Friday, October 20, 2006

Zut alors!*

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Fenerbahce

Would you believe it? Just when we were beginning to give up all hope of ever seeing another consistently good Toon performance for the full 90 minutes, we got one - and with it a richly deserved win which has got our bid to qualify from the UEFA Cup's group of death off to a great start.

Frankly, given our woeful displays of late and the quality of the opposition, it came as a very pleasant surprise - as did the starring performances from three of our most maligned players.

Alarm bells were ringing before the game, Glenn Roeder having opted to drop Titus Bramble and Craig Moore to the bench in favour of a Steven Taylor / Peter Ramage central defensive partnership so green you could see the grass growing on them. Even more alarming was the decision to play Damien Duff at left back, with Charles N'Zogbia coming into his normal position on the left side of midfield. Also winning recalls were James Milner and Antoine Sibierski, in place of Nobby Solano and Shola Ameobi. The latter may still be suffering from his hip problem, but to rest him along with Solano and Moore in particular looked potentially foolish - especially against a side boasting perennial thorn in our side Mateja Kezman, Ghana's dynamic skipper Stephen Appiah and a clutch of Brazilians.

We got off to a good start, though, pushing the Turkish side back and putting them under some early pressure. In many ways, though, that played into Fenerbahce's hands, and they served warning of their counterattacking prowess early on too.

Nearly half an hour had elapsed before we had our first decent effort, N'Zogbia hitting the side netting. Obafemi Martins sent a low drive whistling past the post from distance soon after, and Stephen Carr, getting a lot of joy on the right, swung in a deep cross which N'Zogbia headed onto the arm of Fenerbahce defender Onder Turaci - the award of a spot-kick would have been very harsh.

Our Nigerian striker was then very unlucky to see the ball nicked off his toes inside the six yard box after the persistent Milner outwitted his marker. The best chance of the half, though, fell to Taylor, who ran onto Emre's perfectly flighted (for once...) corner and bulleted a header just over the bar when he should have hit the target.

Aside from a couple of nervy moments from Taylor, our youthful central defence had done very well, though the threat from those in yellow and black was ever present, and early in the second period it was they who had us on the back foot. Appiah, who always looks like he has time on the ball, had wrested control of the midfield from a slightly subdued Scott Parker, with Tuncay Sanli and Alex providing the cut and thrust. Kezman had a couple of moments of joy against Taylor but the Turks never created any real opportunities.

We survived that gearchange (though Emre was a casualty, replaced by Nicky Butt against the team he loathed as a youngster) and went back on the offensive ourselves. From N'Zogbia's excellent curling right-foot cross, Martins planted a header firmly goalwards which Turkish international 'keeper Rustu Recber did well to get down to. More good football shortly afterwards saw Martins cut inside but hit his shot straight at Rustu. There was no shortage of effort from Martins, but once again several aspects of his game gave cause for concern: his sense of balance, his inability to judge where the ball would drop or be passed to, the ease with which he was dispossessed.

Even still, it was something of a surprise when he was withdrawn for Ameobi given that Sibierski, who - though he had held the ball up well and shown some nice touches - had been on the receiving end of some uncompromising tackling from Fenerbahce's South American central defensive duo of Lugano and Edu. In the event, Roeder's decision was vindicated. From a corner Rustu failed to deal convincingly with a Taylor shot and the Frenchman prodded home, celebrating enthusiastically with the home fans rather than hoofing seven shades of shite out of the advertising hoardings like the last bald forward we had in our ranks.

We'd left ourselves with just ten minutes to hold out, but, with the memory of the Fulham game playing on our minds, it promised to be seriously stressful. Yet for once we were moderately professional in closing the game out. It's vital we win our home games in this group, and this was a great start, particularly with Palermo away to come next.

So, a good all-round team performance but the plaudits should go to Sibierski, Ramage (who was impeccable) and Carr (who made up for his awful display on Sunday). It wasn't perfect, though - we were too open at times, inviting Fenerbahce to hurt us, and there was little sense of connection and partnership between the front two. It'll be interesting to see what Roeder does now for the Smoggies on Sunday. Sibierski can probably expect to be dropped in favour of Ameobi (and consider himself unlucky too), but Taylor and Ramage might well have done enough to convince Roeder to stick with them for the trip to Smogside.

A final word about the crowd: very disappointing, even taking into account the number of home fixtures of late. A shame so few were there to witness a genuinely encouraging display. Hopefully Fat Fred will have taken note and will drop prices for the visit of Celta Vigo.

* Well, it was a European fixture, so we thought we'd dazzle you by showing off our comprehensive knowledge of foreign lingo, like...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian (Michael Walker in particularly miserable form)


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