Sunday, January 05, 2014

Super sub's subs sink sub-par Toon

Newcastle Utd 1 - 2 Cardiff City

The Baby-Faced Assassin returned to English football and immediately claimed another victim - though this was less carefully premeditated murder and more opportunistic hit-and-run. Not for the first time, we were willing to play to perfection our part in the media's dream plot (synopsis: former super sub sends on two super subs to overturn deficit and seal unlikely victory).

The triumphs for the unfashionable duo of Wigan and Swansea in last year's domestic cup competitions should have been incentive enough for a club that claimed a major trophy since 1969. In the League Cup, we we had the misfortune to come up against Man City, but fate was certainly kinder in the draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Cardiff might be Premier League opposition, but they came to St James' without a win on our patch since six years before that Fairs Cup victory, as the joint lowest scorers on the road in the division, and with more reason to want to concentrate on the league, nervously sitting 17th in the table.

Suspension (Mathieu Debuchy) and injuries both long-term (Sideshow Bob) and hopefully minor (Dreamboat, Tim Krul) forced the Silver Fox's hand as regards team selection, but he also opted to rest Loic Remy, Big Lad and Iron Mike from the line-up that lost at the Hawthorns on New Year's Day, the trio all taking their places on the bench. In came Rob Elliot, MYM, Saylor, Mini V, HBA, Papiss Cisse and Massadio Haidara, the latter's inclusion meaning that Davide Santon switched to right-back.

There was an early warning that the Redbirds would be no pushovers when Mark Hudson headed home, the goal disallowed for his shove in the build-up, but the first period was generally very drab. Only HBA did much to quicken the pulse, striking the base of David Marshall's post with a left-footed shot from just outside the area.

Against Stoke on Boxing Day, HBA hit the bar having already hit the upright and sure enough he was again doubly unfortunate early in the second half. The rumours of discontent are troubling because, while undoubtedly mercurial and not ideal for selection in all fixtures, he gives us an added dimension that we lack even when our next most creative player, Dreamboat, is available.

We took the lead on 62 minutes when Goofy's long ball controlled by Moussa Sissoko and his blocked shot was bundled home by Cisse, for once in the right place at the right time. That should have been our cue to push harder against a vulnerable and low-on-confidence side, or at least exert control, but instead the Silver Fox decided to replace the hard-working Goofy with the feckless Obertan Kenobi, apparently feeling we could hold out by effectively being down to ten men.

In the opposite dugout, Solskjaer used his substitutions rather more judiciously. First substitute Fraizer Campbell came on shortly before Cisse's goal but rattled Elliot's post as the Redbirds fought back. With eighteen minutes remaining, Solskjaer threw on winger Craig Noone, who equalised within a minute of entering the action with a left-footer from long distance. And with ten to play, Campbell - an ex-Mackem, just to rub salt into the wound - headed home from a corner.

The Silver Fox belatedly turned to Remy and Big Lad, with Cisse and Sissoko making way, but it was to no avail and once again we crashed out of the FA Cup to opponents who - on paper, at least - are inferior.

While the Silver Fox will rightly come under scrutiny for the nature and timing of his substitutions, I don't think his initial team selection can be quibbled with. Frankly - and as he himself said post-match - the side we put out should have been good enough to win. No, this was a frustratingly familiar case of squad players failing to take the opportunity handed to them. If there's a positive to come out of another dismal cup result, it's that it might possibly nudge Jabba into parting with some cash this month.

After high-scoring victories at Palace and at home to Stoke, we've now suffered three successive defeats, with Man City the visitors next weekend. Post-festive-season gloom indeed. The only magic of the cup we still believe in is the power of copious quantities of alcohol to help us to forget...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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