Thursday, January 28, 2010

No mercy

Newcastle Utd 2 - 0 Crystal Palace

How marvellous for there to be a club up to their eyeballs in crisis on Tyneside and for that club not to be Newcastle.

It's fair to say that tonight's visitors to St James' Park had not had the best of weeks thus far. They slid into administration yesterday and were automatically docked the standard ten points as a result; clubs now alerted to the extent of their plight are circling ever more vulture-like, hoping to strip the carcass bare; star player Victor Moses, far from potentially leading them to the Promised Land of the Premier League, is set to be flogged off on the cheap (with Championship rivals Forest and the Baggies currently vying for his services, despite rumoured interest from much bigger clubs home and abroad) and was deemed unavailable for selection by the administrators; and a lengthy injury list left them able to name just three of the permitted seven substitutes.

And all this suffered by a team we beat barely breaking a sweat back in August. Surely even we couldn't look this gift horse in the gob?

But, incredibly, we nearly did - it took an own goal and an injury-time second to secure a scarcely deserved win about as convincing as one of Rafa Benitez's recent post-match interviews.

Of course, we had personnel problems of our own to contend with, though Chris Hughton was able to hand a debut to Mike Williamson, the central defender's switch from Pompey finally agreed. The vacant right-back berth went to Tamas Kadar, while Peter Lovenkrands returned up front after his leave of absence, partnering Bigger Lad. Williamson's fellow newbie Wayne Routledge had to be content with a place on the bench.

As if circumstances hadn't already helped our cause (namely, returning to winning ways in the league for the first time in four games) enough, Palace's Johannes Ertl went off injured just four minutes in, forcing Colin Wanker to use one of those precious subs. Lovenkrands came close to opening the scoring six minutes later, though the visitors were proving surprisingly resilient and positive and indeed could have snatched the lead themselves through Calvin Andrew and Danny Butterfield. But, just when they thought their week couldn't get much worse, it did - Shaun Derry putting the ball past his own 'keeper Julian Speroni with Bigger Lad making a nuisance of himself from a corner.

Our own difficulties deepened shortly afterwards, though, with Jose Enrique having to depart injured. Curiously Hughton chose to overlook Ben Tozer, a natural defender, preferring instead to switch Kadar to the left and introduce Fabrice Pancrate in an unfamiliar right-back role.

Little more of note occurred in the first period but we started the second with considerable vigour, no doubt reminded by Hughton of Palace's predicament, with Bigger Lad and Lovenkrands both causing problems. But the likes of Neil Danns, Nick Carle and Darren Ambrose - that most dangerous of beasts, the old boy - continued to do likewise at the other end, meaning Steve Harper could never relax.

Recognising the need for a second goal, Hughton freshened things up, throwing on Routledge for Lovenkrands - but before our new winger could have any real impact Palace came alarmingly close to equalising, that man Ambrose striking the post. Unfathomably, the Eagles were putting us under pressure, so when the goal we craved arrived deep into stoppage time the relief was palpable. Sub Nile Ranger, on for Spiderman, had missed one good opportunity with a header before making amends by notching his first senior goal at St James' with a smart finish. The assist came courtesy of Routledge - hopefully the first of many.

So, a rather fortuitous win but the win we needed nonetheless - and, after a pair of poor displays, a pleasing return to defensive parsimony. And, as well as his charges played given the circumstances, if Mr Wanker genuinely believes "I haven't seen a better team than us in this division all season", then he must be not just an annoying buffoon but a blind annoying buffoon.

Forest's stylish mauling of QPR last night actually counts for very little - they're still three points adrift of us having played a game more, the only change being that our goal differences are now closer. (And there was more good news today in that Villa have recalled one-time England left-back Nicky Shorey from his loan at the City Ground.)

Leicester next, with Messrs Pearson and Solano lying in wait - it goes without saying that we'll have to play much better to be assured of victory on Saturday.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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