Monday, August 21, 2006

Shola shines in the rain

Newcastle Utd 2 - 1 Wigan Athletic

There's something deeply magical about 2.59 pm on the first Saturday of the football season. Before you stretch 38 league games, during which time your team might storm the league, capitulate horribly, or more likely something in between. However, the fact is, until they start playing you just don't know. Which is why I was sat excitedly in my new seat at St James' Park on Saturday, drenched by the downpour that had preceded the game, but still excited about the impending season.

Two hours later, and I was still happy, thanks to goals by Scott Parker and Shola Ameobi (although our customary bout of shaky defending has lift me with doubts about the likelihood of us winning the remaining 37 league games we have to play).

Despite the rain, Newcastle started brightly, with Nicky Butt looking solid at the base of our five man midfield, Duff looking lively down the left, and Craig Moore looking solid at the back. Unfortunately, with the pitch turning more and more into a cloggy bog, our bright start soon lost its lustre. Nicky Butt slid into a challenge, and looked to have taken a knock to the head. He disappeared down the tunnel (presumably for stitches) but when he returned he looked groggy and off the pace. Roeder took the only sensible option, and withdrew him, bringing N'Zogbia on to the left, and pushing Duff up front as we switched to 4-4-2.

The half itself threatened to liven up at times, and with the weather appearing to brighten up Parker hit a 25 yard belter, which new England cap Chris Kirkland did well to get a hand to. Our play continued to look lively, and a long ball out of defence found Ameobi, who brought the ball down brilliantly on his chest before turning Fitz Hall and delivering a cross for Scott Parker to run on to and head into the Leazes net. (I must admit that hearing the tannoy announce the goalscorer as "number 17 and captain Scott Parker" was a bit strange.)

Back came Wigan, and Camara struck a header against the foot of the post, as the heavens opened and the players (and fans in the front few rows) were drenched, and the match squelched its way to half time, and a chance to put on some dry kit.

The second half saw us bring Taylor on to replace the commanding Moore, who was apparently suffering from a knock to his knee. Immediately, we looked a bit less sturdy in defence, with Moore's capacity to marshal the defence missed, as Wigan began to press forward. Thankfully, from one period of pressure, Nobby was able to clear the ball from the goal line at a corner, but with the rain having now ceased it was clear that Wigan were the team in the ascendancy. Sure enough, one long ball forward saw Taylor leave the ball for Carr, whose header went straight up in the air, before falling to McCulloch (occupying the position Carr should have been in, had he left the ball for Taylor), and the Wigan player was able to curl his shot past Given and give Wigan an equaliser.

Having lost our lead, we continued to look hurried and under pressure, with the ball being needlessly given away. Then a ball out of defence from Carr was beautifully flicked through his legs by Duff, and into the path of the onrushing N'Zogbia. The Frenchman drove forward, before hammering a twenty yard shot on target, Kirkland parried the shot, but could do nothing about Ameobi's follow up, which Shola expertly knocked into the far corner, and restore our lead.

From there, the game took a turn for the worst, as first Ameobi (who had previously collided with Kirkland) and then Babayaro succumbed to injury. The first was replaced by Luque, while the latter was forced to remain on the pitch with all of our substitutes used. What was heartening to see was the way the team reorganised themselves, with N'Zogbia dropping in at left back, and Babayaro pushed into midfield. However, with only ten effective men on the pitch (and Emre also looking a bit sluggish having taken a knock) it was inevitable that we would come under pressure as the game reached its climax. Thankfully we were able to stand firm, although Wigan had one possible shout for a penalty turned down, as the ball struck Bramble's arm. We even looked lively enough on the break for Luque to score a goal, albeit one ruled out for offside. It was heartening though to see how well the Spaniard finished it though, when there were times last season when he'd probably have scuffed it wide.

The upshot of the game is that we're off the mark with a win, and Shola looks to have carried his excellent form from last season through to this (although the knock which he took only highlights our need to sign striker cover sooner rather than later). Duff remains a promising acquisition to the squad, and our midfield as a whole has plenty of talent.

Although Parker later praised the defence, to my mind we still looked shaky after Moore went off, and it is to be hoped that he can recover from his knock in time for Thursday's UEFA Cup game.

Highlights: Toongoals

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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