Monday, March 07, 2011

Stuck in the middle with you

Newcastle 1 - 2 Everton

Another Saturday, another case of points dropped at home. Following last week's ultimately satisfactory draw with Bolton, a makeshift side registered a disappointing defeat to another of our mid-table rivals.

Deprived of the services of ASBO through injury and Ryan Taylor through suspension, Alan Pardew sprang a surprise by opting to switch formation as well as personnel. The tried-and-trusted 4-4-2 was set to one side in favour of a 3-5-2, with Steven Taylor coming in as a third central defender. In the absence of our two best crossers from the right wing, the theory - I guess - was to give our full-backs the best opportunity to get forwards in wide areas.

Everton weren't without their own selection difficulties, however. The loss of the ever-dangerous Tim Cahill was very welcome, while Marouane Fellaini's injury meant Sideshow Bob's claim to the day's most ludicrous barnet went unchallenged. Unfortunately, though, David Moyes was still able to call upon mercurial midfielder Mikel Arteta, and that was to prove instrumental to the visitors' cause - we had no real answer to the Spanish inquisition.

Arteta had already asked a question of Steve Harper in the form of a fierce shot when we took the lead with our first attack of the afternoon. Spidermag, Mike Williamson and Kevin Nolan were all involved in the build-up, and when Tim Howard attempted to palm our skipper's shot wide, the American 'keeper merely took the sting off it for the predatory Leon Best to nod home. That's six goals for the season now from a player few of us thought would be remotely up to the task at this level.

Not to be deterred, Everton dusted themselves down and before long grabbed an equaliser. Despite the earlier warning signs that he might exploit uncertainties and gaps in our new formation, Arteta was gifted time and space to pick out Leon Osman, who passed the ball firmly past Harper. And five minutes later it got worse, Leighton Baines' devilishly whipped free-kick bisecting Harper and his backpedalling defence for Phil Jagielka to send the ball crashing into the net.

Pardew's experiment looked to have blown up in his face, and when Jose Enrique limped off before the half-time interval - fingers crossed he's not a long-term casualty - the manager chose to revert to our more familiar line-up with a masked Big Lad joining Best up front and Peter Lovenkrands pushed wide.

Everton's strikeforce, meanwhile, consisted of one ex-Toon player, Louis Saha, and one ex-Toon target, Jermaine Beckford - also the player whose heavy challenge in the away fixture saw Harper sidelined for months. Time and again both came close to haunting us, our only salvation being a precious combination of wastefulness, bad luck and good goalkeeping.

Shane Ferguson, a replacement for Taylor on 65 minutes, did enough to suggest that we might possibly be able to cope without Enrique, but Everton continued to threaten on the break even as we began exerting greater pressure on them. Only partially mindful of his responsibilities as captain, Nolan had two efforts on goal blocked but was also booked for a tete-a-tete with substitute Victor Anichebe. The out-of-court settlement over Nolan's February 2009 challenge may have been concluded during the week, but clearly there remains some bad blood between the pair.

Best was unfortunate that a headed equaliser was disallowed, referee Howard Webb ruling generously in favour of the visitors who had claimed a foul on Jagielka. The Republic of Ireland international can also feel hard done by at having to make way for blunderbuss Shefki Kuqi on 85 minutes, when we might have been better served keeping him on with Big Lad and instead swapping the fatigued legs of Lovenkrands or Spidermag for the energy and guile of the fit-again Danny Guthrie. As it was, Everton held out without much trouble.

We remain in ninth despite the defeat - but that's deceptive, as Everton are now level on points with a game in hand and Fulham, after their late win over Blackburn, just a point behind. It would feel like stagnation if it wasn't for the fact that in real terms we've actually gone backwards, the relegation zone having inched closer and the buffer between ourselves and Birmingham in 18th now standing at only six points.

It's imperative we get something from our next two fixtures, away to Stoke and home to Wolves - but at least we have the consolation of knowing that those two games are spaced out over four weeks and that the congestion in the treatment room should start to ease soon as a result.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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