Monday, December 05, 2005

Few Heroes: Plenty of Villains

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Aston Villa

With the shambolic performances from this week's Carling Cup heaping pressure on both teams, Saturday's match was never likely to be a classic.

The loss of Emre and N'Zogbia to injury (the latter to a freak training ground injury to his hand) meant that Faye returned to midfield and Titus returned to the heart of defence, allowing Robbie Elliott to move to left back. With Souness finally accepting that Luque is currently off the pace, Ameobi came in on the left of midfield, and Chopra started up front with Shearer.

The game began scrappily, with both teams seemingly intent on wither scrapping it out in midfield, or launching aimless high balls forward - a tactic seemingly devoid of inspiration or prospect of success. Our most promising moments seemed to be down the left, where makeshift winger Shola seemed to be making some headway against Aaron Hughes, and it was Shola who had our first real chance, cutting in from our left before firing his shot wide of the far post.

Slowly we began to establish a degree of superiority, and force Villa to concede possession, with Parker, and the surprisingly effective Amady Faye winning the midfield battle against hacking mackem Gavin McCann. Forcing a corner, Solano's ball in was only cleared as far as Parker, whose well struck shot caught Liam Ridgewell on the upper arm, and unlike last week's trip to Everton, referee Alan Wiley awarded us a (perhaps slightly fortuitous) penalty. With Shearer's record from the spot against Thomas Sorensen not hugely encouraging, it was heartening to see Shearer move one goal closer to Milburn's record as he slammed the ball past the diving Villa keeper, who managed to get his fingers to the ball, but couldn't stop it hitting the back of the Leazes net, and the team and crowd breath a collective sigh of relief.

The rest of the half passed without major incident, and at half time Souness was probably thinking that if we could nick a second then the game would be safe, and in all likelihood it would be David O'Bleary clearing out his office on Monday morning.

Depressingly for those watching, the second half was packed full of the aimless high balls which had filled the first, and with Chopra incapable of anticipating where any of Shearer's knockdowns would go, the goal rarely looked forthcoming.

Then, a long ball from Given deceived the Villa defence in flight and Shearer was through, bursting onto the ball and rifling a first time shot goalwards. Unfortunately, his powerful shot bounced harmlessly off the cross bar, and left us still clinging to our fragile one goal lead.

As it turned out, there was only one piece of decent football in the whole of the second half, and it was the men in claret and blue who produced it. Good work by Gareth Barry on the Villa left appeared to flummox three of our players (presumably because they hadn't witnessed anything approaching skilful play during the preceding 70 minutes) and his ball found niggly weasel Lee Hendrie breaking down the wing. In acres of space, Hendrie's cut back found Gavin McCann leaving Shola ambling in his wake, and his low drive beat Given and hit the far corner of the net giving Villa the parity that their performance probably merited, and left Souness looking the manager most likely to be out of work before Christmas.

Even then, neither side really looked like breaking the deadlock until Villa played a hopeful looking through ball for Milan Baros to run on to. Heading away from goal the Villa striker never looked like he would be able to get the shot in, but presumably in an effort to either (a) get his manager the sack or (b) prove what a cretin he can be Titus Bramble launched himself full length for the ball, missed it by about three yards, and completely flattened the Villa striker. With 1 minute left of the 90, I can't imagine what thoughts ran through Souness' mind, but Villa were only a Gareth Barry penalty away from claiming all three points.

However, unlike the horrorshow that was last year's corresponding fixture, in which he scored twice from the spot, the Villa winger skied his penalty way over the bar, and with it brought down the curtain on a pretty grim afternoon's football.

Quite where this leaves us is anyone's guess. Whilst undoubtedly better than the shambolic disgrace that was the Wigan match, we still look woefully devoid of ideas. Why we persist in having Nobby cut inside is anyone's guess, but he's never in a position to cross a ball, and as a result Shearer is left trying to flick balls on. Without Owen alongside him, he simply has nobody capable of anticipating where the ball will go (with Chopra seemingly only capable of reacting to the flick on and consequently leaving himself too much to do against Premiership defenders), and as a result the likelihood of us opening up a team and scoring a goal looks beyond us.

However, I still maintain that there is no point sacking Souness for the sake of it. Without a top class replacement lined up, we will simply be shooting ourselves in the foot again, and will inevitably be left chasing mediocre managers (Steve Bruce, et al.) who probably won't fancy the challenge anyway. We'd be much better giving Souness the chance to field his first choice team (just one match free from injuries would be a start) than chopping and changing again with no plan or purpose. Whether he gets the opportunity to field his first choice team depends on two things: firstly them getting fit sooner rather than later, and secondly Fat Fred realising that sacking another manager isn't going to lead to a quick turn around. If Souness has to go, then let's get someone decent lined up for the summer (Martin O'Neill?) rather than whoever is willing to move now: after all that's what led us to employ Souness in the first place, and look where that's got us.

Special note of praise to Amady Faye, a player I admit to thinking of as being shit for much of this season, but who had a storming game and was robbed of the man of the match award by the myopic bastards who always pick Shearer. If he keeps playing like that I'll gladly alter my opinion permanently.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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