Monday, December 29, 2008

Another fine mess

Newcastle Utd 1 - 5 Liverpool

And there I was thinking the demolition job the Scousers did on us last season was bad. Having contrived to put a positive slant on the news that the club has proven unattractive to investors, Mike Ashley presumably had his head in his hands when the final whistle blew on this latest debacle, wondering what on earth he's done to deserve being left saddled with it.

A sullen-faced JFK may have plucked the expected excuses from the shelf - the spate of injuries to defensive personnel in particular, tiredness from the packed festive programme (funny that - I could have sworn Liverpool had a game on Boxing Day too...) - but nothing would have been acceptable as justification for the shambles the largest home crowd of the season was forced to endure. As appalling as our defending was - and make no mistake, it was absolutely atrocious - the midfield protection afforded to our makeshift back four was non-existent. Liverpool may be top of the league and in good form, but we could hardly have given them an easier ride.

With Mark Viduka joining Obafemi Martins on the sidelines and Shola Ameobi not considered fit enough to start, Damien Duff was named as Little Saint Mick's strike partner. In defence Jose Enrique had recovered sufficiently from Friday's warm-up strain to allow Charles N'Zogbia to resume his position on the left wing, but the injury to Habib Beye and suspension of Sebastien Bassong meant JFK had to turn to Steven Taylor and David Edgar.

After an opening few minutes during which we pressed Liverpool high up the pitch, won a succession of throw-ins and saw Fabricio Coloccini fire powerfully over the bar, the Scousers took charge. Chances came and went with such frequency that no sooner had we caught our breath after one miraculous escape than there was another jaw-dropping incident. Shay Given saved Dirk Kuyt's close-range blast with his neck, then superbly foiled Steven Gerrard twice (once with his legs and once with a diving save to his right). Next it was Lucas Leiva's turn to be incredulous on two occasions in quick succession as the Irishman smuggled one point-blank prod off the line with the Reds fans prematurely celebrating and then used a firm outstretched hand to divert a header away to safety. And that's not to mention Sami Hyypia's unchallenged header from a free-kick and N'Zogbia's goalline clearance from the same player.

It was only a matter of time before we paid the price for repeatedly ignoring the alarm bells, pressing snooze and dozing off again, and sure enough that time came shortly after the half-hour mark. Enrique, who'd been capably demonstrating his full repertoire of sliced and mishit clearances and passes, allowed Yossi Benayoun to sneak in behind him and pull the ball back from the byline for Gerrard to crash in off the post. Five minutes later and it was 2-0, Hyypia profiting from our inability to learn lessons and from Coloccini's interest in wrestling rather than outjumping him by heading home a corner.

Bizarrely, though, in first-half stoppage time we struck back, and this time it was the visitors who failed to heed the warning signs. Taylor had already headed wide from a corner when Edgar rose at the near post to plant an excellent header past Pepe Reina. His celebrations weren't exactly vociferous - presumably out of recognition that the scoreline was utterly undeserved and that he had been one of our worst performers, running around cluelessly and giving Ryan Babel the freedom of our right flank.

Any artificial gloss that goal put on proceedings was stripped off early in the second half. Ameobi, thrown on to put the hapless Enrique out of his misery, had inspired some optimism with a well-timed lunge on Javier Mascherano and a couple of decent breaks down the right (one ending with a blocked N'Zogbia shot), but Liverpool were assisted in restoring their two-goal lead when six statuesque defenders couldn't prevent Babel from tapping in after another set-piece.

When Little Saint Mick was scythed down cynically by Mascherano, substitute Geremi came desperately close to reducing the arrears with a free-kick that smashed up off the bar and behind. Our only other second-half opportunities of note came in the form of a low Danny Guthrie shot from distance and an Owen effort deflected behind by Jamie Carragher after Reina had dropped Geremi's ambitious free-kick - but by that point we were 4-1 and then 5-1 down respectively.

Gerrard got his side's fourth, motoring onto Lucas's precise through ball and outpacing a sluggish Coloccini to dink beyond Given. With Fernando Torres out injured and Robbie Keane rewarded for his Boxing Day brace against Bolton by being dropped to the bench, we might possibly have fancied our chances - but the wily Benitez's decision to give Gerrard free rein behind Kuyt was a tactic we failed to cope with miserably.

The fifth, a penalty scored by sub Xabi Alonso following Edgar's trip, inspired a defiant barrage of noise from the home fans, who - in amongst mocking the Scousers for their relative muteness in the circumstances and indulging in some fine gallows humour ("6-5, we're gonna win 6-5...") - paid tribute to Sir Bobby Robson. The Newcastle United Supporters' Club's suggestion that the day should be earmarked for fundraising for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation seemed to have been enthusiastically embraced by the fans - so the club's lack of obvious support for the initiative was mean-spirited in the extreme.

In the rousing atmosphere of the final 15 minutes Given was again called upon, this time to claw away Lucas's header, but by that point the horse had not only bolted but galloped several furlongs off into the distance. I'd never witnessed a 'keeper afforded three separate standing ovations - one at half-time, one when he re-emerged for the second half and one at the final whistle - but they were certainly no less than he deserved.

At least we now have the distraction of an FA Cup game against Hull to look forward to - perhaps we can haul ourselves back on track against a side who are currently going through a very sticky spell themselves. But staying in this division is the most important thing, and JFK was right to stress the need to bring in new faces in January. Mike, if you're serious about doing your bit to "drive the club forward", then you're going to need to put your hand in your pocket.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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