Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Warning: not for those of a nervous disposition

Newcastle Utd 2 - 2 West Brom

Caught your breath yet?

In a game which - for once - more than lived up to its top-of-the-table billing, we twice came from behind to take a point against a vibrant Baggies side who outplayed us for long periods. Over the course of the 90 minutes, chances came thick and fast in what must have been as thrilling a match for the neutral as it was nerve-wracking for the partisan.

The most significant team news concerned Peter Lovenkrands, Wednesday's hat-trick hero deciding that the best way to pay tribute to the memory of his late football-loving father would be to lace up his boots and give his all in one of our biggest games of the season.

The Dane was almost on hand to steer in a prodded centre from strike partner Big Lad after just three minutes, but by that point the visitors were already on the front foot, signalling a single-minded attacking intent rarely seen from opposing sides at St James' Park. On 13 minutes Graham Dorrans - a player who, like some of our own, has blossomed at this level - made amends for earlier blasting over from close range by crossing for centre back Jonas Olsson to capitalise on poor marking and apply a deft touch past Steve Harper.

We drew level with 25 minutes on the clock, Danny Guthrie arcing a precise and clever free-kick over a crumbling wall and past the statuesque Scott Carson, and given the strong-arm tactics of Albion defenders Olsson, Gabriel Tamas and Gonzalo Jara (the gumshielded Big Lad a particular victim) we sensed that our best chance of taking the lead probably lay in winning set pieces in the vicinity of the box. Indeed, Jara's manhandling of Lovenkrands could easily have resulted in a penalty.

The fact remains, though, that by and large we were being outclassed elsewhere on the pitch. Roberto di Matteo had responded to his side's white-flag-waving home defeat to arch-rivals Forest by bringing in wiser heads in the full back positions but also by switching from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1. With Youssouf Mulumbu anchoring the midfield, Dorrans, Chris Brunt and Jerome Thomas took full advantage of the licence afforded them to slice us apart to an extent that no other side has mustered thus far this campaign. Kevin Nolan and Alan Smith shuffled about like men trying to catch eels slathered in Vaseline, and with about as much success.

While there was no further damage in the first half - the Baggies restricted to a succession of dangerous hanging corners interspersed with the odd effort on goal, most noteably a stinging piledriver from Tamas - it took our opponents just 32 seconds of the second period to restore their advantage. Three black and white shirts may have been clustered around Dorrans, but they still allowed him space to plant a ball on Roman Bednar's head. Harper made a miraculous save to deflect the effort onto the crossbar but, sat on the seat of his shorts, could do nothing about Bednar nodding in the rebound from a matter of centimetres.

Again we equalised before West Brom were able to rest easy. Jose Enrique, increasingly influential on the left in tandem with Spiderman, burst forwards to deliver a cross into the area which Lovenkrands - who else? - flicked in at the near post with a smart header, with the assistance of Mulumbu's comical dash to leave him free and Carson's bungled attempt to save. The sight of the Dane pointing poignantly to the heavens, a tear in the eye, brought a lump to the throat of many a fan.

The Baggies, though, were still capable of opening us up with every attack and were emphatically not playing for the draw. Dorrans' deflected shot flew inches wide (Enrique ducking out of the way to avoid scoring a particularly ignominous own goal with a diving header), Olsson headed over after a passage of play during which we simply couldn't get near the ball and, most fortuitously of all, substitute Ishmael Miller struck the post from point-blank range from Thomas' low centre. Smith, gradually finding his way into the game, made a superb block from the follow-up shot while Danny Simpson's loan spell came to a premature end, a tough evening up against the in-form Thomas curtailed by injury.

Hughton left it at least ten minutes too late in replacing the out-of-steam Big Lad with Bigger Lad (his exhaustion was a large part of the reason why we couldn't retain possession), but in the later stages we still came agonisingly close to winning it ourselves. Olsson turned double agent, nearly putting through his own net and then doing his best to gift us a spot-kick with an unceremonious barge on Bigger Lad that referee Paul Taylor for some reason ignored. Meanwhile, Carson tipped Ryan Taylor's cross-cum-shot free-kick around the post at full stretch and Spiderman couldn't quite cap an exhilarating last-minute gallop down the touchline with the right weighting on his square ball to Bigger Lad.

In the circumstances, a point has to be gratefully accepted - though the 14 game unbeaten run now includes three consecutive Championship draws, hinting at a worrying loss of momentum. There's a fair chance this fixture could be replayed in the Premier League next season, but the evening's real winners were, arguably, Forest, who remain three points clear of the Baggies and within striking distance of us.

As was pointed out at full-time, at least we don't have to play the Baggies every week. So, who've we got in the Cup on Saturday? Ah.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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