Saturday, October 02, 2004


We were expecting the same sort of aggressive tackles and strongarm tactics from Bnei Sakhnin, and that’s exactly what we got from the very first whistle. Quite how so many brutal challenges - made with absolutely no intent of playing the ball and deserving of a GBH charge let alone a yellow or red card – went unpunished is a question only the referee can answer.

Thankfully, though, we emerged from our bruising UEFA Cup encounter unscathed, our players admirably refusing to rise to the provocation (something which would have saved Butt his first-leg red card and subsequent three match suspension). The opposition were so poor when they attempted to play football rather than rugby that our two goal winning margin in the first leg at home looked embarrassingly narrow, and in the end we cruised to a comfortable victory in Israel, 5-1 on the night.

The headlines and plaudits rightly went to the two strikers who, between them, bagged all five goals. Kluivert registered with a couple of neat finishes, and continues to look lethal rather than like the lazy mercenary many pundits and some fans claimed or feared he would be - that’s six in five starts now. Meanwhile, skipper Shearer went one better, notching a hat-trick and laying claim to the match ball. His first was a fairly simple tap-in after the Sakhnin keeper spilled a Bowyer cross-shot, his second a penalty after Jenas was clumsily up-ended in the area and his third a scorching left-footer in the last minute past an outfield stand-in who had replaced the red-carded Murambadoro in goal.

However, credit should also go to our defence for building a secure platform – aside from a brief moment of sloppiness which allowed Sakhnin to equalise – and to our midfielders for supplying the chances for the strikers to convert. Bowyer was combative and hard-working, Jenas seems to have rediscovered the ability to take players on and beat them and Robert was always dangerous on the left flank.

Once Kluivert had been taken off as a precautionary measure, Bellamy moved up front, evidently desperate to score and impress – but at present he’s surely fighting a losing battle if he wants to play there from the start. No matter – Bellamy seems happy to play on the right (unlike another of our more vocal squad members…), and though it means players more accustomed to the position like Milner and Ambrose are having to bide their time on the bench, he did very well, scaring the proverbial out of the opposition full-back with his pace and trickery. The only concern, long-term, is that he’ll be caught out when he faces a full-back who likes to attack, like Ashley Cole.

Presumably Butt will return for the trip to St Andrews, and Robert will probably miss out, but whoever it is can count themselves very unlucky. After a decidedly sticky start to the season which contributed to Sir Bobby losing his job, things have taken a turn for the better – five wins on the trot, rocketing up the table, securely in the group stages of the UEFA Cup. Long may it continue.


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