Saturday, November 24, 2007

No joke

Newcastle Utd 0 - 3 Liverpool

A month or so ago, we were grateful for our strong home form which had compensated for some indifferent displays on the road and propelled us towards the upper reaches of the table. Now, after a second successive crushing defeat on home turf, it looks rather less like Fortress St James's and rather more like Bouncy Castle St James's, to which visiting teams are welcomed, allowed to enjoy themselves and then sent home with a party bag containing three points.

Every now and again you have to hold your hands up and accept being beaten by a better team - which Liverpool were today. But you expect to see at least some signs of resistance and endeavour. What we witnessed today was another performance of staggering ineptitude, the cluelessness all-pervasive from back to front - and on the bench.

Facing up to the loss of Steven Taylor through injury on England duty (five words we're sick of seeing together in the same sentence), which compounded the absence of Claudio Cacapa and Abdoulaye Faye, Sam Allardyce opted for an unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation: Habib Baye, David Rozehnal and Jose Enrique across the back; Geremi, Nicky Butt, Emre, Alan Smith and Charles N'Zogbia across the middle; and Obafemi Martins and fit-again Mark Viduka up front. Yes, that's right - no place for James Milner even in a five man midfield...

Of course it goes without saying that the experimental switch was not a tactical masterstroke but an absolute disaster.

Booing Steven Gerrard from the very first whistle in the light of Wednesday's nightmare was always likely to come back to bite us in the arse, and sure enough he bossed things throughout, so dominant that Momo Sissoko and Lucas Leiva alongside him could play so badly it looked as though they were auditioning for roles in our midfield. We never had the energy or ability to get the ball from Liverpool, and on the rare occasions it did come our way we were both profligate and lacking in imagination in the extreme.

Alan Smith had our only notable effort of the first half, firing a volley just wide from the edge of the box. By that point, we were already behind to Gerrard's thunderbolt, and could have been further adrift soon afterwards, when Shay Given, stranded outside his area, was perilously close to saving Fernando Torres's shot with his shoulder. A presumably shell-shocked Torres then charitably hit the post with an open goal beckoning.

The let-off that would gee us into bucking our ideas up and push for parity? No. Less than two minutes into the second period, Dirk Kuyt shinned in from a corner and it was all over. Substitute Ryan Babel's goal, following the sort of flowing move we're utterly incapable of, only served to underline their superiority. If it hadn't been for below-par finishing and Given's best efforts, Torres could have bagged four or five.

If anything, that second period was worse than the first. Allardyce bizarrely chose to introduce Joey Barton before Milner, and then, when he finally turned to the Yorkshireman with the game long since lost, it was our other winger N'Zogbia who made way rather than Geremi, Butt or Smith. The latter got the man of the match award, proof that amidst it all someone still had a sense of humour - as did the fans who, in their disgruntlement, took to singing "Allardyce for England"...

The situation is this: our defence is no better now than it was under Roeder; our midfield is a creativity-free zone, staffed by players who just don't look like they give a toss; our forwards, demoralised by the appalling level of service, have given up making even an semblance of effort themselves; and our manager seems incapable of organising and inspiring his squad, or even making the most obvious of decisions about team selection. Forgive me if I don't find that funny.

So, where to look for light relief in times of strife? The Mackems' 7-1 hiding at Goodison Park didn't even come as any consolation, reminding us how bad they are and how comfortably we should have beaten them a fortnight ago.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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