Monday, September 24, 2007

From zero to hero

Newcastle Utd 3 - 1 West Ham

On an afternoon which gave me cause to grimace at this post from last week, Charles N'Zogbia turned in a match-winning performance that was as brilliant as his showing at Pride Park last Monday was abysmal.

Twice in the first half the young Frenchman crossed perfectly for Mark Viduka to score before finding the net himself for the third time this season in the second period. I like to think that the threat of a public flogging was enough to spur him into bucking up his ideas...

In the wake of Monday's shambles, Shola Ameobi was nowhere to be seen, with Mark Viduka returning in his place and Habib Beye coming in for his first start at Steven Taylor's expense, Shay Given and Obafemi Martins once again left kicking their heels on the bench.

Warming up before kick-off, we offered some support to our supporters, wearing black Northern Rock T-shirts emblazoned with the message "Rock steady". Thankfully that certainly wasn't true of West Ham's defence, which managed to keep us at bay for all of two minutes. In truth, though, there was little they could have done about it, N'Zogbia's deep cross superbly headed just inside Robert Green's near post by Viduka.

We sat back expecting the shell-shocked Hammers to be taken apart - but no such luck. No doubt acutely aware of Given's breath on his neck, Harper will have been relieved to have pulled off a great one-handed save from Mark Noble, the youngster having escaped the attentions of Nicky Butt too easily. But Harper could do nothing about the equaliser, which saw West Ham's robust approach bear dividends. Dean Ashton and Carlton Cole were giving David Rozehnal and Claudio Cacapa a rough time, and Cole it was whose back header fell for Ashton to guide into the corner from close range.

Stung into action, we regained the lead shortly before half-time. N'Zogbia raced down the left, cut inside the full-back and sent a low cross skidding across the six yard area to Viduka, who appeared to slide the ball in with his shin. Given the quality of his first two strikes in a black and white shirt, the Australian could certainly be forgiven a scrappy one.

Michael Owen lasted all of six minutes at the start of the second half, succumbing again to his groin problem after a quick dart past a West Ham defender. After the game, Fat Sam admitted: "Even though the initial scan was clear, there's a persistent area which is causing him a problem. We need to look deeper into that. We will scan it again, get a specialist opinion and see where we go from there". Good news for no one but Martins, who entered the fray in his place.

Their morale boosted by the sight of Owen disappearing down the tunnel, West Ham pressed for a second equaliser, but fortunately it never came. Ashton went close, and Harper athletically saved a Lee Bowyer shot and afforded us the opportunity to see a scowl spread across the little runt's face.

N'Zogbia had been the thorn in the Hammers' side all afternoon, and three minutes after he was pushed forwards into midfield following the introduction of Jose Enrique for the not-yet-fully-fit Viduka, he grabbed the goal he deserved, tapping in from Martins' pass. With the Londoners deflated and on the ropes, the Nigerian then somehow contrived to miss an open goal having rounded Green, but given that three flattered us, a fourth would have put a deceptive gloss on what was a just about merited win in which N'Zogbia was the real difference between the two sides.

Tomorrow's visit to the Emirates Stadium, not much more than 48 hours after the final whistle at St James's Park, will hopefully see us take to the field knowing the League Cup represents our best chance of silverware, even when we're up against Arsenal's astoundingly talented foetuses, but it's Saturday lunchtime's clash against Sven-Goran Eriksson's resurgent Man City, two places above us in third, which looks like our toughest test yet.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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