Sunday, October 28, 2007

A right Royal mess

Reading 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

How is it that we could go from defending so stoutly against Spurs to turning in such a dismally uncoordinated display at the Madjeski less than a week later? Having contained well over £20m of striking talent (if that still serves as a description of Darren Bent...) with consummate ease, our back four were unable to handle a trio of forwards who cost a combined total of less than £2m - and had Leroy Lita had his shooting boots rather than his skewing/skying boots on, we would have paid a much heavier price than this narrow defeat.

Fat Sam's team selection once again baffled - not content with continuing to consign James Milner to the bench alongside our best defender David Rozehnal, Allardyce chose to accommodate the fully-fit Joey Barton by dropping Charles N'Zogbia, our other out-and-out winger and arguably our best player so far this season. And yet Nicky Butt continues to start no matter what - damn you, Tottenham, for making him look good.

The result, inevitably, was no width and precious little creativity, the onus falling squarely on Emre and his shoulders unable to bear the burden. Not only was this criminal in that it gave the recently porous Reading defence an easy ride, but it also handed the home side the initiative, Lita twice letting us off the hook in the first half. At no point was our fondness for making life difficult for ourselves more apparent, though, than when Cacapa - one of the heroes against Spurs - hit an extraordinarily careless backpass that Shay Given scrabbled to just about keep out. The sum total of our first half efforts, other than some occasional neat interpassing in midfield, was Michael Owen's extremely hopeful penalty claim under challenge from Reading 'keeper Marcus Hahnemann. Is it really any wonder he continues to look out-of-sorts, a frustrated figure, for us when the service to him is as shoddy as it was yesterday?

If the Royals didn't already know it, Steve Coppell's half-time talk must have made them appreciate that we were there for the taking - and, sure enough, eight minutes into the second period, Dave Kitson (who also did the damage back in April) found the top right corner of Given's net with a splendid left-foot shot from 20 yards.

Allardyce, perhaps rueing his initial selection, promptly threw on N'Zogbia and Alan Smith but little changed until the introduction of Milner. Two minutes after stepping onto the pitch his persistence by the corner flag won the free kick which Emre swung in for Michael Duberry to knock over the line with his gut. Not the first time Duberry, a definite rival for Titus Bramble in the haplessness stakes, has scored an own goal in our favour - perhaps he's a closet Newcastle fan?

Suddenly we were transformed, looking dangerous every time we got the ball and seeking out what would have been a most undeserved winner. As it was, we couldn't even hold on for a point - turned out that Coppell had a supersub of his own, Shane Long replacing the profligate Lita and firing past Given barely a minute later. In the build-up, any lingering smirks at the sight of Duberry's cock-up were wiped from our faces by the farcical mess Cacapa and colleagues made of clearing the ball. And with that the chance of fourth place was gone (it would have been fifth anyway, with Chelsea romping to a 6-0 win over Man City).

So, what did we learn?

1. We still can't keep a clean sheet away from home - for some reason, the defence turns to jelly as soon as they emerge from an unfamiliar dressing room. Puzzling - but something that needs addressing quickly. We won't get anywhere if we can't defend on foreign soil.

2. Fat Sam still doesn't seem to know his best midfield. Hopefully he'll stop tinkering with different permutations sooner rather than later - and realise that we need at least one if not both of Milner and N'Zogbia in the starting line-up. We've played with four central midfielders before, and it just doesn't work. If Owen's to look like someone other than a lost schoolboy enduring a games lesson on a freezing January day, then he's got to get some quality service.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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