Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Number one with a bullet

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Leicester City

Who'd have thunk it, eh? That five games into the new season we'd still be managerless, that Fat Mike would still be the owner, that we'd have haemorrhaged more than ten members of last term's squad and added just one loanee, that our one fit striker would be an 18-year-old with so few first team appearances they could be counted on the hand of someone who'd been involved in a freak combine harvester accident - but that we'd also be top of the league. Remarkable, it really is.

Monday night's match-winner was Danny Guthrie with his second goal in successive home matches, but the man-of-the-match award and most of the plaudits went (probably rightly) to the aforementioned striker, Nile Ranger. But more of him later.

After a weekend when early pace-setters Cardiff and the Smogs cocked up and West Brom could only muster a draw, we went into the game knowing that a win would send us two points clear at the top of the pile. But injuries had already robbed Chris Hughton of the services of Nicky Butt, Spiderman, Big Lad and Bigger Lad (Xisco already having hobbled off to Racing Santander), and an ill-timed Argentina call-up meant Fabricio Coloccini was also missing. Add to that the fact that the wily Foxes, managed by former Toon caretaker Nigel Pearson, were unbeaten in their previous ten league games, and victory of any description - let alone the 7-1 thrashing we dished out last time we met at this level - looked far from certain.

The first half didn't give much hope, either. Skipper Alan Smith was industrious enough in central midfield, but we posed precious little threat up front, the only serious effort on goal I can recall coming from makeshift supporting forward Kevin Nolan, who forced 'keeper Chris Weale into a comfortable smothering save to his right. True enough, though, we were denied two penalties that were not so much cast-iron as gold-plated when the same Ryan Taylor cross was handled by two different Leicester players.

The visitors, by contrast, asked the more searching questions, Steve Harper finding his reflexes tested first by a powerful close-range header from Toon fan Steve Howard and then a low curling free-kick from Paul Gallagher, a man who already knows what it's like to score the winner at St James'. An even better chance fell to Matty Fryatt when Danny Simpson, in an unfamiliar central role, made his one mistake of the night, but the hotshot of last year's League One winning campaign fired wide.

Part of the problem was that Ranger simply couldn't get into the game, but the transformation after the break was telling. The youngster had already gone close when he laid Nolan's chest down to Guthrie, whose deft footwork took him into a shooting position on the edge of the area and the ball was bulging the net almost before Weale had time to react.

From then on, the team collectively and Ranger individually visibly grew in confidence. While nothing was sticking to him in the first half, now his foot was like flypaper, and although chances never really came his way, he showed his potential value to the side by holding play up and preoccupying several defenders at once.

Geremi - who otherwise appeared to be strolling about lethargically in tribute to Big Lad - skidded a shot just past the post, and further opportunities to extend a lead that was never really threatened came and went. Defensively we were comfortable, the previously dynamic French winger Dany N'Guessan by now totally subdued by Jose Enrique, and the fourth consecutive clean sheet in the league could probably have been achieved even if Harps had decided to catch forty winks.

Ranger, Guthrie and ASBO made way for the sprogs (Harris Vuckic, Ryan Donaldson and Tamas Kadar), but their introduction wasn't so much the signal of Hughton's belief in their abilities and talent that it's been interpreted as, as it was an indication of quite how thin the squad now is - a gentle nudge to Fat Mike to get the chequebook out, perhaps.

The fact remains that we're already struggling with a handful of injuries - should the situation worsen, and it usually does, then leading the way will become unsustainable. All things considered, it's a miracle we are where we are, so by all means we should enjoy it while it lasts - but, given the size and quality of the current squad, it won't last long enough.

Other reports: .com, BBC, Guardian


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