Monday, April 25, 2005

Pride but no points

After a horrific couple of weeks, the green shoots of recovery.

Yesterday afternoon's encounter with Man Utd might have ended in defeat, our fifth in a row, but the margin was much narrower than in last Sunday's FA Cup semi-final trouncing at the Millenium Stadium. The 2-1 scoreline flattered the opposition and shouldn't be allowed to detract from the fact that the players gave a robust and spirited display, one of which we could be justifiably proud for the first time in quite a while.

Of course, on paper it looked like lambs to the slaughter. Ferguson opted to rest Ronaldo, van Nistelrooy missed out through injury and both Scholes and Gary Neville were suspended, but the Man Utd teamsheet still looked formidable, even more so when set alongside our rag-tag side.

Deprived of countless players through injury and suspension, Souness opted to change formation to 4-5-1, giving several fringe players an opportunity to impress and pushing other more seasoned campaigners into unfamiliar areas. Ramage made his Premiership debut at right back, with a headbandaged Elliott on the other flank. Carr was pushed into a holding role in midfield, giving N'Zogbia and Ambrose license to venture forwards. Shearer spearheaded the attack, and Ameobi and Milner occupied the wide midfield positions.

Given his current form, it was a blessing in disguise that Butt injured himself in training on Friday, and it was also interesting that after recent showings neither Robert nor Kluivert made the starting line-up despite the number of faces missing.

At first, it looked as though our fears of a massacre would be fully realised. Giggs, back from injury, attacked with pace and incision, but Ramage, to his credit, gradually got to grips with the Welshman, as the whole team did with the game. Man Utd were huffing and puffing to no effect, and it was Ambrose who went closest in the opening stages, blasting a shot just wide of Tim Howard's goal.

Howard, as is so often the case, looked the weakest link in a strong Man Utd line-up, and Shearer was unlucky to see his header cleared away from the open goal by Rio Ferdinand when he'd leapt to beat the 'keeper to a high ball. In truth we could have possibly been awarded a penalty for Howard's clumsy challenge on the skipper.

We didn't have to wait long for the goal our play merited, though - and again it was Howard who helped us out. His scuffed clearance was seized upon by Ambrose, who took it off Ameobi's toes, burst into the box past two defenders and slid the ball neatly past the advancing 'keeper.

Ambrose went close again not long afterwards, and at the other end Man Utd had a penalty appeal turned down. Ignore Fergie's paranoid moaning about "sinister" refereeing plots - it wasn't given because it wasn't a penalty, Alan Smith having hold of at least as much of Andy O'Brien's shirt as the Newcastle defender did of his. By half-time, Man Utd had suffered the added blow of losing left back Gabriel Heinze, though the appearance from the bench of Ronaldo, our FA Cup tormentor-in-chief, brought a smile to no-one's face.

After the break the anticipated pressure from the home side surprisingly failed to materialise, and we continued to look comfortable - until, that is, Rooney crashed home the sort of swerving, dipping volley that takes the breath away. If I wanted to be hypercritical, I could point to the fact that Ramage's clearing header wasn't the best, but there's no denying the unstoppable nature of the shot.

From then on it was pretty much backs-to-the-wall stuff, with the lively Ambrose and N'Zogbia understandably fading as the game wore on. At 1-1, Milner had an excellent chance to reclaim the lead for his side after some uncharacteristic sloppiness from Roy Keane. Not for the first time this season, his shot sailed just over the bar, though - for a forward, his shooting is nowhere near accurate enough.

The winning goal, when it came, was a soft one. A sustained bout of pressure lead to a succession of corners, and from one Wes Brown profited from Ameobi's lack of concentration. N'Zogbia couldn't leap quite high enough to head the ball off the line, and Newcastle hearts sank.

Even then, though, in the absence of Shearer (withdrawn for the ineffective Kluivert before Brown's goal) we had a decent opportunity to level it through Ameobi, but his cross-shot skidded wide without receiving the glancing touch it needed.

A sterling effort from a makeshift side, then - one that should have been rewarded with a point. THAT's injustice, Fergie.

Other reports: Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian


Post a Comment

<< Home