Thursday, December 30, 2004

1-0 to the Arsenal

Another defeat, then, but this time honourable rather than abject – a rarity this season. No points, but plenty of guts and passion – and a conspicuous and pleasing absence of defensive howlers.

Souness was forced into reshuffling the back line once again, Bernard and Bramble back in the side with O’Brien and Elliott out. In midfield Bowyer returned after suspension, whilst the manager opted to counter Arsenal with a flexible 4-3-3 formation, Ameobi leading the line and flank attackers Robert and Bellamy moving back into wide midfield positions to impede the offensive charges of Lauren and Ashley Cole.

We made an uncertain start, feeding Given a succession of back passes as the Arsenal attack smelt blood and we looked overrun in midfield. Pires in particular caught Taylor out on a couple of occasions, but to the youngster’s credit he regained his composure, going on to have another solid game as we raised ourselves and hit back.

It was like Barcelona away all over again with Ameobi emerging from a poor run of form to play out of his skin. That he single-handedly rattled Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure, probably the most physically dominant central defensive partnership in English football, speaks volumes. One shot forced Almunia into making an excellent save, but the deserved corner was not forthcoming.

This was not the only time in the first half that hapless referee Steve Bennett incensed the home crowd. When Cole, already guilty of a succession of fouls, handled in the area, his eyes never leaving the ball, Bennett inexplicably waved away the appeals of Newcastle players and fans alike. A more blatant penalty you will never see, and when things are going against you…

After an encouraging first half display the inevitable sucker punch arrived on the stroke of half-time. Following last season’s hard-fought 0-0 home draw with the Gunners, a local paper hailed Jenas as having the potential to be England’s Vieira (hyperbole and apologism being its stock in trade). Standing alongside each other in the tunnel before last night’s game, though, it looked very much a case of Vieira the king, confident and focused, and JJ the young pretender, nervy and agitated. When the goal came, it was from a JJ mistake, his attempt to get out of a tight situation seized upon by the Arsenal skipper. The ball fell invitingly to Vieira’s right foot, and his powerful shot flew over Given into the net, crucially aided by a slight deflection off JJ’s outstretched leg as he tried to make amends for surrendering possession.

The second half was more of the same – most of the pressure and possession from Newcastle but Arsenal always looking threatening on the break. Dyer and Robert continued to show admirable application, whilst defensively we looked more solid than we had done for several games, Bramble’s errors limited to a few badly misplaced long balls.

The problem was that the formation we’d chosen as a means of containing the Arsenal full-backs was also an impediment to our attacking intentions, and this became more apparent as the game wore on. After his energetic exploits of the first half Ameobi understandably began to tire and our most potent striker Bellamy was too often the man attempting to cross the ball in from wide positions rather than being in the box to pounce on any inviting crosses himself. Arsenal’s deeply suspect keeper Almunia was consequently afforded a quieter night than we would have liked.

Bennett did his best to prove he wasn’t in Wenger’s pocket by awarding a free-kick on the edge of the Arsenal area after Bowyer had brushed past Robin van Persie and taken an extremely theatrical tumble. Disgraceful conduct, admittedly, but if a goal had resulted, it would have been nothing less than we deserved given the first half penalty decision – but, like all the rest of our manful efforts, it came to zero.

The imperious Vieira aside, this was a very ordinary performance from a team of superstars, and yet they still emerged with a second successive 1-0 away win. Despite their occasional wobbles they’re still the team to beat, and Mourinho will have his work cut out to wrestle the Premiership title out of Wenger’s grasp, despite their five point advantage going into the New Year.

From our point of view, though, there’s no disguising that we’re in real trouble and need to pick up points fast. There’s not often any shame in losing to the Gunners, and our performance probably deserved better, but the fact is that we can’t afford to lose many more games, regardless of the quality of the opposition. Still, to look briefly on the bright side, for once there were some encouraging signs, enough to suggest that we’re still capable of beating Birmingham and West Brom in our next two games. Here’s hoping – and praying.

Other reports: Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian


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