Friday, March 11, 2005

Olympiak game's over?

A night of high drama in Athens, but thankfully it didn't turn out to be a Greek tragedy for Newcastle.

(Note to readers: my apologies. Note to self: it's never too late to become a sub-editor for the Sun.)

Most of the vital action came in an incident-packed first half that began worryingly, with Hughes - still filling in at left back in Babayaro's absence - coming under severe pressure and Given forced to punch or catch several dangerous crosses.

The game took its first crucial twist in the 11th minute when Dyer raced onto a Faye through-ball. His attempted shot ballooned up off the prostrate Greek international 'keeper Antonios Nikopolidis, and as Dyer jumped to head the ball into the unguarded net from close range he was knocked off balance by Grigoris Georgatos. In his defence the Olympiakos player had his eyes on the ball at all times, but was nowhere near making the header, even up against a shortarse like Dyer. The referee adjudged it a foul, and as it was a clear goalscoring opportunity Georgatos had to go. Shearer stepped up to blast the penalty home.

Just three minutes later, though, O'Brien was penalised and yellow-carded for what looked like an innocuous challenge on Ieroklis Stoltidis, who certainly went down in the theatrical fashion befitting a dramatic first period. Olympiakos skipper Predrag Djordjevic followed his opposite number's lead and made no mistake from the spot.

Even with the opposition reduced to ten men, we could have found ourselves in trouble, with the home fans - starved of action by a punishment that has seen their club play league games behind closed doors - roaring the team on. Souness's decision to leave the unfortunate Bowyer out in favour of Butt, a more defensive midfielder to partner Faye, was vindicated, though, as we regained control of the match, the unmarked Shearer unlucky to see a powerful header from a Robert corner headed off the line.

With 34 minutes on the clock, it was time for another Robert free-kick masterclass. Marginally less spectacular than Saturday's winner against Liverpool it may have been, but the Frenchman's 25 yard curler was equally sweet, leaving Nikopolidis on his knees in despair.

There was still enough time left in the first period for yet more incident, as Athanasios Kostoulas was shown a second yellow card for scything down Butt, who had accidentally manufactured the situation with some poor close control.

At half-time, 2-1 and two men up against a side that had disposed of their last four visitors in European competition by a 1-0 scoreline, there was a danger we could have thought the job was done. But with that passionate crowd behind Olympiakos baying for blood, and with Carr and O'Brien both teetering perilously on yellow cards in a game officiated by a card-happy referee, anything was still possible.

Mercifully from a Newcastle point of view, the second half was much less exciting. Apart from a brief spell when we mystifyingly allowed their nine men to grab the initiative, we were always in control.

I questioned Souness's judgement in removing Robert and the lively Dyer on the hour when we desperately needed to make our advantage count and get more goals, but, though JJ ran about like a headless chicken, the other substitute Milner skilfully worked his way to the by-line midway through the half to set up Kluivert for an easy third. The Dutchman had strolled around the pitch all game, his lack of effort only surpassed by that of his former Barcelona teammate Rivaldo for Olympiakos, but it was a very significant goal.

Whilst Bramble and O'Brien remained resolute at the back, the frustration was that we didn't get the goals which were clearly there for the taking and which would have sent out a louder message to potential opponents in the future. Aside from the third goal, the best moment we had in the second half was a Shearer free-kick driven just wide.

Though next Wednesday's home leg is not quite a formality and minds shouldn't start focusing on the next round just yet, we would certainly outdo ourselves if we were to chuck it away now.

Other reports: Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian


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