Monday, March 23, 2009

Staring down the barrel

Newcastle Utd 1 - 3 Arsenal

Much like my son, who erupted in chicken pox hours before kick off, Newcastle were similarly afflicted by a succession of results going against them, leaving them looking in a decidedly sickly state before the match even kicked off.

Goals and points elsewhere meant that we kicked off the match in the bottom three, and despite a decent performance, Arsenal's greater quality and confidence ensured we remained there at the final whistle, with further sores to worry about in the shape of injuries to Bassong and Steven Taylor.

Having started brightly, Newcastle should have taken the lead after Ryan Taylor was clumsily fouled in the box by Almunia. With Michael Owen demoted to the bench, Obafemi Martins took on penalty duties and his weak penalty low to the keeper's left was easily saved by the Arsenal stopper.

That save was followed by near misses by Martins and Peter Lovenkrands, while at the other end an Arshavin long-ranger that flicked off the top of the bar, a couple of heroic blocks by Steven Taylor and fine work from Steve Harper when faced by Robin van Persie ensured that the teams remained level at half-time, and suggested that maybe, just maybe, we might nick a point.

That wild optimism was crushed in a ten-minute spell in the second half. Firstly, Ryan Taylor fouled Arshavin, and the Russian's free-kick found the head of Bendtner who was able to put the ball past Harper largely (and frustratingly) unchallenged. However, less than a minute later we were back on terms, as Martins bustled his way into the Arsenal box, only to appear to lose control of the ball before sticking out a foot to catch Almunia unaware and slot the ball home to restore parity and partly atone for his earlier penalty miss.

Unfortunately, with Bassong already off the pitch, Steven Taylor was then injured, and whilst receiving treatment on the sidelines Arsenal struck again. This time it was Abou Diaby who was afforded too much space in the penalty area, and he calmly restored the Gunners lead. Had Habib Beye covered across slightly quicker, then he might have been able to block the shot (in much the same way as Steven Taylor had managed earlier in the game); however it may be that our returning defender's slight rustiness meant he wasn't quite as quick to react, and we went 2-1 down.

With Taylor departing (not before time from Arsenal's perspective, given his unwarranted and rash first-half assault on Arshavin which somehow wasn't punished with a card) and replaced by Owen, our backline was forced into a further reshuffle, and with only two of our starting four defenders remaining on the pitch it was perhaps inevitable that a side in as decent form as Arsenal were able to add a third and kill the game off, with Nasri providing what proved to be the final blow. It could have been worse, had Diaby's late shot not struck the far post and bounced away to safety.

All of which means that we're left looking decidedly sickly, and staring down the barrel of relegation.

Looking for positives in this, one can again look at the improved performance. Had we performed at the level of the first half last week, we'd almost certainly have beaten Hull. The return of Habib Beye is a bonus and with the international break it is to be hoped that we have time to get Taylor and Bassong back to fitness. The fact that Martins has also bagged a goal might mean that he now hits a little scoring run, and with games against Stoke, Pompey, Fulham and the Smoggies still to come, we aren't dead yet.

The sickness should fade, and if we can come out of this stronger then we might still be OK. But if we can't win those games, we're well and truly stuffed.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian,


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