than their fair share of fouls. It’s the first time in a long time that I can remember an opposition team giving away (many) more fouls, more bookings and being deeper in the ref’s bad books than ourselves. Astolat’s left back was arguably lucky not to receive his second yellow card for a clear foul not long before the turning point and defining moment of the the match.
On 65 minutes we broke from the back down our right. Sean Monaghan had the ball under control near the touch line when an Astolat midfielder charged across from CM and dived in, clattering Sean to the ground. The ref consulted his assistant and they came to the conclusion that the challenge deserved a straight red, and off he went. From where I was standing it looked a bit harsh. He did jump in but it wasn’t two-footed, and to be honest – and I said this at the time – It suited us better to be playing against 11 than 10, as we were clearly in charge. We had been pushing and probing while Astolat had offered very little threat at all.
I was unfortunately proved right. Astolat’s team and their supporters were indignant and pumped up by the sending off. We lost our shape, concentration and momentum and the tide turned decisively against us. 3 minutes after the sending off we conceded a needless penalty as Sean Monaghan got too close to his man as he ran away from goal. Contact was made, the player fell and the spot kick was duly awarded and converted, to wild home celebrations.
Their tails were up, and raised even further 3 minutes later when Astolat, suddenly dangerous in the newly stretched game, hit us on the break again and a speculative left wing cross sailed over Ellis into the roof of the net. He couldn’t have placed it better if he’d tried. Which he hadn’t.
We became more direct and slightly desperate, losing our previous shape and more measured build up play.Free kicks and corners came and went; crosses went in and were cleared; several long shots failed to trouble the keeper; Pearcey nodded a free kick just wide; Denys could have earned a penalty after a barge in the box, and Essex sliced a great chance wide late on, but we never looked like getting it back. It’s also fairto say that Astolat looked more likely than us to score again as the game became super-stretched.
We really should have won the game and were unlucky not to do so considering the circumstances, but Astolatkept their heads when it mattered and we regretfully stopped playing. A couple of their lads we spoke to said it was their toughest game of the season, but that is little consolation for us losing a cup semi-finalwe really wanted to win.
Thanks to our small but loyal band of supporters who travelled to Guildford on Saturday. Hopefully we can gather one or two more people to cheer us on if we get to the SAL Cup semi-final by getting past (the also unbeaten) Broomfield on Saturday.
Report by:Shaun Jones