Sunday, December 23, 2007

Vid-eo nasty

Newcastle Utd 2 - 2 Derby

At a time of year when the TV schedules are awash with adaptations of Victorian tales, it was nasty Mark Viduka who, like a cackling Scrooge snatching sweets back from a poor grubby-face orphan child ignoring his plaintive cries of "But please, mister , 'ave a 'eart...", managed to ruin Derby's Christmas. If it hadn't been for the Greggs-sponsored hitman's two clinical strikes, the second three minutes from time, we would have gift-wrapped the East Midlanders their second three points of the season. No prizes for guessing who gave them their first.

Viduka's inclusion was the only change from the side that, after a painfully awful game, contrived to beat Fulham last Saturday, Geremi dropping to the bench, and we couldn't have hoped for a more opportune fixture in which to record a third successive victory. Sure enough, we were on the front foot from the off - only for Derby to stun us with their first attack. One away goal all season became two when alleged Toon target Giles Barnes fired into the bottom left hand corner under pressure from Joey Barton.

For a while we staggered around punchdrunk, misplacing passes and mistiming tackles, but we gradually reassumed control and were nearly as stunned as by Barnes's goal when referee Andre Marriner refused to award a blatant penalty, Alan Smith bulldozed over extremely crudely when lining up an overhead kick.

The chances then began to flow thick and fast. Obafemi Martins, looking lively on the right hand side of attack, was unlucky to see his header cleared off the line, Barnes seemingly eager to remain at the heart of the action. Meanwhile, Habib Beye, who enjoyed another solid game at right back and contributed usefully in forward areas, saw his shot saved by Derby 'keeper Stephen Bywater.

An equaliser was inevitable, though, and Viduka got it. When his former Leeds team-mate Alan Smith somehow scrambled the ball to him just inside the area, the big-boned Australian's finish was unerring. More reasonable half-chances came and went before the break, but 1-1 it stayed.

We came out sluggishly for the second period, though, and were duly punished when David Rozehnal, once again never wholly comfortable or convincing in the centre of the defence, allowed one-time target Kenny Miller to skip past him and fire beyond Given. Two shots, two goals - and the first time the league's basement club had scored twice in a game since the opening day. We had every reason to feel embarrassed.

Unlike in the first half, there wasn't the same positive response, and in our eagerness to press for a second equaliser we looked alarmingly fragile at the back against a powderpuff attack, susceptible to quick moves on the break to which Derby couldn't quite apply the finishing touch. Martins was denied by Jay McEveley, as Sam Allardyce replaced Rozehnal with Steven Taylor and then surprisingly threw caution to the wind by sending on Damien Duff for Nicky Butt, the Irishman marking his first appearance in eight months with an interesting mullet.

Our luck seemed to be out, though - until Viduka latched onto Darren Moore's weak headed clearance and steered the ball past Bywater under no pressure. Derby could still have claimed all three points had Marriner given them a penalty for Cacapa's clumsy challenge on Tyrone Mears (though it was nowhere near as clear-cut as Mears's foul on Smith in the first half), and Duff forced Bywater into a sprawling save when everyone else left or missed his cross-shot.

With the whistle almost between the referee's lips, Emre, on for the dreadful Barton (much to the fans' pleasure), had an opportunity to make it a third straight injury-time win but sent his shot wide, and it wasn't to be.

Given that we were only a few minutes away from a particularly humiliating home defeat, perhaps I shouldn't grumble - and in truth we have played worse this season (last week at Fulham springs to mind). But dropping five points against a side of Derby's calibre is hardly satisfactory, and once again new signings Barton, Cacapa and Smith did next to nothing to suggest they're worthy of a place in the side.

Boxing Day's trip to the JJB should really garner us three points, but this result gives us plenty of cause for concern - as does the memory of our three previous visits, all of which have ended in 1-0 defeats...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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