Thursday, March 08, 2007

Goals to Newcastle

Newcastle Utd 4 - 2 AZ Alkmaar

After Saturday's snoozeathon against the Smogs, tonight we produced a first half performance of astonishing flair and verve, tearing AZ Alkmaar to shreds - and yet Louis van Gaal's side go into next week's second leg knowing that they're in a better position than they would be if we'd only scored twice without reply.

With Antoine Sibierski restored to the attack, Damien Duff back on the left and Kieron Dyer pushed out to the right, wide men James Milner and Charles N'Zogbia were the players unfortunate to miss out, while in our one enforced change the ineligible Oguchi Onyewu sat the game out, Stephen Carr returning from injury to line up at left back.

I was a bit surprised that Roeder opted to keep the fit-again Emre on the bench and start with Nicky Butt, given the need to establish a decent first leg advantage, but his decision was soon vindicated. The erstwhile target of the boo boys put in a solid shift alongside Captain Scott, the often brittle central defensive partnership of Titus Bramble and Steven Taylor performed admirably, and Nobby Solano was a dynamic presence at right back.

The headlines and plaudits will probably go to our forwards, though, for whom they provided a solid platform. Alkmaar soon demonstrated their talent for quick passing, but Duff had already slid a dangerous low ball across the six yard box when his smart backheel deceived two defenders and let in Dyer to cross for Icelandic international Gretar Steinsson to knock it into his own net under pressure from Obafemi Martins.

We continued to look threatening and went further ahead on 22 minutes with a goal that was as beautifully finished as it was crafted. Alkmaar surrendered possession in a dangerous area and Butt played the ball into Sibierski who with the deftest of flicks sent Dyer in to clip neatly over 'keeper Boy Waterman.

We'd barely caught our breath when Martins picked up a curled pass from centre midfield, burst past two defenders and fired low into the bottom corner with his right foot.

23 minutes gone, and we were pinching ourselves. Not to worry, though - reality soon rudely intruded on our blissful reverie. Shay Given was called into urgent action to repel a long-range shot from the skilful Maarten Martens, and then to pick the ball out of the net, Alkmaar captain Shota Arveladze bulleting a header in off the crossbar from Julian Jenner's right-wing cross.

But back we came. Sibierski nearly gained a reward for his efforts, before Solano spotted Martins pulling off his man to create space and the Nigerian squeezed the ball home between outstretched hand and post with unerring accuracy.

It was as exhilarating a half of football as we've produced all season, but there were still enough signs - fluent passing and half-chances - that Alkmaar carried a significant threat.

Inevitably, the second period was something of an anti-climax. Van Gaal sent his men out early with a flea in their collective ear, and it needed a superb tackle from Bramble (even better than a similar first half intervention from Butt) to prevent Dutch hotshot Danny Koevermans from reducing the deficit.

But reduce the deficit they did. Taylor was (rather harshly) adjudged to have handled substitute Moussa Dembele's cross and, although Given kept out the Belgian teenager's dreadful penalty, he and Bramble were unable to stop Koevermans from following up from close range.

In the time that remained, Martins should have claimed his hattrick, his persistence winning him a clear run through on goal only for Waterman to save rather fortuitously with a combination of his legs and his arse. Parker too could have done better with a near-post header he flicked over the bar.

4-2 it finished - to the satisfaction of Roeder, who stressed that in the second period they need to attack us and we can exploit the space they leave behind. Hmm, I'm never that confident when we invite teams to attack us - not unreasonably, either...

On tonight's performance, though, it is van Gaal who will be regretting his pre-match comments: "There will be plenty of goals across the two matches, and we are superior in that aspect. But the key to the game will be in defence, and I have more confidence in AZ there too"...

Other reports: BBC, , Guardian (Michael Walker dwelling on the negatives, for a change...)


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