Monday, October 28, 2013

Curse strikes Po-yet again

Sunderland 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

We were left cursing That Bloody Man again, as for the umpteenth time we stumbled and fell heavily into the scriptwriter's trap - namely providing the obliging opposition as the Mackems claimed their first win of a comically awful season. It just had to be us, didn't it?

While the performance, though flat, wasn't embarrassing, the result certainly was - the Great Unwashed had lost all four of their previous matches at the Stadium of Shite. A bit more desire, conviction and intelligence and we would surely have made it five home defeats in a row. As it was, we were left to rue what might have been, Mackem taunts ringing in our ears.

The Silver Fox was forced into making one change to the side that took to the field against Liverpool, with MYM suspended. Hopes of a return from injury for Saylor weren't realised, which meant a first Premier League start for Toon-born Paul Dummett, partnering Mike Williamson in a makeshift central defence. Gus Poyet's team selection seemed to involve banishing as many summer signings to the bench as possible - Jozy Altidore and Andrea Dossena were the only recent recruits to make it into the starting XI.

And sure enough, five minutes in, it was experienced campaigners Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher who combined for the opening goal - and Dummett who was partially responsible. A short corner caught us napping (perhaps we need to acknowledge that, though we don't ever score from corners, other teams do...), and Geordie Johnson was allowed to float a cross to the back post, where Fletcher leant on and overpowered his marker Dummett to nod the Mackems into the lead.

It could have got worse shortly afterwards, when Fletcher's left-footed volley was parried by Tim Krul, Dummett dawdled and Altidore nipped in but could only run the ball behind for a goal kick. Such was the Mackems' control of the centre of the park that the Silver Fox decided to switch our system from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, to match them directly. That helped us to gradually gain the upper hand, but even then we were restricted to wayward free kicks from Dreamboat and HBA, the fluent and pacy attacking that characterised the impressive wins at Villa and Cardiff nowhere to be seen.

The Silver Fox's response to the half-time deficit was to throw on Papiss Cisse for Moussa Sissoko (whose one moment of note had come when he was just beaten to a header by 'keeper Keiren Westwood), but the Senegal striker's worrying Premier League goal drought continued as he, like Loic Remy and Goofy, were peripheral figures in the second period.

We did at least start to really boss the midfield, though, with skipper Mr T to the fore, and the equaliser, when it came, was deserved. HBA took aim speculatively (not for the first time in the afternoon) and his cross-shot turned into a perfect pass for Mathieu Debuchy, dashing past the dozing Johnson, to fire home at the far post. It was the French full-back's first goal for the club, and made him another in the list of Toon defenders to have found themselves improbable scorers in this fixture over the years, alongside Andy O'Brien and Nikos Dabizas.

At this point, up against a tiring team who were both defensively and psychologically brittle, the game was clearly there for the taking. In fairness, we did push for a winner, with Dreamboat, Davide Santon and substitute Big Lad (trying in vain to reprise his Mackem Slayer antics) all firing narrowly wide of Westwood's goal. Critically, though, we didn't actually test the 'keeper or create anything at close range, and indeed the best opportunity fell to Fletcher's replacement Fabio Borini, whose shot squirmed through Krul only for the Dutchman to fall on it on the line.

The Italian wasn't to be denied for long, however. A free kick was awarded after referee Lee Probert had overruled his assistant (who had signalled for a throw-in to us), a short pass eluded Dreamboat's attempt to cut it out, the industrious Altidore left the ball to Borini as the two strikers switched and the substitute lashed an unstoppable shot into the top corner. His only other Premier League goal also came at our expense, during last season's 6-0 drubbing by Liverpool - a new nemesis to file alongside his manager, perhaps?

In the five minutes of normal time and four minutes of stoppage time that remained, we resorted to lobbing the ball forwards aimlessly and artlessly, and came closest to a second equaliser when John O'Shea's header had Westwood scrambling back to prevent an own goal. Otherwise there was only a dribbled shot from Dreamboat that indicated it wasn't to be our day.

At the final whistle the Great Unwashed celebrated in the manner you might expect of a club that has now recorded back-to-back derby wins for first time since 1967. How galling to think that we've quadrupled their previous points tally and given them the psychological fillip of leapfrogging managerless Crystal Palace at the bottom of the table.

As for us, the inquest should have already begun into where exactly the requisite passion, drive and determination were. The players simply didn't look as though they appreciated it was a derby. It's a good thing that revenge is a dish best served cold - it'll be positively icy by the time the Mackems visit St James Park...

The weekend's results have only seen us drop one place, to 11th, but that's a very false comfort - just three points separate us from Norwich, currently occupying the final relegation spot, with the considerable challenge of a visit from Chelsea next in line in the league. Hardly ideal.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian (warning: report by TBW, complete with the following supremely ridiculous suggestion: "Maybe one day a parallel with Arsenal's past will be identified, with Di Canio regarded as Bruce Rioch to Poyet's Arsène Wenger")

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