Still the talk of defensive mistakes

THE season is nearly two thirds old, spring is around the corner, and still the talk is of Ipswich Town's defensive mistakes.It was back in the blazing sunshine of early September that Kelvin Davis spilled a free kick at the Hawthorns and Rob Hulse bundled it home from a few yards to put West Brom 2-0 up.

THE season is nearly two thirds old, spring is around the corner, and still the talk is of Ipswich Town's defensive mistakes.

It was back in the blazing sunshine of early September that Kelvin Davis spilled a free kick at the Hawthorns and Rob Hulse bundled it home from a few yards to put West Brom 2-0 up.

The temperature was a few degrees down on Saturday, and there was precious little sun to speak of, but an almost identical goal was scored. Jason McAteer's free kick somehow rebounded off Davis into the path of Julio Arca, who couldn't miss the chance to put Sunderland two up, and Ipswich out of the FA Cup.

Between that September afternoon in the midlands and now, the Ipswich keeper has been one of the more consistent performers in the team, despite having to pick the ball out of the net more than his manager would like, so it would be wrong to single him out for too much criticism.

But the one common denominator of this season, wind, rain or shine, has been the failure of the Town team as a whole to defend properly, and it was their undoing again on Saturday.

Before Davis' howler, Sunderland had taken the lead when Darren Williams' cross was volleyed home by Tommy Smith, but that's only half the story of the goal.

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Deep into first-half stoppage time, Fabian Wilnis cut out an attack on the left and turned this way and that away from players in red and white striped shirts before finding Jermaine Wright.

He played the ball across the field to Matt Richards, leaving him a lot to do with Williams bearing down. Richards didn't make it, and the Sunderland man was free down the right wing.

If you want to apportion blame for that goal it's take your pick time. Do you blame Wilnis for not having one eye on the clock and launching it downfield; Wright for the pass which put Richards in trouble; or the left-back himself for not being forceful enough in the challenge?

Whichever scapegoat you choose, it was a goal that could have been prevented, and it let a very solid away side go in at half time with a lead to protect, which they did expertly, despite the late rally inspired by Martijn Reuser's goal.

The statistics back up Joe Royle's post-match assessment. Town had far more possession and set pieces than the visitors but couldn't turn it into goals. Perhaps combing the loan market for another striker or attacking midfielder isn't as baffling as it first looks.

The first half had enough to keep the crowd interested, but never hit any great heights.

Pablo Counago thought he had a case for an early penalty when he seemed to be held by Joachim Bjorklund, but referee Mike Riley – later to have the home fans up in arms – waved away his protests.

Play switched to the other end and Fabian Wilnis brought down George McCartney on the halfway line. The set piece was swung into the Town box, and after the Blues failed to clear properly Kevin Kyle was presented with a shooting chance, which he put wide to Kelvin Davis' left.

Shefki Kuqi, whose non-stop running caused problems throughout, picked up an intelligent ball from Jim Magilton and bore down on the Sunderland box before cutting inside McCartney and shooting over.

A minute later Magilton himself saw a deflected right-footer well held by Mart Poom.

Little had been seen of the visitors as an attacking force at this stage, but they so nearly took the lead with 27 minutes gone.

A deep cross was headed back by Kyle into the path of Jeff Whitley, and his shot was well blocked by John McGreal. The ball looped into the air and Arca headed narrowly wide with Davis beaten.

At the other end it was Town's turn to come close. Kuqi's pass to Tommy Miller led to his shot being deflected for a corner. From Magilton's flag-kick Wright stole in at the back post but failed to get a clean connection on the volley, and as the ball bounced around the box Kuqi couldn't make proper contact.

Counago was having one of his more physical contests of the season, and when Phil Babb hauled him down on the halfway line the crowd were baying for a booking.

They were even more incensed when, with half-time approaching, Westlake was floored on the edge of the Sunderland box. Referee Riley waved play-on, only to then blow for an offence against Counago which few in the stadium had spotted.

That was set up to be the talking point at half time, until Town self-destructed right on the whistle.

Stung no doubt by the half-time team talk, the hosts came out and set about making amends by flying at Sunderland from the word go.

Miller set up Counago for a shooting chance which went wide, and then Westlake was denied by a last-ditch challenge by Thirlwell.

On 61 minutes, Town must have thought they'd scored. A Magilton corner was met by the head of Kuqi, and with Poom already half-way to the floor the lanky keeper thrust an arm upwards to keep the ball out. McGreal followed in but the ball was cleared just before he could head it home.

Five minutes later Magilton played in Kuqi, and again Poom was in action to turn away his stinging right-foot shot.

The visitors were very much on the back foot, but when they broke away and Wilnis committed a foul just outside the box on Town's right, McAteer stepped up to drive the ball goalwards, and force the crucial error from Davis.

Reuser came on for Richards immediately, but it was a few minutes before he could make any headway. Before he'd had more than a couple of touches the visitors should have added a third when they caught Town on the break with substitute Oster breaking down the right with Arca and Kyle unmarked in the centre. Wilnis though, read the cross perfectly and cut it out to keep his side in the match.

With seven minutes to go came the incident which infuriated the home fans in the Greene King Stand. McAteer took the ball into the corner to waste time and was challenged by Reuser.

With the Sunderland man on the ground and the ball over the line, he lashed out, catching the Dutchman behind his knee. Referee Riley only showed a yellow card for an offence which has often brought a red in the past.

Reuser had some semblance of revenge when, with a minute to go, Counago and Magilton linked up to put him clear in the box, and from a tight angle he lashed a shot past Poom.

Three minutes of stoppage time gave the home fans hope, and Davis went forward for a late corner. Sunderland though, kept doing the basics right and closed out the match.

With five minutes to go the visiting fans were singing "can we play you every week?". That's a fanciful notion, but with a league game to come at Portman Road in April, and both teams sitting in the play-off positions, it's not too hard to see the sides meeting more than once again this season.

Royle will be hoping the defensive hand-outs begin and end in the FA Cup.

steve.mellen@eadt.co.uk

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