Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Pride - and no fall

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Arsenal

"If we play with passion like that we won't go far wrong".

The words of Alan Smith in the wake of tonight's draw at home to league leaders Arsenal. It was quite a night, all told: the team turned in a gutsy performance that, for the players' determination alone, perhaps merited even better than a return of a solitary point; much of the pressure which has heaped up on Sam Allardyce over the last fortnight was relieved; owner Mike Ashley was left grinning and rubbing his hands with excitement rather than cold on the final whistle; and Smith himself at last showed what he might be useful as - a target man, of all things.

In the wake of the positive if ultimately fruitless display at Ewood Park on Saturday, Allardyce only made one change to the side and that was enforced, the injured Abdoulaye Faye replaced by Steven Taylor - and Taylor it was who proved to be the player at the centre of much of the game's key moments.

We got off to the worst possible start, though. Only four minutes had elapsed when Charles N'Zogbia made a present of an attempted clearance down the line, Emmanuel Eboue whipping the ball in for namesake Adebayor to control on his chest and volley expertly home. The goal sent the Togo striker back to the top of the Premiership scoring table, so the lack of close attention afforded him was all the more inexplicable.

Thankfully, though, our response was positive and swift. Captain Geremi was inches away from equalising with a header, supplier of that excellent cross James Milner began tormenting Bacary Sagna and Smith set about winning aerial ball after aerial ball, giving Kolo Toure and William Gallas a much tougher game than they might have anticipated. In the Gunners' goal Manuel Almunia was perhaps rather fortunate to save Geremi's skidding free-kick, having been unsighted by his wall, though he deserved the thanks of his team-mates for tipping Taylor's header from a corner onto the post and out to safety.

All the same, Arsenal looked dangerous on the break and could easily have extended their lead but for some poor decision-making in advanced areas. Gilberto, restored to the visiting side in the absence of the injured Cesc Fabregas (some reserve, eh?), should have done better from a Tomas Rosicky corner.

So, only 1-0 at the break and some encouraging signs - but, mindful of how quickly 1-0 had become 2-0 in our last home game, against Liverpool, I was still fearing the worst. So it was gratifying to see us come out and carry on where we left off, N'Zogbia firing in a rocket of a shot that, fortunately for the Gunners, was straight at Almunia.

When the equaliser came, around the hour mark, it was thoroughly deserved. Usually so comfortable and confident on the ball, Arsenal hadn't bargained for our hustling, harrying approach and, trying to play his way out of defence, Eduardo gifted the ball to Habib Beye whose cross was flicked on by Smith (another outstanding leap), dummied by Obafemi Martins and finished neatly by Taylor at the near post. Cue much fist-pumping.

Fired up further by some play-acting from the likes of Sagna, we pressed forwards and looked the more likely side to win it. Substitute Mark Viduka (on for Geremi) delayed his shot too long when well placed and saw it deflected over the bar, while Taylor came close to getting a second during an extended spell of pressure when we forced three corners in quick succession. Even after that, though, our impetuous centre-back could have seen yellow or maybe even worse for being the last man and cynically blocking Adebayor's route to goal. A late winner for the visitors would have been very harsh desserts.

Afterwards Arsene Wenger was relatively gracious in parity: "Physically and mentally we've had a very hard night. They fought for every ball. No matter what differences there are in the club, Newcastle had made a unity, everyone was on board and they made a fight for 90 minutes." But he couldn't quite resist slipping in a dig about our style of play: "They were exactly the same as Bolton. They were very, very direct." The fact is, Arsene, that when you're on a poor run and you're up against a better side, albeit one shorn of key players through injury, you have to pull out all the stops to get anything from the game. Some of our challenges were robust, but there wasn't much that was unfair. Admit it: Allardyce's sides may flounder against lesser teams, but they continue to have the Indian sign over yours.

Needless to say it wasn't all good from our perspective: David Rozehnal was sloppy, nervous and short of confidence; Martins, playing predominantly on the right, repeatedly wasted good positions; and after positive beginnings Barton's performance soon dropped off, the big-gobbed midfielder seemingly incapable of finding team-mates with a pass.

But he couldn't complain about the fans being "vicious" - on the contrary, the 50,000 present were enthusiastic, passionate and vocal in their support for the team. Of course it helped that they had plenty to cheer.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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