Sunday, April 30, 2006

No Brucie bonus

Birmingham 0 - 0 Newcastle

A week after effectively sending the Baggies down, we waved Steve Bruce and his Birmingham side off to the Championship. It gave me immense pleasure that it was us who sent the cauliflower-faced plastic Geordie packing.

As Bret Michaels and co well knew, though, every rose has its thorn - and in this instance there were several, of which more later.

Chasing a sixth successive win, Roeder opted for an unchanged side, which meant Pattison and Chopra kept their places. The appearance on the bench of a certain M Owen gave further reason for optimism, but, as it turned out, Birmingham side will feel bitterly disappointed not to have taken all three points. They attacked us like dogs backed into a corner, though fortunately their reliance on the lumbering form of Emile Heskey meant their bark was much worse than their bite.

The impetus was with Birmingham from the off, on-loan midfielder Jiri Jarosik trying his luck twice in the opening 15 minutes. At the other end, though, Mario Melchiot did well to put off the in-form Ameobi (how strange it is to type those words consecutively...) after a moment of defensive confusion. Mikael Forssell's shot skimmed the side netting with Given beaten, and in the only other decent chance of the first half fell to Heskey, who planted his shot into Given's arms.

The second half began in a similar fashion, Birmingham pressing us back but lacking the cutting edge that has eluded them all season. They were extremely fortunate not to fall behind when Melchiot made his second timely intervention to deny N'Zogbia, who looked odds on to beat Maik Taylor from six yards.

Owen's arrival off the bench after an hour coincided with the news that Portsmouth had got an equaliser at Wigan, the shellshocked St Andrews crowd falling pathetically silent rather than roaring on the increasingly desperate efforts of their team. Before long, Owen had headed a presentable chance over as we posted notice of our threat on the break.

The game turned, though, on two passages of play. First Babayaro, under pressure from Heskey, handled in the area. Birmingham may well feel aggrieved not to have been awarded a penalty, especially given their precarious circumstances, but there may have been a shove in the back from Heskey. Second, in injury time when Jarosik's free-kick struck the wall and was played back in, Given pulled off a tremendous double save, first from Forssell and then Heskey.

We could and perhaps should have then banged the nail into their Premiership coffin more emphatically, Bramble (of all people) breaking clear in a one-on-one with Taylor, but his central defender's first touch was far too heavy and gave the onrushing Northern Ireland 'keeper a chance to clear. The final whistle, and confirmation of Birmingham's demotion, followed shortly afterwards.

So, those thorns. Firstly, there was Owen, who came off complaining of a dull pain in his foot: "My foot does not feel right. I felt something go after 10 minutes. I don't know how serious it is but it's not perfect". Thankfully - for both Newcastle and England, given the injury to Shrek which looks to have ruled him out of the World Cup - tests and an X-ray conducted this morning has revealed no damage.

Secondly, Birmingham's relegation - as welcome as it is - means that we now won't be able to offload Nicky Butt to them under the terms of his loan. I very much doubt he'll be welcome back at St James' Park, so we'll be left hoping someone else will conveniently forget about the past two seasons and snap him up on the basis of his career at Man Utd. One of the promoted clubs, perhaps?

And thirdly, the draw - though with another welcome clean sheet - has effectively scuppered our bid for sixth place and the UEFA Cup because our main rivals Blackburn took advantage of a lacklustre Charlton side deflated at the news of Alan Curbishley's impending departure to chalk up an easy victory at The Valley in the Saturday evening kick-off. We now have to beat the newly crowned champions Chelsea at home next week to stand any chance, but if Blackburn can beat them in their game in hand on Tuesday then it's mathematically impossible. Disappointing, given our form of late, but then anyone who suggested back in January that we might be challenging for Europe come the end of the season would have been instantly certified and locked up, so we can't really complain.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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