Monday, February 25, 2008

(Mis)take that

Newcastle Utd 1 - 5 Man Utd

If, before this game, Kevin Keegan was still under any illusions that the club he returned to last month is the same as the one he left, then after it he certainly won't be.

In October 1996, three months before he quit the St James' Park hotseat, we inflicted the famous 5-0 defeat upon the defending champions, gaining a measure of revenge for the way they'd sneaked up to rob us of the title the previous season. Twelve years later, and the Red Devils dished out a second pummelling in the space of a month and a half, this one all the more painful for being on home turf.

The only people laughing at the Two Ronnies' latest exploits - a brace each - were the Man Utd fans, who seemed more interested in taunting Keegan than in any celebration of their own side's performance and whose own wit was barely worthy of the description.

Neither, though, was our defence fit to be labelled as such, the visitors' first four goals - two either side of half-time - coming as the consequence of appalling mistakes and ruthlessly unerring finishing.

Goal number one, 25 mins: A bit of trickery on the wing from Cristiano Ronaldo and a great cross to the back post. Charles N'Zzzzzogbia chose an inopportune moment to catch forty winks, leaving Shrek to wander into the six yard area unmarked and volley past Shay Given.

Goal number two, 45 mins: Joey Barton gifted the ball to an opponent, Geordie Michael Carrick sent a precise pass through the back line like Brutus plunging the knife in, and Ronaldo coolly finished.

Goal number three, 56 mins: Abdoulaye Faye contrived to win the ball from Ronaldo, then lose it to Fletcher who fed it back to the Portuguese. Steven Taylor's laughable challenge hardly needed evading, and Steve Harper (on at the break for the injured Given) was duly rounded and the ball knocked home.

Goal number four, 80 mins: Alan Smith - for whom a chant of "SMITH? HUH! WHAT IS HE GOOD FOR? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!" must surely ring from the terraces soon - sliced an attempted clearance straight to Shrek, who hit a curling shot from the edge of the area which somehow missed all the bodies apparently in its path and found the back of Harper's net.

It was then left to goal-shy substitute Louis Saha, who for a time wore black and white, to rub salt into the wounds with the injury-time fifth.

Faye's 79th minute close-range strike can hardly be described as a consolation, because (a) it was no consolation for the extent to which we were outclassed and also contributed to our humiliation and (b) it only proved that Man Utd had been toying with us for the previous twenty minutes and, like a cat with a wounded mouse, could choose to pounce and finish us off at any time they liked, their fourth goal coming barely a minute later.

As at Old Trafford, it could have been worse - Carlos Tevez missed a sitter of a header in the first period, and Harper made a pair of brilliant saves in the last ten minutes. Ferguson had shown just how much of a challenge he felt we posed by selecting Darren Fletcher in the starting XI, and then added insult to injury by bringing John O'Shea on at half-time and playing him out of position at left back. It pains me to admit that he was spot on in his judgement - a whole team of O'Sheas could have won at a canter. It was very hard to believe that we were the side that had had a fortnight's rest, while they'd played two tough cup ties, against Arsenal and Lyon, in that time.

It seems churlish to look for bright spots in another awful display, but please bear with us - we have to, just to have something to cling on to. Aside from Harper's saves, which suggested Given won't be missed too badly if he's ruled out for a few games, Damien Duff was lively on the left wing, allowed some space by Wes Brown and fashioning a good chance with a neat turn and shot early in the second period, when, with the score at 2-0, a goal back might possibly have triggered an unlikely comeback. James Milner tried hard too, but to limited effect.

We can once again breathe a sigh of relief that our position hasn't actually worsened, Blackburn and Villa's victories over Bolton and Reading respectively ensuring we remain six points clear of 18th place. Our goal difference is now -22, though, the third worst in the division after Derby and Reading, and we can't keep relying on those below us to keep losing. At some point we've got to start winning ourselves - and, with a trip to Anfield looming large, that needs to be on Saturday with the visit of Blackburn. It's hardly going to be easy, though, given the fact that it was their comfortable win on Tyneside last season that got Glenn Roeder the boot, and that the once-again in-form Benni McCarthy will be coming up against a back four choreographed by Benny Hill...

Other reports: BBC, Observer


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