Friday, November 26, 2004

Let's dance in the east of France

Given the near constant diet of shit we have to put up with, every now and again it's nice to be reminded why the hell we support Newcastle. On these occasions, which take place perhaps two or three times a season, you genuinely feel yourself swelling with pride.

Last night's 4-0 UEFA Cup thumping of Sochaux was just such an occasion.

Let's boil it down to the facts.

Despite lacking any star players of international renown, Sochaux were the form team in France, unbeaten in 11 matches and victors away to last season's Champions League runners-up Monaco as recently as Friday night.

Not only had we never won in France, but Souness decided to rest several key players ahead of Sunday's crucial Premiership clash with Everton. That meant Jenas, Dyer, Robert and Kluivert on the bench, and with Shearer, O'Brien and Carr injured and Johnsen ineligible, starting places were granted to Elliott, Ambrose, Milner and Ameobi.

And yet we won - comfortably, in the end - thanks to a tremendous team performance.

A four goal margin of victory looked very unlikely in the first half, though. The pattern was set early on, our players tackling robustly but generally fairly only to fall victim time and again to a fussy referee. Given had already pulled off one excellent stop and Bellamy squandered a good chance when Bowyer burst into the box after good work from Ameobi and swept the ball into the net for his first of the season.

Though Milner should have added a second from point blank range shortly afterwards (the move having been set up by a superb Given ball for Bellamy), Sochaux always looked very dangerous and Given was called into action on several other occasions. Our problem was an inability to retain possession, which meant that we kept presenting the ball to the industrious Sochaux midfielders and inviting them to apply more pressure to our defence. To be fair to Bramble and company, they were holding out manfully but it was doubtful whether it could have lasted, had Souness not sorted things out in the half-time interval.

Thankfully, in the second period we were much better in possession. Within a minute of the restart, lackadaisical French defending allowed an unmarked Bernard to cross for an unmarked Ameobi to prod in at the back post. I sat waiting for the ref to blow up, thinking there must have been something amiss, but no, we had a priceless two goal cushion.

The game's pivotal moment came shortly after the hour mark, when Bernard was adjudged to have indulged in a spot of shirt-pulling. Left back Jeremy Mathieu sent Given the wrong way from the spot, but his scuffed penalty dribbled feebly wide of the post.

From then on, we were totally dominant, attacking with abandon down the flanks and threatening a dispirited Sochaux outfit with humiliation. Dyer, on for the yellow-carded Bowyer, threaded a fabulous ball through for the onrushing Aaron Hughes, who squared it for a suspiciously offside-looking Bellamy to stroke home the third, and in the last minute substitute Robert curled a wonderful free-kick into the top corner, as sweet a goal as I'll ever savour. Even then there was still time for Ameobi and Robert to waste excellent chances to rub further salt into the wounds.

So, tremendous stuff, not only in an attacking sense but also defensively - Bramble in particular put in a top quality shift at the heart of the back four. Of course the worry is that the next blunder is just round the corner, but if he can carry on in this vein he'll make a mockery of the talk of offloading him in January.

It would be typical Newcastle, though, to follow this up with a desperately poor showing against Everton. We need to take this momentum and spirit into Sunday's game because, make no mistake, we're going to have to be at the top of our game to beat the Toffees.

Other reports:
Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian.


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