Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It's grimmer up North

Newcastle Utd 0 - 0 Portsmouth

Not even a return to King Kev's gung-ho three-forward formation that got us out of trouble last season was able to inspire a desperately needed win over Portsmouth, as we stuttered and slumped to yet another home draw, our seventh of the season, devoid of anything remotely approaching conviction.

Wor Al once again rang changes in personnel as well as formation - some by choice, others enforced. While Obafemi Martins and Captain Pasty were reunited with Little Saint Mick, Shearer drafted in Alan Smith, Fabricio Coloccini and the fit-again Jose Enrique, with Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan, Ryan Taylor, Spiderman and injury victim Steven Taylor making way.

Early crowd-inspired momentum was soon lost, as Portsmouth efficiently sapped our offensive energies. With a weight of expectation on his shoulders as the only player in black and white able to trouble the Pompey defence with pace, Oba cut a frustrated figure almost from the off, and it was disheartening that it was the visitors who had the first real sniff of goal, Coloccini smuggling the ball behind for a corner under pressure from Peter Crouch.

Alan Smith briefly suggested he might be intent on choosing a very opportune moment to open his Newcastle account - one shot was blocked at point-blank range by Herman Hreidarsson's arm, though a penalty would have been harsh, and another volley whistled over the bar - but then seemingly realised he might actually be in danger of making himself useful so hastily retreated to his usual anonymity.

For the second game in succession, a returning defender failed to make it to the second half - this time it was Enrique left punching his hamstrung left leg and the St James' Park turf in frustration. Being moved to left back, his place in midfield being taken by Danny Guthrie, didn't stop Damien Duff from recording our first effort on target, David James clutching his right-footed effort from the edge of the area.

We came closer still when Guthrie's low curler was almost diverted past James by Captain Pasty - perhaps he would have reacted quicker to the loose ball if there'd been a sausage roll taped to the post? All the same, he had less reason to hang his head than Oba, who squandered the best chance of the first half by blasting well over from little more than six yards. Mavis Riley's decision to award us a corner can only have been out of pity.

The front three spent the whole of the first half on completely separate wavelengths, but within a few minutes of the restart they at last combined to good effect. Little Saint Mick backheeled the ball into Captain Pasty's path but his shot was straight at James, before the Australian returned the favour, winning an improbable tackle to send Owen clear on goal only for him to produce a similarly tame finish. Even when the Pompey 'keeper's handling was suspect, Captain Pasty couldn't capitalise, and neither could his replacement Carroll when offered the opportunity to reprise his heroic header against Stoke.

Just as our efforts were petering out, Portsmouth started to look more of a threat. While claims for a penalty were rightly waved away following Crouch's crumple in response to minimal contact with Coloccini, Nadir Belhadj stung Steve Harper's palms, Crouch fluffed a chance at least as presentable as Owen's and Richard Hughes caught everyone (including Harps) by surprise by nodding a header off the upright.

Spiderman - whom we've just discovered will cost us rather more than we thought - was introduced with the intention of spicing up our attack, but as it turned out, it was the withdrawal of our best performer, a battle-bruised Nicky Butt, that sadly proved more significant. Without him, we had to suffer the embarrassment of a final ten minutes in which we were unable to win the ball or get out of our own half when we should have been battering the visitors' goal.

So, how to react when your side fails to win what everyone - manager, players, pundits, fans - has labelled a must-win game? Clutch desperately at straws, of course. Here goes...

No one - us included - expects us to get anything from Liverpool, a side still chasing the title who comprehensively destroyed us 5-1 at home earlier in the season. But at least the likelihood of Middlesbrough or Hull picking up any points against Man Utd and Villa respectively is slim. And that means that, apart from worsened goal differences all round, it will probably be as you were this time next week, when we'll have two winnable home games to look forward to.

There you go - it doesn't seem quite so bad now, does it? Does it?

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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