Sunday, February 22, 2009

A game of two halves

Newcastle Utd 0 - 0 Everton

Yes, you read that right: this afternoon's contest really was a game of two halves - of sorts.

On the few occasions we found ourselves in our opponents' half we were generally disjointed and unthreatening, wasting the few opportunities we did create.

But in our own we were excellent, largely keeping the high-flying Toffees at arm's length and refusing to buckle under the pressure that resulted from their territorial advantage - an advantage handed to them by Kevin Nolan's idiocy. Sebastien Bassong was superb and Steven Taylor robust (and, at times, our best attacking outlet when marauding down the right flank). Even Jose Enrique had a tidily efficient game.

Despite the returns of Spiderman from suspension and Obafemi Martins, Claudio Cacapa and (joy of joys) Alan Smith from injury, Chris Hughton and Colin Calderwood opted to stick with the side that took to the pitch at the Hawthorns a fortnight ago as reward for the victory. That took the average age of our bench - once again bearing the weight of Captain Pasty's considerable posterior too - soaring above the early twenties for the first time in what must be quite a while.

We could have found ourselves behind within a minute of kick-off, Dan Gosling wriggling his way cheaply towards the edge of the area before shooting wide of Steve Harper's right-hand post. Everton's creative lynchpin Mikel Arteta suffered a serious-looking injury in an innocuous challenge with Peter Lovenkrands shortly afterwards, the sympathetic ripple of applause from the home fans as he departed on a stretcher perhaps slightly tinged with increased optimism about our chances of a decent result, but it was the visitors who continued to dominate.

Leighton Baines - the only footballer who sounds as though he was named after an Oxfordshire village? - was the unlikely source of the most threatening moments. One corner was headed goalwards by Joseph Yobo, forcing Harper into flicking the ball away brilliantly when it seemed to already be past him, while from another Jack Rodwell had his low close-range shot deflected off the line by a combination of Harper's and Ryan Taylor's shins. In open play Baines was proving just as dangerous, but luckily for us his sweeping cross to the back post fell to a defender, Phil Jagielka, who fired wide.

Just as we were suspecting it might be shaping up like the last time a Scouse side came to St James' Park, we woke up and fashioned by far the best chance of the half. Shola Ameobi for once trapped the ball and played an intelligent pass to Kevin Nolan, who tucked it inside for Lovenkrands - but, with defenders bamboozled and only Tim Howard to beat, the not-so-great Dane calmly curled the ball wide.

Other opportunities-of-sorts came in the form of a free-kick on the edge of the area curled narrowly high and wide by Ryan Taylor - let's just hope that he doesn't need to be facing a black-and-white-shirted wall to get them on target - and Ameobi roughly bundling both ball and 'keeper into the net as if in homage to the tough nuts and flying elbows of the '50s.

If that was a comical foul, there was nothing remotely funny for either side about Nolan's challenge on Victor Anichebe in the 43rd minute. Whether deliberate or accidental, the tackle was late and horribly high, and it ensured the former Bolton player's first really noteworthy action in a Newcastle shirt was to be on the receiving end of a thoroughly deserved red card. Following Arteta down the tunnel to the treatment room, Anichebe was stopped by Nolan who wanted to apologise and make his peace - I only hope he paid his teammates the same courtesy.

With seven minutes of stoppage time to go before half-time, the points were effectively there for Everton's taking - but the Toffees showed their caring side by considerately giving the recuperating JFK few scares. Without Arteta and suspended talisman Tim Cahill, they didn't have the guile to undo our unusually disciplined defence. Afro-sporting on-loan striker Jo was tightly shackled by Bassong in the second half and restricted to one weak header - no doubt that, like similarly coiffured substitute Maroune Fellaini, he was easy to keep tabs on - while Yobo and one-time Toon loanee Louis Saha both blasted over.

At the break Hughton had made the sensible decision to introduce Spiderman to raise the energy levels on the pitch (it might have been more sensible to replace the totally ineffectual Lovenkrands than Damien Duff, though), and the withdrawal of Ameobi for Martins shortly before the hour mark suggested a similar line of thought. The two very nearly combined for the winner, Martins winning the ball on half-way and playing in the Argentinian who galloped forwards but, driven wide by Yobo and with no one in support, attempted an ambitious lofted shot that drifted over the bar.

Had we been able to direct our clearances and long balls roughly in Martins' direction, we might have been able to make the most of his pace, but as it was he was a virtual spectator and the ball kept coming back at our defence. Thankfully, though, they stood firm and Everton ran out of both time and ideas.

Of course, in our current predicament 0-0 isn't what we were hoping for prior to kick-off (indeed, some fans were hoping for - or, rather, demanding - an awful lot more). But, considering that Everton had won seven times on their travels already this season and also had a man advantage for the majority of the game, there was some satisfaction in grinding out a draw and keeping a clean sheet to boot. Anyone fancy placing a bet on Steve Harper and our back four beating Man Utd's new top flight record? No, thought not...

Other reports: BBC


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