Monday, April 13, 2009

Head boy

Stoke 1 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Rarely (if at all) this season can there have been a more beautiful sight than Andy Carroll's superb header arcing over flailing ex-Mackem Thomas Sorensen and into the back of the Stoke net. It was an equaliser we scarcely deserved in a game we didn't feel we could afford to draw, but it was a sweet moment in a season that's been almost entirely sour.

The teamsheet made for surprising reading, and not just because of the 11th hour withdrawal through injury of Obafemi Martins (much to Alan Shearer's displeasure). Replacing the Nigerian with Shola Ameobi, Wor Al took a considerable gamble in changing the formation to a back three of Sebastien Bassong, David Edgar and Habib Beye, with Ryan Taylor and Damien Duff operating as wing-backs. The fact that Fabricio Coloccini found himself on the bench for the first time this season despite both the tactical switch and the continued absence of Steven Taylor speaks volumes about his current form - or rather complete lack of it...

The change in formation also meant a narrow, supposedly combative midfield trio of Nicky Butt, Kevin Nolan and Danny Guthrie - not that you'd have appreciated that from the way the first half panned out. Given Stoke's physicality, we'd expected to be outfought, but we hadn't anticipated being outfootballed too.

Ryan Shawcross delivered an early warning, flashing a header wide, and when the goal came nearly everything about it was so predictable it was painful. OK, so it wasn't from a Rory Delap throw-in - but it was from a set-piece (one which Chris Foy should be embarrassed to have awarded, the ball clearly striking Ricardo Fuller's knee rather than Habib Beye), it did involve Ameobi transferring his uselessness to the other end of the pitch by completely losing his man, and it was scored by the head of old boy Abdoulaye Faye.

It could have been worse before the break, had Steve Harper not saved from Fuller, but still Shearer's half-time team-talk seemed to have had little effect, only a couple of goal-line clearances early in the second period keeping our hopes alive. Andy Wilkinson produced a tackle on Danny Guthrie that was as thuggish as he looks, getting away with just a yellow card, and Matthew Etherington also riled us as tensions started to flare.

When Shearer decided it was time to take action, he first withdrew Guthrie for Spiderman, whose energetic running may still have been without end product but which at least began to give us some forward impetus, and then - to cheers from the away end - belatedly hauled off Shola for Carroll, who took all of 11 minutes to show why he would have been the better option all along. Most of us thought his first headed effort was in, but it flew inches past the post. With his second, from Duff's cross (the one remotely telling contribution the Irishman made all afternoon), he made no mistake.

Though we then looked the likelier side to score a second, Stoke were dangerous on the break, and there were sighs of relief when sub Danny Pugh dragged his shot wide at the end of one late offensive.

To return home with a point from a ground where Arsenal and Aston Villa have been among the scalps was pleasing, but we really needed more. All the same, Carroll's header feels like it could prove to be a turning point of the significance of Little Saint Mick's goal at St Andrews last March. It's up to the players to ensure that it is, and not just something that postpones the agony.

Other reports: BBC (unbiased), Guardian (almost spiteful in its negativity)


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