Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Business as usual

Preston 0 - 1 Newcastle Utd

For tonight's match, see the wins at Cardiff and Sheffield Utd before it: another middling performance, another nicked goal, another clean sheet, another very welcome three points against close promotion rivals.

In a game that did its best to dull the sparkle and razzmatazz with which it had been garnished by Sky, Kevin Nolan's smartly taken eighth of the season with 15 minutes remaining proved to be enough to secure the win and a return to the top of the Championship table.

An injury to Ryan Taylor sustained in the warm-up meant that Chris Hughton had to revert to the 4-4-2 formation of recent home games rather than the established 4-5-1 of away trips, Homer lucky to win a reprieve and retain his place in the side. New signing Fabrice Pancrate only made the bench, with Danny Guthrie starting out on the right (at least nominally).

Barely a minute had elapsed when Steven Taylor snuck in at the back post but was just unable to apply the finish to a deft cross from deep. It caught us fans as unawares as the Preston rearguard, and in the event proved to be arguably our best opportunity of the first half. Spiderman should have done better on a couple of occasions, while Alan Smith twice came close to breaking his duck on rare forays forwards.

Having failed to capitalise on early dominance, we began ceding possession and control too cheaply and as the half progressed traffic was heavier towards our goal, with Neil Mellor, Richard Chaplow, Paul Parry and Stoke loanee Michael Tonge all trying their luck and Mellor forcing a good save from Steve Harper at his near post.

Otherwise our efforts seemed focused on maiming the opposition - elbows were raised in the aerial challenge more than once, though (I think) never with malicious intent. Smith was booked for an unceremonious clattering of one opponent, while Bigger Lad caught ex Mackem defender Neill Collins with a clout around the head which was lucky to go unpunished and which prompted what is euphemistically referred to as a frank exchange of views between Collins and Colin Calderwood in the tunnel at the interval.

Unfortunately for the cameras, the pace, quality and tempo didn't increase significantly after the break. Bigger Lad - playing against a club he was loaned to two seasons ago - whipped a shot narrowly wide for us, while chubby Gerrard lookalike Mellor took advantage of uncertainty in our defence following the replacement of Danny Simpson by Tamas Kadar but somehow fired wide when scoring seemed simpler.

When Nile Ranger entered the fray around the hour mark, the fact that it was Bigger Lad and not Homer who gave way was mystifying - until Hughton clarified in his post-match comments that the former had spent all day battling against illness. Ranger gave us renewed purpose up front, hammering one shot not too far wide - though he also ruined a good chance when Spiderman had galloped the length of the field and passed inside just as it looked as though a reprise of his spectacular goal against Peterborough was a possibility. Surely Hughton has to acknowledge that Homer can't live off his reputation for any longer and plump for the hungrier, more powerful Ranger instead?

The biggest cheer of the second period had been for a black-and-white inflatable magically making its way from the away end into the Preston goalmouth (and the biggest boo for its removal) - until, that is, the game's one moment of class saw Nolan pivot and drill a crisp left-footer beyond Andy Lonergan. The cross, it should be added, was Guthrie's only decent contribution - that aside, he had spent all game drifting inside to damage our shape, dribbling into trouble and passing to white shirts.

The man in the opposition dugout, our former coach and Academy Manager Alan Irvine, threw on square-jawed hulk Jon Parkin to form a three-man strikeforce, but it was to no avail and we saw out the remaining ten minutes comfortably. Preston may be in something of a goal-shy slump, but they had only lost twice at Deepdale in the previous year so emerging victorious was still no mean feat.

So the Baggies were duly ousted from top spot before they could get their feet under the table, and we maintained a six-point gap between ourselves and Leicester in third. Saturday's match is shaping up to be a real test, though - after a slow start to the season, Paulo Sousa's Swansea have moved quietly up to fourth, and have lost just three games and conceded just 12 goals (theirs is the next meanest defence after ours). We'll need to play better to be sure of the points - even if it is reassuring that we're becoming adept at doing just enough and winning ugly in this division.

Other reports: BBC


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