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Mitchell's verdict: Sheffield Wednesday 1 AFC Bournemouth 2
APART from the extra miles on the clock, Cherries fans could have been forgiven for feeling a warming sense of déjà vu at Hillsborough.
Cascading down a steep away stand behind the goal, the red and black army might have rubbed their eyes, wondering whether they were watching a repeat of the resolute victory at Reading from two weeks ago.
But this was no second showing – more a team which has become increasingly comfortable with their set-up on the road, matched by an ability to execute game plans to devastating effect.
And when you scratch the surface, it has been coming for a while. A tinker here and a tweak there and, suddenly, Cherries look capable of putting in a typical near-perfect away performance after facing teams from the Championship’s current top seven in their past six road trips.
Competitive enough to scare Leeds and Leicester with 10 men, creditable points secured at Nottingham Forest and Burnley before being on the end of a harsh 3-0 scoreline at QPR before Reading.
It is all a far cry from the early-season trouncings at Watford and Huddersfield. On the pitch and in the dugout, lessons have been learned without losing the passion for passing football.
Cherries, even with a two-goal cushion over an ineffectual Wednesday, chose to knock the ball about in front of their own penalty area but balanced that by hitting the channels, relieving the pressure and opening up their hosts on the break when the situation called for it.
In truth, Cherries never had to hit the heights they had at the Madejski against a poor home team who left the pitch to a crescendo of boos at the end of each half and, despite being resolute on the whole, the familiar Achilles heel of conceding goals out of nothing again reared its ugly head.
However, with the pressure of needing to get something in Yorkshire, rather than hoping to add to the points tally at Reading, the composed and ruthless manner in which Cherries shot down the Owls had to be applauded.
Cherries sat back and soaked up some early pressure before the usual chief protagonists – Matt Ritchie and Lewis Grabban – got to work, taking full advantage of some suspect goalkeeping from Arsenal loanee Damian Martinez.
The visitors’ first meaningful attack saw the energetic Andrew Surman – growing in stature with every start – keep the ball in play before rolling it into the path of Ritchie who had read the situation before anyone and steamed into wide open space.
The winger’s momentum had Owls staring into the headlights as he strode forward and cut inside before his low left-footed daisy-cutter beat Martinez at the near post.
Wednesday’s young Argentine briefly atoned for his error when a slick build-up between tireless frontman Grabban and partner in crime Ritchie created space for Surman to jink his way through before seeing his shot clawed out of the bottom right corner.
Caretaker manager Stuart Gray’s reshuffled pack, shorn of on-loan top scorer Connor Wickham through injury, laboured in their attempts to find cohesion as Cherries’ backline, well marshalled by returning defender Elliott Ward’s rugged resistance, held firm.
And with Cherries looking sharp on the break, it came as no surprise when the second goal arrived through the finesse of Harry Arter’s threaded pass and the power of in-form Grabban.
Ritchie’s persistence kept the ball in play on the right with Arter taking over and feigning to burst inside before putting perfect weight on a reverse pass which bamboozled clumsy Wednesday defender Miguel Llera.
After bending his run and bustling back in from the right, Grabban had little to aim for so went for power with his shot flying between Martinez and his near post to double the visitors’ advantage.
From there, Cherries were content to stifle the match and, while Howe’s men showed less desire to get at their relegation-haunted hosts than they did at Reading, the ploy was a sensible one against opposition who lacked any skill or guile.
Indeed, Wednesday's lifeline came from Cherries' own aberration when Joe Mattock’s cross was misjudged by keeper Lee Camp who saw his poor connection ricochet off the unfortunate Charlie Daniels and present Jacques Maghoma with a gift-wrapped goal.
However, what should have been a nerve-wracking final eight minutes was anything but and Grabban should have reached double figures for the season but shot tamely into the grateful arms of Martinez following Marc Pugh’s flick on.
A rare blot on the striker’s copybook didn’t matter. This professional, thought-out performance was more than enough to see off woeful Wednesday and secure back-to-back away wins in the Championship for the first time this season, a feat Cherries have only managed twice before in the second tier.
A third consecutive success on the road at Brighton on New Year’s Day would be a first at this level for the club. However, the immediate challenge is to convert performances into points on home soil, starting against Yeovil and Ipswich over the next seven days.
Achieve that and Howe’s focused formula on the road could provide the platform for a successful second half to the season.
Star man - Eunan O'Kane
While Lewis Grabban and Matt Ritchie took the plaudits for being the punch at the end of Cherries’ purpose, the diversity O’Kane brought to his deep-lying role again provided his team with a platform to play.
The diminutive star was far more than a nightwatchman despite dropping to dictate the play from deep.
Despite surging forward and linking the play when opportunity afforded, O’Kane was rarely caught out of position and was at the heart of an organised outfit.
There was also a strong display from Elliott Ward, who showed no ill effects from his lengthy lay-off, while Ritchie still sparkled despite falling a fraction short of his sky-high standards and Grabban utilised his pace and power to lead the line with his usual gusto.
Sheffield Wednesday: Martinez, Palmer, Llera, Roger Johnson, Reda Johnson, Lee, Coke, Semedo (Helan, 66), J Johnson (Mattock, 80), Nuhiu (Savic, 66), Maghoma.
Unused subs: McCabe, Corry, McPhail, Kirkland (g/k).
Booked: Reda Johnson.
Cherries: Camp 6.5, Francis 7.5, Elphick 7, Ward 8, Daniels 7, O'Kane 8.5, Arter 7.5, Surman 8 (MacDonald, 86), Ritchie 8, Fraser 7.5 (Pugh, 72), Grabban 8 (Pitman, 90).
Unused subs: Harte, Addison, Rantie, Allsop (g/k).
Referee: Jeremy Simpson (Lancashire)
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