Thursday, March 15, 2007

The future's not bright, the future's orange

AZ Alkmaar 2 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Well, wouldn't you just know it? After last Thursday's 4-2 defeat on Tyneside, AZ Alkmaar went into tonight's game knowing they needed a 2-0 win to progress - and that's exactly what they got.

Were we a vaguely professional outfit, we would have gone to Holland and kept it tight, disciplined and robust with the aim of eking out a scoreless draw or perhaps even nicking a winning goal on the break. But we're not. Neither did our much-trumpeted pre-match ethos of attack being the best form of defence against Alkmaar bear fruit - primarily because for the most part we were shockingly bad in forward areas and also comprehensively lost the battle for midfield, despite the considerable endeavours of Captain Scott.

The home side had already gone close once, Shay Given forced to save well from Julian Jenner, before they took the lead in the 14th minute. Apparently, our opponents were so relaxed prior to the match that they were playing pool and darts up to an hour before kick-off. One can only presume that Paul Huntington - the only change to the team which took to the pitch for the first leg - had spent the afternoon and early evening sampling the local produce in a Dutch "cafe". Not content with granting striker Danny Koevermans acres of space on our left, his attempt to block the subsequent cross was pathetic - though he wasn't the only culpable defender, both Titus Bramble and Steven Taylor guilty of bad errors of judgement. Shota Arveladze pounced from close range and it was 1-0. I'd say he couldn't believe his luck, but given that he will have studied our defence in pre-match videos, he probably can't believe he didn't get a few more chances like that.

Parker came close to an immediate response, curling a lofted shot just over the bar from the edge of the area. Then we got our first slice of luck of the night, when Taylor, clearly suffering from an itchy left elbow, decided to scratch it vigorously on Koevermans' skull. Referee Bertrand Layec's lack of action can only suggest he missed it.

For the remainder of the half, Alkmaar dominated comfortably, and Huntington nearly compounded a miserable first half for both himself and his side when he clumsily felled tormentor-in-chief Jenner right on the edge of the area. Alkmaar must have been as mystified as Glenn Roeder was as to the precise whereabouts of the team which had torn them apart for half an hour last week - but rather less unhappy about it.

The crucial period came in the first fifteen minutes of the second half. Nobby Solano, whose distribution was uncharacteristically terrible all night, for once found his man with a delicate chipped free-kick and the onrushing Kieron Dyer beat both the offside trap and 'keeper Boy Waterman but pulled the ball right across the face of goal and behind when Obafemi Martins was unmarked square. Shortly afterwards, Alkmaar doubled their advantage to take the lead in the tie for the first time. Judging by his marking of Koevermans from the decisive corner, Bramble can't have gone rockpooling as a child, as he seems to believe that "to stick limpet-like" to someone is to give them a couple of acres in which to frolic and gambol. The Dutch striker duly planted his near-post header past Given.

Thenceforth we had to press forward, and, with Emre on for the anonymous Damien Duff, that's what we did. Parker, played in by Solano, had a close-range shot well held, but we left ourselves vulnerable at the back, Huntington heading Moussa Dembele's shot off the line. Having failed in a second attempt to get a red card by hauling Koevermans back, Taylor repeated the trick, blocking the striker's shot after he had rounded Given. The Irishman was also called upon late on to divert Arveladze's shot onto the crossbar and away to safety when the Alkmaar captain seemed certain to wrap up the tie.

At the other end, Martins - disappointing after he had terrified the Dutch defence last week - squandered his only real opportunity, taking too long and firing straight at Waterman. We were desperately unlucky when Parker's late, late goal was disallowed for a non-existent foul by Dyer, but the truth is that otherwise we had the benefit of nearly all of the referee's decisions and we didn't deserve to progress anyway.

Tempers flared shortly before the final whistle, Nicky Butt belatedly showing his combative side and fortuitous not to be dismissed for a kick on Ryan Donk. But it was all just handbags - unlike Valencia and Inter, or Chelsea and Arsenal, we can't even do fights properly. It was our going out without a fight that hurts the most.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian (Michael Walker seems to have been too busy rubbing his hands to have remembered our disallowed goal...)


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