Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Red mist

Liverpool 2 – 0 Newcastle

Christmas. Peace on earth. Goodwill to all men. A time for joy, merriment and celebration.

Unless you’re a Toon fan, that is.

Almost as much a part of tradition as roast turkey with all the trimmings, chestnuts roaring on an open fire, the giving and receiving of awful knitwear and the sharp rise in the number of arrests for drink driving are our festive horrorshows.

Granted, Monday’s 2-0 defeat at Anfield hardly ranks alongside the 4-0 humbling by Southend on New Year's Day 1992, but it was very poor indeed – and bafflingly so, given the recent upturn in performances. Once again, we were involved in a game which featured controversial and incorrect decisions from the man in black, though for a change not all of these went against us.

Souness made no fewer than five changes to the side that won at West Ham, only one of which was enforced, Parker missing out through an untimely suspension. Ameobi made way for Luque, Elliott for Babayaro and Taylor for Bramble. Most surprising was the fact that Bowyer’s appearance on the teamsheet was in place of Solano rather than Parker, for whom a fit-again N’Zogbia deputised. A curious decision, and that’s being charitable.

It backfired from the very first whistle. With Steven Gerrard imperious and Xavi Alonso quietly effective alongside him while Faye reverted to form, Liverpool quickly seized the initiative. Given had already made a quite incredible point-blank save from Harry Kewell when Gerrard steamed into the box unopposed and planted a firm rising shot well beyond the Irishman’s reach.

Both the Kewell chance and the Gerrard goal had been set up by the much-maligned Peter Crouch. Thanks no doubt to The Journal’s mocking references to his talents, of the same order as those that spurred Paul Scholes into hammering a hat-trick against us in the 6-2 humiliation of April 2003, Crouch turned in a match-winning performance.

He duly got on the scoresheet just before half-time, planting a firm header onto the post with Boumsong et al AWOL. Given did his best to keep it out, but Mark Halsey ruled correctly that the ball had squirmed centimetres over the line. To credit it to Given is harsh.

By this point, Given had pulled off another tremendous save, this time from a Gerrard free-kick, and our already parlous defensive situation had been dealt a further blow when Taylor left the field with a recurrence of his dislocated shoulder – another case of a player being rushed back from injury too soon. Bramble’s arrival was greeted with expectant cheers by the home fans, but in truth he did little wrong.

At half-time Souness belatedly accepted his mistake and brought Solano on for N’Zogbia (incidentally, the only player to have a shot on target for us in the first period, and that was from 30 yards), Bowyer switching into the middle.

Little changed, though, and the Scousers’ dominance should have been underlined when Morientes headed goalwards only for Solano to flap his left arm in an impromptu chicken impression to deflect the ball off the line. We can’t continue to feel sore about not getting a penalty against Everton and yet maintain Solano’s innocence here. It should have been a spot-kick.

The midfield switch had been intended to make us more combative, but, true to form, that too backfired when Bowyer slid in late on Alonso and saw red for the fourth time in a year.

Now, make a note of this, as it’s quite possibly the last time I’ll find myself defending the vicious little thug, but it was a yellow card at most, Halsey only producing the red because of the disproportionately furious response of the Liverpool players. Crouch received only a booking for shoving Bowyer over when he could have been dismissed for raising his hands, while Gerrard’s manhandling of Shearer also merited at least a caution.

Any Toon fan thinking (as I did briefly) that the sending-off had removed any possibility of us staging a miraculous recovery was deluding themselves – we had never been in the game, had shown no signs of fighting back and deserved nothing.

The game was over as a contest, though whether it could ever have been described as such is debatable, and we were well beaten by a superior side notching up their eighth successive league victory and another clean sheet to boot. No shame in the scoreline, perhaps, but there was plenty in the performance.

You may have noticed that one name has been conspicuous by its absence throughout this report, that of Michael Owen. That’s because he was conspicuous by his absence. To be fair, he didn’t have a sniff. The script may have been written for him to return to Anfield and do the damage, but for him to perform it he at least needed to be fed the cues.

Charlton are the visitors to St James’s Park tonight, and though they might not be the sitting ducks of a week ago following a spirited if ultimately futile display against Arsenal, they still represent a great opportunity to put the disappointment of Monday firmly in the past. It’ll need vast improvements all over the pitch, mind, as well as in the manager’s tactics.

A Liverpool fan’s perspective: A Matter Of Life And Death

Other reports:, BBC


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