Thursday, August 24, 2006

Too many wingers spoil the broth

Newcastle Utd 0 - 0 FC Ventspils

(Newcastle win 1-0 on aggregate)

Had new £10.1m signing Obafemi Martins not been unveiled on the pitch before kick-off, we'd all be a lot more depressed about this result - though, yes, for those of you with half-full glasses we are at least through to the UEFA Cup First Round proper.

With Shola Ameobi unfit and Martins not registered in time to be available, Glenn Roeder had little option but to pack his side with wingers, James Milner and Albert Luque paired up as the non-natural strikeforce up front and Charles N'Zogbia and Damien Duff on the flanks (Nobby Solano was rested). The game panned out just as you might expect with that line-up - we created numerous chances and put in countless dangerous crosses and corners without converting a single one.

Tasked with firing us comfortably into the UEFA Cup, Luque in particular was for the most part hapless, despite showing occasional and very welcome glimpses of application. By contrast, Duff, N'Zogbia and Milner shone (all ably prompted by Emre in midfield) but were themselves unable to find the net.

The pattern was set from the first whistle: us attacking and Ventspils defending deeply and stoutly, if fortuitously. Duff worked himself several presentable opportunities in the first half, while N'Zogbia danced into the area before firing in a low shot, Emre stung 'keeper Andris Vanins' palms, Celestine Babayaro blasted just wide and skipper Scott Parker should have done better at close range from a Milner cross. Ventspils, meanwhile, seemed content to lose the game by showing absolutely zero attacking intent. Steve Harper (in for the unfit Shay Given) was a spectator, and Titus Bramble and Steven Taylor (in for the injured Craig Moore) can't have ever been less troubled.

The second period followed in exactly the same vein. The closest we came was James Milner's superb curling free-kick which rebounded from the underside of the crossbar with Vanins nowhere near it, while Milner scuffed a very decent chance wide from Duff's pull-back barely a minute later. Luque's control let him down on more than a couple of occasions, as did his head, but Emre and N'Zogbia were more unlucky, their long-range shots being less than convincingly dealt with. First leg goal hero Bramble went close again with a clever lofted shot from the edge of the area following a corner. When Parker burst into the box late on, a goal looked inevitable, but a wonderful sliding block from defender Gorkss denied him at the last moment.

And that was the story of the match: chances squandered and shots continually bouncing back off the bodies of Ventspils players (hopefully they've now got the bruises to show for it). And, though we did at least have plenty of efforts on goal and can consider ourselves unfortunate not to have registered, it's worrying that we couldn't even put that team of virtual no-hopers to the sword, and in attempting to do so relied so heavily on shooting from distance.

Martins will give us an offensive weapon we haven't had since Craig Bellamy's departure: sheer pace. With the midfielders (and particularly wingers) we can boast, there's no doubt he'll get plenty of chances - we're all just hoping his finishing is half as remarkable as his 100m time...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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