Friday, September 17, 2004

The story of a Butt, a brace, and a clean sheet.

Two goals, a clean sheet, and surely we all go home happy? Wrong. Despite Patrick Kluivert notching a brace on his home debut for the club: the first the product of a goalmouth scramble, the second a strong header which bounced off post and bar before crossing the line, I can’t help but feel disappointed by the performance. The fact that Nicky Butt lasted 133 seconds on the pitch before being sent off for grabbing someone round the throat didn’t exactly help matters. Whilst we should be able to cope without him in the away leg, the possible length of his suspension could see him actually miss games where we will need him, which is no use to anyone.

Sakhnin’s spoiling tactics, which became increasingly rougher as the match wore on, allowed them to disrupt our rhythm and prevent us from putting four or five past them. A better referee would have clamped down on their persistent fouling earlier on, and so kept control of a game which became increasingly fractious as it went on. One challenge on Jenas was deserving of a straight red, as he was scythed down at shin height with the ball already well gone, and had it been properly handled Bowyer wouldn’t have felt inclined to try and take matters into his own hands, and charge round like a bull in a china shop, thereby collecting a booking for his troubles. However, hats off to the visitors - they came with a game plan, and despite conceding an early goal, they were able to keep themselves in the tie and frustrate a side with far more class, but less cohesion.

Congratulations to Robbie Elliot, who captained the side in Shearer’s absence, a truly remarkable turnaround for a player who twelve months ago was the only scorer in a reserve game at Kingston Park, and was about as far from the first team as he could get. Plaudits too should go to James Milner, who replaced Ameobi with about twenty minutes to go and looked lively whenever he got the ball and ran at a tiring Sakhnin defence. The other highlight of the night had to be Kluivert, who with two goals, and a number of deft flicks and touches looked every bit a class striker. Who Souness starts with up front on Sunday against Southampton will be anyone’s guess, with only Shola out of the goals at the moment.

On the down side, we really should have scored more than two against a side who wouldn’t look out of place in division 2. Injuries to Aaron Hughes and the king of bling aren’t likely to help matters (although Dyer was pretty woeful anyway) and Butt’s red card was a classic example of us shooting ourselves in the foot.

Still, a win is a win, and a clean sheet in Europe is always welcome. However, the tie should have been safe, and whilst I can’t see them scoring three, and early goal away could set a few nerves on edge. If Souness didn’t realise the extent of the malaise in our side before he took the job, he probably does now. Whether he can take us forward and get a league win at Southampton, we will have to wait and see.
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