Friday, September 29, 2006

Oba the moon

Newcastle 2 - 1 FC Levadia Tallinn

(Newcastle win 3-1 on aggregate)

Obafemi Martins scored his first goals at St James' Park as we shouldered Estonian champions FC Levadia Tallinn aside to ensure our progress into the group stages of the UEFA Cup. But Martins' goals came only after we'd survived a few scares in an otherwise moribund first period.

Mindful of Sunday's stern test at the DevilBowl, Glenn Roeder opted to rest captain Scott Parker and Craig Moore, while Damien Duff and Shola Ameobi had both recovered from injury sufficiently to be named among the substitutes, along with Parker and Moore. In came Nicky Butt, Steven Taylor, Charles N'Zogbia and Antoine Sibierski.

For the first 45 minutes Roeder's confidence looked questionable. Showing serious attacking intent, Levadia performed far better than they had in the first leg, and could have taken the lead when Vladimir Voskoboinikov glanced his header over from a great cross. Steven Taylor and Titus Bramble started nervily, the latter rescuing the former following what could have been a catastrophic slip. The possibility of our away goal advantage being eroded looked all too real.

Further up the pitch, Martins and Sibierski seemed as uncomfortable a partnership as Taylor and Bramble, nothing coming off for them at all. The greatest threat was carried by James Milner on the right flank, and by Emre whose dribbling and passing was superb. The Turkish international hit one free kick just too high, and another hit with pace and power from a narrow angle was palmed over by Levadia 'keeper Artur Kotenko.

The second period couldn't have started any better. Two minutes in Emre swung in an excellent corner (for a change) and amidst a clutch of players Martins escaped his marker to leap and flick a header into the corner. Cue the gymnastic celebrations in front of the Gallowgate crowd - many more of those, please.

Almost from the restart Levadia broke down the other end, Steve Harper forced into making a smart save once he'd left himself in no man's land, but in the 50th minute it was all over. Sibierski and Martins at last combined constructively, the Frenchman heading down to the Nigerian who lashed the ball in through a defender's legs and off the underside of the crossbar from 20 yards.

Levadia pulled a goal back fifteen minutes later when Tihhon Sisov was allowed far too much space on our left by N'Zogbia and crossed for substitute Indrek Zelinski, who had been on the pitch all of two minutes, to power a header goalwards. Harper will be disappointed he let the ball slip past him, but ultimately the goal was nothing more than a consolation, Levadia lacking the potency to cause us real problems and Bramble and Taylor having grown in confidence.

In truth, we could have had another, Nicky Butt racing onto a ball over the top and evading Kotenko only to see his shot brilliantly cleared off the line by a lunging defender. Parker, Duff and Albert Luque came on for Emre, N'Zogbia and Martins respectively, and the Spaniard at least showed some willing and a couple of good touches.

Perhaps inevitably it was Martins who picked up the man of the match award, but that ignored the fact that he looked out of sorts and often clumsy in the first period. A great disservice to Emre, certainly, who enjoyed perhaps his best game for us.

The draw for the group stage takes place next week, and it promises plenty to be concerned about. Our possible opponents this season look a lot stronger than they were two years ago.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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