Monday, March 21, 2011

Bunch of aaarrrggghhh Sols

Stoke 4 - 0 Newcastle

Another defeat, and this time one to really set alarm bells ringing. Saturday saw us mauled by a Stoke side commonly characterised as a one-tactic team - but nullifying the threat posed by Rory Delap was about the only thing we got right all afternoon.

Very few of the players can claim to have done themselves justice, but the brunt of the blame has to lie with Alan Pardew. The 3-5-2 didn't work against Everton and ASBO was back to take up his place on the right side of our usual 4-4-2 - but our manager, in his wisdom, still insisted on selecting three central defenders, with wing-backs flanking a three-man central midfield. If Pardew thought the reason the experiment hadn't worked against Moyes' men was the personnel, then this will have been a rude awakening - Sol Campbell, drafted in for Steven Taylor, must have been embarrassed at being made to look the very epitome of a pedestrian, washed-up, waistband-elastic-botherer as Stoke's sub-stellar talents tore us apart.

There had been bad news even before our hosts took the lead. I should have known better than to detect the beginnings of "a new pragmatic caution with regard to rehabilitation". Jose Enrique, who hobbled off in the first half against the Toffees, was once again back in the dressing room before the break. Chalk that up as something else Pardew got very, very wrong - though in truth his replacement Shane Ferguson at least gave a good account of himself.

We were 1-0 down shortly afterwards, Jermaine Pennant's deflected cross from the right glanced past Steve Harper by Jonathan Walters. This roused us into a modicum of action, but a pair of half-chances went unconverted and the half-time whistle blew with no further additions to the scoreline. Before the second period was five minutes old, though, there had been two - and neither of them in our favour.

First Steve Harper made an uncharacteristic but horrific error, dithering when he should have put his foot through the ball. Ex-5under1and striker Kenwyne Jones robbed him and Matthew Etherington crossed for fellow winger Pennant to score from close range. An unsighted Harper didn't stand much of a chance three minutes later, Danny Higginbotham's free-kick rocketing into the roof of the net from distance.

Pardew belatedly abandoned the 3-5-2, Spidermag coming on for Campbell, while Peter Lovenkrands made way for the unpredictability of Nile Ranger. We improved as a result - though that wouldn't have been hard. ASBO would have emulated Higginbotham were it not for a flying save from Asmir Begovic, and the Potters' Bosnian custodian also denied Ferguson after a splendid solo run that put his more seasoned teammates' pitiful efforts to shame.

But there were two more blows to come, both struck by substitute Ricardo Fuller's boot. The first was an off-the-ball hoof on ASBO which went unpunished other than with a lecture. It had to be the Jamaican, then, who completed the scoring in injury time, running onto a long ball and lashing past Harper.

That's now one win in nine, and although we've actually been playing better than that suggests this was as poor as a display as we've put in all year - and at a crucial time of the season, when teams below us were busy picking up points. Just four points now separate us from Wolves in 18th - fail to win at home to them in a fortnight's time (which we'll have to do without Cheik Tiote, recipient of a two-match ban for his tenth yellow card of the season) and we really will be in serious trouble.

A Stoke fan's perspective: The Rock 'N' Roll Oatcake

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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