A typically resilient, well organised and gnarly Birmingham left Huddersfield with a point they barely deserved, but the hosts’ recurring flaws contributed significantly and, ultimately, they only had themselves to blame for not converting a much improved and at times excellent performance in to a win.
With Jonathan Hogg back in the side, Scannell on the right and Hefele continuing his metamorphosis from fringe comedy act to serious footballer, Town looked better balanced on paper than they had at the Fulham debacle and this translated on to the grass to a large extent.
For the most part, Town also matched the physicality of their opponents, hopefully consigning the weakness of a week ago and, until the last few minutes, always looked the more likely to win a game which provided good entertainment after a ponderous start.
Encouragingly, the Terriers showed few signs of frailty following their recent chastening experiences away from home; a quality which should not be easily dismissed and testament to the spirit of the squad and the skills of the management.
As ever, the overwhelming positive on an ultimately frustrating afternoon was the quality of Town’s midfield. Mooy was back to his best alongside the industrious Hogg, allowing others to create and providing excellent support for the back four.
Mooy’s vision, touch and intelligence has made him the stand out player of an excellent season and his ability to translate virtually any type of ball played in to him in to space, time and momentum continues to astonish at times.
Wagner, however, continues to have problems out wide with both injuries and lack of form. Scannell, always a great threat until he gets to the point where it matters, doesn’t resolve the problem of creating too few chances, Van La Parra’s substitute appearance was hugely disappointing and with Lolley and Bunn unavailable, Kachunga’s considerable contribution to the team is diluted as he fills in out wide instead of taking the striker role to which he is better suited.
It was important for Town to stand up to Birmingham’s muscular approach from the beginning, and ensure that the aerial threat of Donaldson and Jutkiewicz was neutralised. Hefele, in particular, proved up to the task and bullied Donaldson so effectively that the dangerous front man was reduced to a semi permanent state of whinging and falling over.
Though it took time for him to distribute the ball effectively from the back – too many balls intended for Smith/Scannell were over hit – Hefele grew with the game and was a more than adequate replacement for the rested Hudson and Wagner’s reluctance to expose him away from home is surely coming to an end. Offering greater mobility than the captain, he even over shadowed Schindler in a much improved, though not flawless, defensive display.
On the ball, Town were occasionally pleasing on the eye in a first half largely devoid of thrills, and created the better chances.
Kachunga met a Palmer corner with a volley which Donaldson did well to clear over the bar, a viciously swerving Wells effort from range was batted away by Kuszczak and when Palmer created a dangerous counter attack with a lovely turn just inside his own half, Wells could only shoot straight at the keeper having been released.
These were rare highlights, however, of a largely turgid first half more notable for individual physical battles and a succession of Town corners which, after the first one finding Kachunga, caused the visitors few problems.
As ever with this Town team, there were good moments of interplay but Birmingham’s strong back four coped easily once the ball reached the final third. With the visitors rarely passing up the chance to throw the ball up high, style comparisons tended towards the tedious rather than the fascinating.
Perhaps most importantly, Town’s feeble opposition to high balls so devastating at Fulham had not been replicated – other than one half chance at the back post, both defenders and goalkeeper stood up well to Birmingham’s tactics and, on the whole, seemed to have recovered from last week’s mauling.
The second half was a much more entertaining affair, particularly after Gary Rowett (surely one of the most under rated managers around) introduced the creativity of Fabbrini to cause Town more problems on the floor through the middle.
A blocked Wells header and a decent effort from Smith which curled just over gave notice that Town were to play with more penetration and tempo, while Birmingham looked more dangerous when they got chance to loosen Town’s grip on possession, though there seemed little danger of them breaking through with dazzling football.
On the hour, Wagner made changes with Van La Parra replacing Scannell and Payne coming on for Palmer. Given Scannell’s lack of matches over the past few weeks, the change was unsurprising and Palmer, one excellent piece of skill aside, had given the ball away too much and his rawness had rather overshadowed his obvious talent.
For once, the substitutions didn’t really work. Van La Parra was dreadful and looked disinterested for most of his time on the pitch – while Bunn is a man you like to see being introduced, VLP seems more effective as a starter. Payne was slightly more influential and worked hard to get in to the game without really succeeding.
Despite this, Town’s grip on the game tightened and they were soon in front. A raking ball from Mooy found Smith who cut inside and left Kachunga to finish for a deserved lead.
With the momentum with the home side, Wells hit a fierce shot against the bar with the keeper well beaten – a moment which summed up his season of misfortune to date. At 2-0, Town would have coasted to victory but a cruel twist was to thwart the Terriers.
Mooy made an excellent sliding tackle down Birmingham’s right only for the over fussy referee to award a free kick in what, for Town, was a dangerous position, and for Birmingham, probably the only route back in to the game.
A decent delivery saw Lowe beaten to the ball which looped to the back post for his fellow full back and captain for the day Smith to be similarly out muscled. Jutkiewicz couldn’t miss from 8 yards and the Blues had an undeserved equaliser.
They nearly repeated the trick from a free kick from an identical position but the ball drifted wide. Nevertheless, having defended well against the lofted ball until the equaliser, the defence became visibly nervous until the end and the crowd even more so.
Having spent all afternoon blowing up for any innocuous challenge – and it should be said that Birmingham were on the wrong end of several dubious calls in the first half – a challenge on Wells in the area was deemed perfectly acceptable. While the award of a penalty would have created debate, the referees’ previous decisions were rendered ludicrous by not giving it.
Town’s final chance of the afternoon fell to the excellent Hogg. Unfortunately, he was unable to repeat his late winner against Barnsley and dragged a weak effort wide when he could and should have found Wells instead.
In the final minutes, the visitors came closest to a winner and, inevitably, it was from a corner and a header which flashed wide. The very last play of the game saw Hogg thwart a final attack with a last ditch tackle; illuminating just how much he had been missed at Craven Cottage as he dug Schindler out of a hole.
A winner for the visitors would have been a travesty but not altogether surprising in this cruel league but Town could take positives from an ultimately disappointing draw against obdurate opponents.
The quality of Mooy, Hogg’s industry and Hefele’s excellent 90 minutes partially erased the bad memories of 7 days previously, which can now be consigned to history.
Lack of goals and vulnerability in the air remain the greatest concerns, though the signing of an appropriate striker in January may solve both – if some height is the objective, which it must surely be, then it adds to the capability of defending set pieces.
With yet another international break next weekend, Town continue to cling to 3rd place despite a very average run of results; a week in Marbella for the players and their families is the next stage of the master plan.
It is worth reflecting that after exactly one year with Wagner in charge, we have a team and squad unrecognisable from the ones who fought relegation annually and there is a faint air of disappointment that the lofty position is a little precarious.