Friday, April 15, 2005


Crashing out of Europe last night, we were completely blown away by an excellent performance by Sporting Lisbon. Carrying a one goal advantage into the game, things looked to be going smoothly when Kieron Dyer got through behind the defence, and nutmegged keeper Ricardo to rule out the possibility of extra time and leave Sporting needing to score three.

Having chosen to leave Laurent Robert out of the squad altogether following his ill-advised comments in yesterday's press, Souness instead had Charles N'Zogbia deputising on the left. Unfortunately, there were times when N'Zogbia’s lack of experience was painfully exposed and it must have been galling for Souness that through Robert's own selfishness we were deprived of a possible match winner.

Nonetheless, we were ahead, and our young team were doing a decent job of protecting our lead. Unfortunately Sporting were able to pull a goal back just before half time, with a powerful header from a corner by Niculae to leave the tie finely balanced at the break, but with the home side now buoyed by their goal.

Souness was forced to make a change at half time, bringing off the injured Jenas for James Milner, and fifteen minutes later it was Bramble who left the field after a decent comeback from his hernia operation (whether he's fit enough to play on Sunday is open to question). Unfortunately, we then lost the excellent Dyer to what looked like a reoccurrence of his hamstring injury, and from then on the game shifted dramatically in Sporting's favour.

With Dyer's pace removed from the attack, and replaced with a chubby looking Patrick Kluivert, we were unlikely to worry too many defenders, and Sporting were able to push further up the field, confident that we no longer had the pace to get behind them.

Similarly, with O'Brien and Taylor looking less comfortable than Taylor and Bramble, and with the added pressure now being exerted by Sporting it was perhaps inevitable that they would force a second goal, and Sa Pinta picked up the pieces after Given had made a good save from Barbosa to bring things level on aggregate.

However, with our away goal we were still in a position to progress when Beto scored to give Sporting the lead.

With Newcastle now forced to chase the game, Stephen Carr was unlucky to be caught trying to get the ball forward in the last few minutes, and from his error Rochemback was able run in on goal and put us firmly out of the competition.

The story of the night can be boiled down to our own inability to make things safe, with Bowyer, Dyer, Shearer and Kluivert all contriving to mess up goalscoring opportunities. Unfortunately for us, through a combination of injuries forcing Souness's hand in terms of substitutions, forced N'Zogbia to play on with a suspected broken collarbone, and Robert contriving to get himself dropped, we had nothing in the locker to turn the game around. With Dyer gone, it was perhaps inevitable that Sporting would really turn the screw, and when they did we were found wanting.

We can only hope that Souness can pick the side up for Sunday, otherwise our season looks like being finished in the space of four days.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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