Thursday, February 22, 2007

Progress, but not pretty

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 SV Zulte-Waregem

(Newcastle win 4-1 on aggregate)

Text message received from a Wolves supporter in the wake of tonight's game: "That was shite but job done so never mind". True enough - but then, as Toon fans, we had no option but to sit through it...

On the occasion of Nolberto Solano's 300th appearance for the club (the most of any of our foreign imports), there was precious little to get excited about, with Waregem never having sufficient faith that they'd be able to claw their way back into the tie, and us content to ride out an easy game and avoid any injuries. Our opponents in the last sixteen AZ Alkmaar, who emerged victorious from a thrilling tie with Fenerbahce, will hardly be quaking in their boots.

And yet it was Waregem manager Francky Dury who rang the changes, drafting in no fewer than seven fringe players, while Glenn Roeder opted to keep the same side that secured a 3-1 advantage in the first leg, save replacing the injured Antoine Sibierski with Albert Luque.

We started well enough, Steven Taylor unlucky to see his firm and well-directed header cleared off the line after just three minutes, but that attacking intent soon evaporated as Waregem's saviour on that occasion Stijn Meert began to exert his creative influence further up the pitch.

The two best chances of the first period probably fell to the visitors, angled balls into space allowing blue-shirted forwards in on goal only for them to be denied by superlative tackles, first by Titus Bramble and then by Taylor.

At the other end, James Milner teed Luque up twice only for the Spaniard to fluff his lines before himself shooting inches over the crossbar from distance, while Kieron Dyer fired a long-range volley straight into young 'keeper Sammy Bossut's midriff. One of the few things we could take from the first half was the unerring accuracy of Nicky Butt's curved passes out to the right wing, where Milner, Solano and Dyer frequently engaged in neat interplay without actually hurting the Belgians.

Roeder's presumably angry half-time team-talk, and the introduction of Paul Huntington for Celestine Babayaro, had negligible effect, Steve Harper forced to dirty his gloves from Wouter Vandendriessche's piledriver soon after the restart. The turning point probably came when substitute Tim Matthys curled in a perfect free-kick and Bart Buysse contrived to send his free header wide of the post.

The winning goal, when it came, involved two of our most frustrating and frustrated players. In stark contrast to last week, when his marker had nervily stood off him, Damien Duff had found himself double-marked and continually forced backwards. But one dart forwards infield and a precision through-ball from our Irish winger found Obafemi Martins, who skipped in and lofted the ball over the advancing Bossut into the net.

By this time Martins' strike partner was Andy Carroll, who had replaced the once-again-useless Albert Luque, the Spaniard having disappeared straight down the tunnel upon leaving the pitch. Not good enough.

With Dyer and Milner showing little of their recent good form, we showed regrettable compassion in refusing to go for the jugular of a disspirited side, and in the event the preservation of our first clean sheet for 18 games needed the timely intervention of man-of-the-match Bramble, sliding in to deny Matthys when the striker looked odds-on to score.

So, the opportunity to send out a warning signal was spurned, and we know we'll have to raise our game significantly to make it into the quarter-finals.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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