Friday, November 03, 2006

Away the lads

Palermo 0 - 1 Newcastle

Four European away games played this season, four wins, four clean sheets. Pleasant reading, isn't it?

Few (myself included) expected us to nick a point let alone all three at the home of the current joint leaders of Serie A, who less than two weeks ago beat AC Milan 2-0 in the San Siro. Fewer will have had such expectations following the announcement of the team selected to take to the pitch. Fewer still will have believed that if we did manage to pull off a result it would be the consequence not so much of sheer good fortune but of discipline and defensive fortitude.

With Saturday's crucial Premiership six-pointer against Sheffield United less than 48 hours away, Glenn Roeder opted to leave out Stephen Carr, Celestine Babayaro, Scott Parker and Damien Duff. Other notable absentees included Owen, Martins, Dyer, Given, Ameobi, Rossi and Srnicek (the latter two both ineligible). Most notably, though, Steven Harper was only fit enough to make the bench, meaning that 18-year-old Dutch 'keeper Tim Krul was pressed into first team action for the first time in his short Newcastle career.

For their part, the pink-shirted Sicilians made a number of changes to their familiar starting line-up, but still fielded four of their usual back five, including Italian international defender Andrea Barzagli.

The frantic opening five minutes gave little indication of how the match would ultimately pan out, with our defence sliced open twice. On the first occasion Steven Taylor, playing at right-back, deflected the ball behind for a corner, and on the second Craig Moore was forced to clear Franco Brienza's shot from near the goal line after it had just about beaten Krul.

But the initial storm was weathered, and we gradually began to feel our way back into the game. Our defending was solid and mature, but what was pleasing was that instead of inviting pressure (as we did at Man Utd) we showed no fear or respect and started attacking with purpose. With Albert Luque ambling around up front as if to prove that he wasn't not the lone striker we needed, it was imperative other members of our five-man midfield got forward to support him.

James Milner it was who took that responsibility most seriously, setting about tormenting Palermo right-back Mattia Cassani. Barzagli it was, though, who was extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty when Milner outfoxed him with a beautiful turn only to see his close-range shot brilliantly saved by Alberto Fontana, replays showing that the defender had a firm grip of Milner's shirt to haul him to the ground.

Any thoughts of injustice were banished on 37 minutes, though, when Milner made his most telling contribution of the game, skinning two defenders and sending in an inch-perfect cross for Luque to nod us into a shock lead.

If I was close to pinching myself then, then the urge only intensified after the break. Milner may have been more tightly constrained, but in the middle of the park Nicky Butt was enjoying his best game in a black and white shirt, while Emre's neat and tidy passing and tigerish tackling were also a joy to watch.

Giovanni Tedesco wasted a good chance for the home side, escaping the attentions of Nobby Solano from a free-kick, but the defence was holding firm - and when Palermo did find a way through, they discovered our debutant between the sticks is a mean shot-stopper. Krul produced one incredible double save and another brilliant block with his leg in a breathtaking five minute spell.

With star men David di Michele and Fabio Simplicio both on the pitch, Palermo's interplay up front became noticably sharper, but not only did they fail to score, but they left themselves exposed at the back. A bit more ruthlessness and incisiveness on the break and we could have had another goal or two.

As it was, one proved enough to put a big grin on my face.

Special mention must go to Andy Carroll - the 17-year-old reserve team striker came on as a very late substitute, and, though his only real contribution was to concede a free-kick, he became our youngest ever player in European competition.

So, what to make of it all? To state the obvious: if we can play like that on Saturday, we can be more than confident it'll be enough to beat Sheffield Utd. The problem is that we're currently a schizophrenic side. Here on Black & White & Read All Over, I've done three of the last six match reports: three good wins against three good sides (Fenerbahce, Portsmouth, Palermo), three clean sheets. Paul, by contrast, has covered two miserable defeats (to Bolton and Middlesbrough) and one equally miserable draw (against Charlton). The difference? All my games have come in the cups, whereas all of Paul's have been Premiership encounters. Let's just hope that this time - at last - some of our midweek cup form spills over into one of our bread-and-butter games...

Other reports: BBC


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