Thursday, August 04, 2005

We wuz Robbed

Newcastle 1 - 2 Deportivo La Coruna

(2 - 4 on aggregate)

So, European football is gone for this season, before the Premiership campaign has even kicked off, taking with it much of our bargaining power for attracting new players. What chance Michael Owen coming to St James's Park now? Less than zero?

And yet victory was firmly in our own hands. After last week's mostly dismal display in the Riazor I'll admit to being sceptical about our chances of overturning the one goal deficit. But we performed admirably on the night, and if it hadn't been for individual errors by Jean-Alain Boumsong and - even more glaringly - Robbie Elliott, then we could have been looking at playing Marseille for a place in the UEFA Cup.

Aware of the importance of getting through, Souness opted to bring in both Parker and Emre for their debuts, N'Zogbia and Birmingham-bound Butt dropping out. From what I could gather we looked to be playing Emre on the left and Bowyer on the right, though the real width was to be supplied by Milner, who flitted from flank to flank.

We started steadily but Deportivo had already taken the upper hand by the time we had our first strike on goal, Jose Molina saving fairly comfortably from Emre after clever play by Shearer. Deportivo had by far the best chance of the opening half hour, though, defender Joan Capdevila somehow contriving to sky the ball from point-blank range following a corner.

Deportivo were looking fluid and menacing in attack without creating too many chances, while for us Faye sensibly acknowledged his own limits by continually laying the ball to Parker and delegating passing responsibility to the new boy. The lack of width was a concern, though - both Emre and Bowyer appearing in central areas too often.

The game of cat and mouse sprang into life when Molina reacted brilliantly to tip Shearer's powerful header around the post, and from the resulting corner Shearer clattered into the 'keeper. Though he'd had his eyes on the ball all the way, the Spanish players were less than amused, and a bout of pushing and shoving ensued, Faye taking what looked like a powderpuff punch in the face from Argentinian midfielder Aldo Duscher (and this after the Senegalese player was blatantly held in the penalty area when awaiting a free-kick).

The raised temperature suited us more than Deportivo, and it wasn't long before we took the lead. Carr fed Faye, who was galloping down the right, and his pull-back was fired towards goal by Bowyer. Milner nipped in ahead of Molina to finish smartly, subsequent replays dispelling any suspicions that he might have been offside.

Had things stayed the same, we would have triumphed on the away goals rule - but we couldn't preserve our clean sheet even until half-time. Boumsong strode forwards to try and clear a Deportivo free-kick, but when he missed the ball it was headed into Jorge Andrade's path and the defender took advantage to lob Given and score against us for the second time in the tie.

Worse was to follow. After a dismal first period display in Spain, it took us barely a minute to get back undeservedly onto level terms. This time, just three minutes of the second half had elapsed when Elliott got his back-pass horribly wrong. Two forwards sniffed blood and, with Given stranded, it was left to Pedro Munitis to slide the ball into an empty net. And to think I regarded Babayaro's absence through injury as a blessing after his recent displays...

The goal left us needing three in reply, and Souness reacted by withdrawing Faye and throwing Ameobi on for his first appearance of the season. The second half settled into a pattern of sustained pressure from us and intermittent threat from Deportivo.

Shearer fired high and handsome on the volley when he should have done better and also had a low free-kick palmed away, Ameobi mishit a shot wide and saw another well saved by Molina, and substitute N'Zogbia also went close. As Souness lamented afterwards, if we'd had a sharper cutting edge we could have pulled it off.

Unluckiest of all, though, was Emre, whose viciously swerving left-footed free-kick struck the crossbar with Molina beaten. In vain perhaps, but it would have been a debut goal to remember.

Over the two games, there was no doubt about who is the better side. Deportivo passed the ball better and looked sharper on it, always with time and options. As disappointing as exiting Europe at this early stage is, there's no shame in defeat. A team that can bring on players of the calibre of Valeron and Luque would prove a difficult obstacle to any side.

The result aside, there are plenty of positives to be drawn from the performance. Not only did we play well for the first time this season, we put a very good team under duress for long periods and created a number of presentable opportunities. Debutants Parker and Emre played the full 90 minutes (the latter's replacement Brittain didn't get the chance to kick a ball). Parker looked neat and effective, but Emre stole the show with some eye-catching dribbling and passing. We've lacked someone who can unlock defences through skill, and he could be the answer.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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