Monday, July 24, 2006

The professionals

Lillestrom 0 - 3 Newcastle

(Newcastle win 4-1 on aggregate)

Cheers lads. I was anticipating an afternoon of having my heart in my mouth, but for once it stayed put, all thanks to a performance of such consummate professionalism that it was hard to believe we could possibly be responsible.

A brace from the returning Shola Ameobi and an icing-on-the-cake blast from Emre made sure the passports don't have to go back in the drawer just yet, while, having re-committed himself to the club in the close season (a decision for which he might have expected to be committed...), Shay Given will be hoping he enjoys many more afternoons as quiet as this - he didn't have a single save to make.

As a reflection of quite how significant this game was, Glenn Roeder sent out the strongest side available to him. The only change from the first leg saw Ameobi start in place of last Saturday's goalscorer Albert Luque (out with a bad back or blisters, depending who you believe), though Craig Moore - back in training following his World Cup exploits with Australia - secured a place on the bench. The formation allegedly changed to a 4-5-1, with James Milner on the left and Charles N'Zogbia in the centre - though to my eyes Milner seemed to be running the channels striker-style, in the first half at least.

Right from the first whistle Lillestrom's lack of quality was the source of much bemusement - my thought being that we must have been truly dreadful last week for this lot to have left St James' Park with a draw and an away goal.

That said, we didn't exactly pull up any trees in the opening exchanges, our only effort on goal being an Ameobi header from Emre's perfect corner that sailed wastefully over the angle.

But, just as the half-hour mark approached and the fact that that away goal meant we had to score at least once began to prey on my mind, Ameobi made amends. Emre had struck one free kick straight at the wall so, when presented with an opportunity in an identical position, we tried something different. The ball was rolled to N'Zogbia, whose venomous 25 yard drive was beaten away well by Lillestrom 'keeper Otto Fredrikson. Ameobi was on hand to collect the parry, though, and showed strength and composure in escaping his marker's attentions and sidefooting the ball calmly inside the far post.

Seven minutes later and Big Lad (copyright the season ticket holder who used to sit behind Paul) doubled our lead. Stephen Carr released new skipper Scott Parker, whose perfect low cross was steered into the net at the far post. Roeder commented afterwards: "Shola should not have been out there. We kept it a secret. He picked up an ankle injury in training and he had no chance on Thursday. It just shows the character of the lad and the spirit in the team". It's far too early to say whether he can play his part in scoring the goals with which Shearer's boot would have provided us, but all the same it's encouraging to see him continue to mine the rich vein of form he found at the back end of last season, even against poor opposition.

That second goal effectively ended the tie, leaving the home side needing three goals without reply to get through. Their second half attempts to do so were pitiful, the only half-scare being an Arild Sundgot header which drifted harmlessly wide, and we remained comfortably in control throughout, continuing to threaten more goals every time we ventured forwards with menace.

Frederikson nearly made a hash of a long-range Parker shot, only just deflecting it wide for a corner, and also saved from Nobby Solano, while Emre should have done much better with a shot he screwed wide with his wrong foot. Like Ameobi, though, our Turkish international made amends for a bad miss with a goal, working space for himself on the edge of the area and firing home high into the corner with Frederikson rooted to the spot.

There was still time for another chance, Parker played in inside the area but delaying his shot long enough for Frederikson to get a block on it. If there was a disappointing aspect to his displays last season, it was the lack of goals - hopefully that'll be rectified this time out.

So, a job very well done and a place in the hat for Friday's UEFA Cup draw. Europe here we come...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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