Monday, February 04, 2008

Progress (of sorts)

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Monsters of Smog

A goal (well, actually three goals) by Michael Owen saw the new era on Tyneside finally ushered in, before the failings of old highlighted the areas which still need work, and Robert Huth headed an equaliser at St James's Park yesterday.

Starting brightly, Newcastle should have taken the lead after five minutes, with Owen stabbing home an Emre corner from two yards after Mark Schwarzer dropped the ball. Unfortunately referee Mike Dean decided that the diminutive striker had somehow hampered the 6'-plus Aussie keeper, causing him to drop the ball, and awarded a free kick to the visitors, robbing us of an early lead.

The first half as a whole saw Emre returned to the centre of midfield and Barton start on the right, with Milner dropped to the bench. However, the Turk was unable to get sufficient time and space on the ball to inflict any damage with his range of passing, not least because the smoggies seemed intent on leaving their mark on any and every player in a black and white shirt with a string of robust tackles. Our only other decent chance game from an Owen header from an Emre corner, which was ruled out because the ball had swung out of play before swinging back in and on to the head of our captain.

Boro's first-half aggression, and determination to stifle any attacking threat, meant that for all our possession in the first half we were too often cramped in our own half, and reduced to humping long balls towards Alan Smith, who was dwarfed by Huth and Wheater, and consequently was unable to win or hold on to the ball for long enough for Owen (or anyone else) to get close enough to trouble Schwarzer.

The second half bought a more open game, as Boro started to push forward, and in turn allowed our midfield more time on the ball. As a result, chances started to come, and when Luke Young was adjudged to have fouled N'Zogbia, Emre's free-kick was met at the near post by Owen's header, and at the third time of asking Owen scored his first goal in weeks to give us a deserved lead.

Keegan then replaced Emre and Smith with Milner and Viduka, seeking to press home our advantage, and Damien Duff had the ball in the net, only to be called back for a marginal off-side. With Barton and Owen also missing good chances to double our lead, it was depressingly inevitable that we'd be unable to keep a clean sheet.

With minutes to go, a Julio Arca ball to the back post found Huth unmarked and able to loop a header over a flat footed Given and into the far corner. (Although there's a fairly strong argument to suggest that the goal should have been ruled out for offside). Worse could have followed, as Lee Dong-Gook fell over, and from the resultant free kick, Stewart Downing hit the post for Jeremie Aliadiere to knock home the rebound, only to see his effort ruled out for offside.

In terms of positives, the return of Emre from suspension, and Barton following the change to his bail conditions, bolstered our midfield, and with Senegal and Nigeria now out of the African Cup of Nations, Messers Beye, Faye and Martins should return to strengthen the squad. There was some good play between N'Zogbia and Duff, whilst Owen has also picked up a goal. Hopefully, Owen will survive appearing for Inglaterra next week, and we can look to pick up points at Villa Park (one of our happier hunting grounds). However, we still need to add more discipline to our defensive play - or at least take more of our chances. Nonetheless, it's an improvement, and for that we can all be grateful.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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