Friday, December 01, 2006

Greek tragedy, Geordie joy

Eintracht Frankfurt 0 - 0 Newcastle Utd

A combination of last-ditch defending, good fortune and appalling finishing from the opposition (and their Greek striker Ioannis Amanatidis in particular) ensured we left the Commerzbank Arena with the point we needed to be sure of topping our group.

Glenn Roeder made only two changes to the squad picked for the Celta Vigo win last Thursday. Scott Parker and Steve Harper both missed out through injury, their places on the bench taken by Matty Pattison and rookie 'keeper Fraser Forster. That meant that the starting XI was identical, with James Milner and Charles N'Zogbia passed fit after the injuries sustained against Portsmouth on Sunday, and Albert Luque selected on the left side despite Wednesday's car crash.

Luque may not have been shaken by the incident, but unfortunately neither was he stirred into meaningful action, ambling around aimlessly for an hour. His most valuable contributions consisted of one half-decent ball to N'Zogbia and a spot of time-wasting, jogging over to shake the referee's hand when his number came up. Not good enough for us, Albert - and not good enough for potential purchasers either, I imagine.

To be honest, though, it wasn't just Luque - as an attacking force we were a shadow of the side that repeatedly tore Pompey apart, worryingly content for them to pressure us. In the first half N'Zogbia could and should have done better with a header from a deep free-kick, nodding it back across goal when well-placed to hit the target, and with half-time close Emre fired an excellent set-piece just wide of the near post.

Most of the chances came at the other end, though. Frankfurt had had a couple of half-chances before Albert Streit's free header was blocked at close range by Shay Given's legs. Peter Ramage was giving them too much room on the right hand side, but failed to heed the warning and barely a couple of minutes later when another cross from that side should have been buried by Amanatidis. His header flew wide, though, with the better-positioned Streit furious.

Soon after the Greek striker was booked for a high-footed challenge on Steven Taylor which left our central defender with a ripped shirt and bloody studmarks down his back. In a farcical couple of minutes, Taylor too picked up a yellow card for changing shirts and running back onto the pitch without the referee's express permission.

For Amanatidis, the night didn't get any better after the break. How on earth he didn't nod Naohiro Takahara's inch-perfect cross past Given from four yards is utterly beyond me, and with twelve minutes left he turned his ankle while chasing down Bramble and had to leave the pitch on a stretcher.

Frankfurt continued to press, but with Ramage tighter to his man and Taylor, Nobby Solano and Nicky Butt all enjoying excellent games, we looked a little more sturdy. The Germans' best second-half opportunities came late on. Takahara lobbed the ball over the bar when played through, with Given in no man's land at the edge of his area, and Benjamin Kohler sent a curler just wide of the angle in the last minute.

For all Frankfurt's pressure, though, we also had two gilt-edged chances to take all three points ourselves. Less than a minute after coming on, Obafemi Martins sent in a perfect cross which Antoine Sibierski headed on goal but was unfortunate to see Sotirios Kyrgiakos clear off the line. 'Keeper Markus Proll was well beaten then, but did well later to save from Emre when our Turkish dynamo burst clear on goal from midfield.

As it transpired, we didn't even need the point thanks to Celta Vigo's 1-0 win over Fenerbahce. Top spot means we avoid the teams entering from the Champions' League, and also secures us a home leg second. So now we can sit back and watch the other four teams scrap it out for the remaining two qualification spots. Who would have thought we would not only escape from but top the Group of Death? Not me, certainly. But we have, and comfortably - and that's despite our league form being generally terrible. Our Premiership / UEFA Cup schizophrenia remains mystifying, but at least things seem to be picking up on the home front too.

A well-deserved weekend off ahead, and then time to focus on taking three points from Reading - which'll be easier said than done given the Royals' recent form...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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