Friday, March 15, 2013

The late even later show

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Anzhi Makhachkala

So Papiss Cisse seems to be making a very pleasant habit of scoring last-gasp winners in home games. The decisive strike against Stoke on Sunday may have come in the 90th minute, but last night he left it even later. A tense, finely balanced match was drifting into stoppage time at the end of stoppage time when he headed home the only goal of the game and indeed the tie to squeeze us through into the quarter-finals of the Europa League.

Goofy and Mathieu Debuchy resumed their watching brief, while the Silver Fox also chose to drop Spidermag to the bench. That meant starts for Vurnon Anita, Sylvain Marveaux and Massadio Haidara, the latter's inclusion resulting in Davide Santon switching flanks to the right.

Our Russian visitors began the match on the front foot, as though determined to give a much better account of themselves than they did on "home" turf a week earlier. Just three minutes had elapsed when captain Samuel Eto'o had his first clear sight of goal, dragging his shot across the face and behind. The supposed defensive shield in midfield of Anita and Mr T wasn't working, both players repeatedly bypassed or skinned by quick running and slick, incisive interchanges of passing from the men in yellow.

As a consequence, our back line was regularly put under pressure, but thankfully MYM was composure personified, making mopping up look easy, while Saylor was in the mood to launch himself into heroic blocks at every opportunity. Given his exclusion from the latest England squad, you wonder whether anyone will post a video of the game to Roy Hodgson - hopefully not, as we all know what usually tends to happen when Newcastle Utd players appear on international duty for England...

Our chances of success appeared to rest on Dreamboat's shoulders, who set about pulling the strings and pinging passes from a deep-lying midfield role, and who also had only only attempt on target in the first half, a shot which took a slight deflection but was very well saved at full stretch by Vladimir Gabulov. So it was a significant blow when he hobbled off with what looked like a recurrence of his groin problem. Spidermag was his replacement and suddenly we looked creatively bereft, our only other real efforts at goal coming from Marveaux (a fierce shot wide of the near post following some tricky footwork) and Saylor (a header that flew high and wide).

Not only that, but Dreamboat's departure also seemed to unsettle the defence, the previously assured MYM uncharacteristically passing the ball straight to an opposing forward and gifting them a good chance in much the same way that a dawdling Mr T had done earlier. While it was goalless at the interval, there was the feeling that Anzhi had been afforded too many sniffs of goal, and the suspicion that we'd been fortunate not to get punished.

In the dressing room the Silver Fox will have impressed upon the players the need to up their game, and up it they did. Inside the first ten minutes of the second period Moussa Sissoko had two chances to grab the lead but demonstrated that, despite his height, heading isn't exactly his forte, but the best opportunity fell to Saylor, who shot straight at the 'keeper from six yards out, albeit under pressure.

So we were already in the ascendancy when Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez received a second yellow card (which should arguably have been a straight red) for a foul on Haidara. That should have been our cue to push on for victory, but the chances actually dried up somewhat, the closest we came being a left-footed drive from Mr T which whizzed just over the angle. It should also be acknowledged that Anita was lucky not to follow the Moroccan down the tunnel, only picking up a yellow for an almost identical nasty over-the-ball ankle-snapper.

With Big Lad named on the bench but still struggling for fitness, the Silver Fox withdrew Anita and turned to the diminutive Adam Campbell to provide added attacking threat, but it was Rob Elliot who was the busier 'keeper. First he had to repel Eto'o's drive from a seemingly impossible angle, and then he could only flap at thin air when, in the 88th minute, Mbark Boussoufa's free-kick rebounded off the bar. The ball brushed his arm on the way back down, but mercifully the touch took it away from goal rather than over the line.

With extra time looming, the stage was set for Cisse to go to work. Both frustrated and frustrating for most of the evening, the Senegalese came alive when Marveaux whipped one last cross into the box, directing a header past the helpless Gabulov and celebrating by committing an act of violence on the hoardings reminiscent of a certain bald Georgian loon. Given that Temuri Ketsbaia's winner, in a mundane league game against Crystal Palace, has entered Toon folklore, then you'd imagine that Cisse's certainly will too - especially if we continue our unlikely progression in this competition.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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