Friday, February 18, 2005

Double Dutch

Was it just me, or did settling down in front of the TV for last night's UEFA Cup game feel depressingly like being back at work after a refreshing holiday?

Certainly, our first half performance against Dutch outfit Heerenveen did nothing to dispel the now-familiar sense of dread that seizes me on match days.

It was the same old story. Despite having the lion's share of possession and looking dangerous outside the box, we failed to test 'keeper Brian Vanderbussche once. With three out-and-out strikers up front - Shearer and Ameobi with Kluivert, in for the unwell Dyer, tucked in behind - and three midfielders playing narrow, we lacked any real width, getting cramped in the centre of the pitch.

Shearer delivered one excellent cross that he'd have loved to have been on the end of himself, and just before half-time Ameobi flashed a low ball right across the face of goal, the skipper just unable to get a touch. The way we were playing put the onus of crossing on the two full-backs Babayaro and Carr. Both are adventurous and creative enough, but, aside from a couple of brief forays into enemy territory, they spent most of the half preoccupied with the threat posed at our own end.

Heerenveen's forward triumvirate - Ugur Yildirim on the right, Arnold Bruggink on the left and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar through the middle - proved that playing a 4-3-3 formation doesn't necessarily mean compromising on width. After 24 minutes it was Bruggink who dispossessed the dawdling Bramble to feed Huntelaar. The skilful youngster cleverly turned Faye and lashed a shot past Given off the underside of the bar, and so it was Heerenveen that held the advantage at the break.

Our initial brightness in the second period soon faded, Babayaro was taken off with a knee injury to be replaced by Hughes and the evening threatened to turn even more sour as chants of "Sack the board" became audible from the travelling contingent.

Mercifully, though, Souness saw fit to change things just after the hour mark by throwing Robert on, and the course of the game completely altered. The player withdrawn was Ameobi, whose poor control and wasteful finishing had merited his substitution, although Kluivert had been utterly anonymous too. It wasn't so much that Robert himself made the difference, but that his appearance signalled a shift to 4-4-2 and pushed Kluivert forwards alongside Shearer into a position in which he is more comfortable.

Both Robert and Kluivert were involved when the equaliser came, the former feeding the ball into the latter and the Dutchman expertly laying it into Shearer's path. Having had a very similar and presentable opportunity blocked a few minutes earlier, Carr's follow-up flying just past the post, Shearer made no mistake this time.

At last our tails were up and we sensed that victory was there for the taking. Robert and Kluivert also had a hand in the neat move that led to the winner. The ball found its way to Carr and Bowyer, arriving in the box for almost the first time in the match, cleverly flicked the cross into the bottom corner.

Of course, the eight minutes which remained was still plenty of time for us to try and throw the lead away. A Bruggink shot aside, Heerenveen had hardly threatened in the second half, but another appalling cock-up from Bramble presented the ball to their Finnish midfielder Mika Vayrynen. Given came to the rescue, brilliantly tipping the goalbound shot over and once again underlining his importance to the side. Then Bowyer got a second yellow card for a senseless handball and we had to cling on for the final whistle.

Shearer was excellent, especially in the second half, whilst Faye had a handy game breaking up attacks and holding things together. In defence, O'Brien produced some dashing interventions to offset Bramble's calamitous performance, and, though I was worried when the right-footed Hughes came on at left back to face the lively Yildirim, he turned in an impressively calm and assured display.

Progression to the next round is still far from a formality - Heerenveen caused us problems in attacking areas, even if they were lightweight defensively - but it's a real fillip to be able to take a just-about-deserved lead into next Thursday's second leg at St James's. The fans' vocal disquiet at the beginning of the second period was a warning to manager and chairman alike, though. Hopefully this game might have convinced Souness that we should be playing a 4-4-2 formation with wide midfielders, and that Robert deserves a decent crack in the side.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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