Monday, December 27, 2010

Boxing Day blues

Newcastle Utd 1 - 3 Man City

Surely someone should tell the players that that riff about Christmas presents and generosity of spirit is getting a bit tired now? Careless mistakes effectively cost us the game within the first five minutes and ensured it's now nine years since we recorded a three-point post-Christmas haul.

Alan Pardew made two changes to the side that won his first game in charge a fortnight ago, with Sol Campbell and Big Lad not featuring. The former was replaced by Sideshow Bob (with Mike Williamson a bit unfortunate to have to be content with a place on the bench) and the latter with Wayne Routledge, meaning a change of formation to 4-5-1 and a combative central midfield to rival that of the visitors.

Pardew couldn't legislate for individual blunders, though, and we got off to the worst possible start. Snood-wearing sneak Carlos Tevez nipped in to steal Tim Krul's lamentably poor pass to ASBO and feed the overlapping Gareth Barry, who had a simple task to tuck the ball home unchallenged.

Three minutes later our predicament worsened. This time the normally reliable Cheik Tiote was the culprit, a lackadaisical pass again seized upon by Tevez, who knocked the ball wide to James Milner and burst forward to slice our old boy's cross cleverly across Krul and into the top corner. He celebrated by producing a dummy from his sock - but the dummies were those in black and white stood around looking at each other in disbelief.

Thankfully, we found sufficient composure and assuredness to dispel thoughts of the afternoon descending into a truly horrific massacre. Rocky, as ever, was key to our revival, once again showing that even supposedly top-class defenders can find him unplayable. Time and again the ball would be lofted in his general direction and, with Joleon Lescott or Vincent Kompany odds-on favourites to clear, his forehead would meet it first. Little wonder he's caught Roberto Mancini's eye. One diving header went to the right of the goal and a fierce shot after some decent skill flew to the left, but the most presentable chance - from a perfect Routledge cross - he planted straight at Joe Hart.

City still looked dangerous, though mostly from distance. Both goalscorers came close with shots that just cleared the crossbar, while Aleksandar Kolarov - regularly aggravated in defensive areas by Routledge, who was having one of his more effective games - also unleashed a couple of venomous long-range efforts that had Geordie hearts a-flutter.

Desperate defending early in the second half denied City a third but by and large we continued to control the game after the break. Tiote was knitting things together effectively in the centre, though neither Kevin Nolan nor ASBO were enjoying particularly good games and Spidermag's reluctance to give Jose Enrique options or to take on his marker Jerome Boateng started to irritate the home crowd. Enrique, once again superb in all areas of the pitch, should perhaps learn to trust and indulge his own attacking instincts a bit more.

City's treatment of ASBO and particularly Rocky could be described as robust and uncompromising at best, and those in black and white were dumbfounded and incensed when a blatant penalty-box shove on our number nine was ignored. Sensing that the visitors' back line could be unsettled, Pardew withdrew Routledge on the hour and sent on Nile Ranger, who had been in line for a first Premier League start but who had paid the price for an alleged attitude problem.

Sure enough, Lescott and Kompany looked even less assured as the pressure mounted and we had a vital foothold back in the game when the imperious Rocky bundled in a header from ASBO's corner. Hart raced after the referee to complain he had been blocked, only to receive a caution for his protestations and have to trudge back to his goal with the Gallowgate rejoicing in chants of "There's only one Shay Given".

With Hart visibly nervy and the momentum with us, the bumper Boxing Day crowd sensed an equaliser was within reach - and it should have arrived when Ranger did well to nod a cross across goal, only for skipper Nolan to prod wide.

That was City's cue to kill the game off. Having been playing within themselves for most of the second period, they sprung a swift counterattack that saw Newcastle-supporting substitute Adam Johnson - our conqueror in that farcical defeat in September - foiled at the last minute. Undeterred, City tried again - this time Johnson passing to Tevez, whose shot took a wicked deflection to deceive the unlucky Krul and nestle in the back of the net.

The deficit could have been narrowed at the beginning of the four minutes of stoppage time, had ASBO's excellent low free-kick not been parried behind by Hart. But, despite our industriousness and far superior number of goal attempts, we slumped to defeat. No brutal De Jong challenge or mindbogglingly awful refereeing to blame this time - just those self-inflicted wounds.

City fans' views: Bitter & Blue, The Lonesome Death Of Roy Carroll

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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