Split-second decisions crucial

SO much can hang on a simple split-second decision by a referee. Stoke goalkeeper Mark Crossley dropped the ball after 15 minutes, then he pulled Hermann Hreidarsson back in the penalty area.

SO much can hang on a simple split-second decision by a referee. Stoke goalkeeper Mark Crossley dropped the ball after 15 minutes, then he pulled Hermann Hreidarsson back in the penalty area.

Crossley expected the worst, a spot kick and a red card, but Hreidarsson stayed on his feet and Mr Mason let play continue. Crossley went on to become Stoke City's second-half hero as they survived an Ipswich bombardment to take a point home to the Potteries.

Ipswich have struggled to beat clubs near the foot of the table too often this season while they have generally looked good against the classier opponents with Premiership aspirations. Frustration is the only word that can describe the thoughts of Ipswich fans who feel for the club in their present financial plight and fear for the future.

Stoke operated a sweeper system for the first time under manager Tony Pulis and packed their midfield.

They managed only one shot on target in 90 minutes yet staged a rearguard action that did them credit, although there some annoying incidents of time-wasting.

Had Ipswich scored, they would have forced Stoke to become more adventurous. Too many chances went to waste on an afternoon when the wearing pitch and gusty breeze both added to the discomfort of the Ipswich players.

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If it was not to be Ipswich's day, then it was certainly not Hreidarsson's. The big Icelander, having just served a four-match ban, collected a superb pass from Jermaine Wright in the sixth minute. He cut in from the left but struck a ball that was neither shot nor effective cross.

Then Hreidarsson suffered a deep gash above his knee. It was obviously very painful and will keep him out for at least five weeks. No blame can be apportioned to Sergei Shtaniuk. He made a solid challenge and the injury was a complete accident.

By the interval Ipswich had managed just one effort on target, a shot from Darren Bent that had little more power than a back-pass. But it was a different matter in the second-half. Ipswich showed greater urgency but were denied by the agility of Crossley and the Stoke City captain's example was set by Peter Handyside which rubbed off on those around him. A brief fracas between Stoke defenders before the interval clearly did not indicate any lack of spirit.

It was in the 74th minute, after Ipswich had switched to a flat back four, that Jim Magilton played a glorious through ball for Richard Naylor whose crisp right-foot shot was touched over the bar by Crossley. It looked at first as though the ball had gone over the keeper's head.

Nine minutes earlier Wright had unleashed a 22-yard rocket that struck the stanchion but was just wide. The tactical change in formation meant the withdrawal of teenager Matt Richards who looked disappointed. He must harden himself to accept such managerial decisions.

Ipswich went close in the final stages. Naylor rolled the ball back for Magilton whose shot was saved by Crossley diving to his right.

Six minutes from the end James O'Connor fouled Thomas Gaardsoe in an ideal position for Martijn Reuser to try one of his specialist curling free-kicks from 25 yards.

There was an air of anticipation as the wall was moved back, Wright stepped aside and Reuser let fly. The Dutchman was only inches wide.

Four minutes were added at the end which made for a late finish, the start having been delayed by 13 minutes because of structural damage in a stand that meant that a group of spectators were moved to the Cobbold Stand for safety reasons.

Stoke rallied in that period but Lewis Neal seemed oblivious of players to his right as he tried to go it alone in a swift break.

Earlier Stoke surged forwards with three attackers against two defenders. Frazer Richardson held on to the ball too long and was caught in possession by Chris Makin. This left manager Pulis bemoaning "a lack of quality".

Andy Marshall brought off a smart save from Chris Greenacre just before the interval. Although seldom in the thick of the action he looked commanding and showed confidence.

Matt Holland, Gaardsoe and Makin were in control but it was in the final third of the field that Ipswich had their problems. Many managers and coaches tend to prefer graft to guile, notable exceptions being Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle and Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. They field out-and-out wingers like Laurent Robert and Ryan Giggs.

This becomes acceptable if there is an obvious end product but it can be a delicate balance. Darren Ambrose, who missed Saturday's match through injury, certainly contributes enough up front to justify selection.

What, then, is the verdict on Reuser? The current Ipswich managerial staff have not seen Reuser as he was three years ago when he established himself as a fans' favourite. He still possesses match-winning qualities with his delivery at dead-ball situations, shooting ability and vision going forward being his main strengths. The question is whether he is in credit overall in the eyes of the coaching staff.

As he seldom features in the starting line-up, presumably the answer is no. In many ways that is a pity because there is no doubt that he is an entertainer. Football is supposed to be an entertainment although this can often be forgotten in the desperate battle for points brought about by crazy financial structures.

Seeing as Ipswich played Stoke, it's relevant to reflect on how Sir Stanley Matthews might have fitted into the more athletic present-day game. Of course he would have had the ability to adapt, but would he be allowed to weave his magic in modern football? Is the game better to watch now than it was then?

There is no point in making predictions about the play-offs. Ipswich visit Crystal Palace tomorrow night. Much can happen between now and May.

At least Town can take a grain of comfort from seeing their club one place above Norwich City in the Division One table, but the Canaries have a match in hand.

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