Monday, February 24, 2014

Relief at last

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Aston Villa

A home goal, at last. All it took was more than seven hours of desperate football, clumps of hair pulled out in frustration, a couple of lucky deflections in the 92nd minute and a rare moment of class and composure, courtesy of our top scorer.

While Loic Remy's return ultimately proved to be critical, in truth he looked like the player most likely to end our embarrassing goal drought throughout, repeatedly coming closest to scoring while his colleagues in black and white seemed to scuff or sky every opportunity that came their way.

The suspension-free Frenchman wasn't the only welcome name on the teamsheet - the break since the thrashing by Spurs gave Sideshow Bob and Mr T the necessary time to recover from injury. With Paul Dummett also coming into the side, Saylor and Luuk de Jong dropped to the bench while fellow Spurs starters Little Big Lad and Davide Santon, along with HBA and Sylvain Marveaux, didn't even feature in the squad - it remaining unclear whether injuries are a factor or whether they're all out of favour.

We started brightly enough, Remy firing in a low shot that Brad Guzan saved comfortably before his strike partner in a 4-4-2 formation, Papiss Cisse, had an effort that Villa's American 'keeper spilled and Nathan Baker hacked behind for a corner.

That jitteriness in the visitors' defence should have given us sufficient encouragement to drive on in pursuit of an early lead, but instead it was Villa who began to gain the upper hand. A couple of dangerous crosses flashed across the face of Tim Krul's goal, Andreas Weimann just failing to connect with the second, before Gabriel Agbonlahor had a hat-trick of chances - the first a shot parried by Krul (the loose ball thankfully falling to a defender), the second a long-range blast narrowly over and the third an effort well blocked by Sideshow Bob. The Argentinian was enjoying a good game - just as well, as we were too open and vulnerable to Villa's counter-attacks. The prospect of losing 5-0 (to keep up the sequence) didn't look too fanciful.

As the interval approached, though, Remy came back to the fore, first curling a free-kick wide and then creating by far the best opportunity of the half for Cisse. Running onto a deflected through-ball, Remy coolly picked out the unmarked Senegalese striker ten yards out, but in trademark 2013/4 fashion he lofted the ball way over the bar and behind.

Paul Lambert's post-match declaration that his side deserved something from the game may have had merit on the basis of the first half, but ignored our almost complete dominance of the second, when the only goal under any kind of threat was Villa's. Goofy dragged a shot wide and later blazed a left-foot volley over, while Dummett, popping up on the right wing, ruffled the roof of the net with a curler that wasn't quite delicious enough. Crosses looped into the box from both flanks, but any chances arising were wasted - none more painfully than when Moussa Sissoko hammered the ball high into the stand to relieve the pressure.

Villa defender Leandro Bacuna survived a penalty appeal - he did appear to move his hand towards the ball, even if contact was minimal - but we were as grateful to Iron Mike as Bacuna was to referee Martin Atkinson when he capped a commanding display with a superb interception to halt a counter-attack in which our retreating defenders were outnumbered. That set up a counter-counter-attack which resulted in Guzan diving to parry Remy's shot behind for a corner - a reminder that, for all our pressure, their 'keeper hadn't exactly had the most taxing of afternoons.

An indication that it really wasn't to be our day seemed to arrive two minutes from time. De Jong, on for Cisse, robbed the dawdling Vlaar on the goal-line and pulled the ball back to Remy. His shot should have nestled in the bottom corner, but instead pinged back off the post and away.

Thankfully, though, he was able to make amends four minutes later. Mathieu Debuchy's attempted shot or cross was deflected to de Jong, whose attempted shot was deflected to Remy, who wrong-footed Vlaar and thumped a shot past Guzan. The relief was akin to that felt when Cisse got a similarly late winner against Fulham last April, though on this occasion the goalscorer decided to remove his shirt and stand on the hoardings saluting the supporters rather than launching himself into their midst. The Silver Fox too refrained from repeating that day's impromptu and overenthusiastic meet-and-greet session, instead preferring to pump his fist Saylor-style in the directors' direction.

The circumstances were somewhat different - we don't find ourselves in relegation trouble this season, and indeed the victory hauled us back up to eighth, above Southampton and onto the magical 40-point mark - but the goal and win were nevertheless absolutely vital. Our chronic scoring problems probably haven't disappeared overnight, and neither has the gaping hole left by the departure of Dreamboat been plugged - but the clean sheet and ultimate victory (admittedly achieved largely through bloodyminded persistence rather than quality) do at least give us some hope of going to Hull on Saturday and getting a result.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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