Friday, November 23, 2012

A hollow triumph

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Maritimo

Yay! Qualification for the knock-out stages of the Europa League guaranteed, with one game to spare! But excuse me if I'm not exactly swinging from the rafters with joy. This was hardly much to celebrate - a third successive home game against supposedly inferior opposition which we failed to win, and two more key first teamers added to the increasingly ridiculous injury list. I've refused to swallow the theory that says our Thursday evening commitments have blighted our league form thus far this season, but there's no doubt that last night was one we could have done without.

With Sideshow Bob's ban only extending to domestic fixtures, the Silver Fox had the luxury of naming a first-choice back five. Vurnon Anita and Master T were paired in the centre (Mr T missing out through suspension) and Papiss Cisse returned up front, with HBA, Little Big Lad and Sylvain Marveaux given licence to float around and create the chances.

Our visitors began brightest but were restricted to efforts from distance and when we decided to wake up and look lively it wasn't long before the lead was ours. Davide Santon - once again arguably our best attacker all night - forced Maritimo 'keeper Romain Salin into a save before HBA took charge. One graceful dart took him past several opponents only to be foiled by a heavy touch in the box. Not to be disheartened, however, he then promptly played an incisive ball into Marveaux whose superb touch took him away from the defender and, bearing down upon goal, he coolly fired it between Salin's legs. The glum-faced Frenchman seemed to celebrate his first goal in black and white more with relief than delight.

We came close to doubling our advantage when Master T's shot was blocked and Cisse drove home the rebound left-footed under the 'keeper's body only for a very marginal offside decision to rule it out. That proved to be something of a turning point, with HBA having tweaked his hamstring in setting up the shooting opportunity for Master T.

That was five minutes before the break, and worse was to follow five minutes after the restart, with Cisse - who had looked much more like his lively old self - also withdrawn through injury. The performance of his replacement Romain Amalfitano proved typical of our second half - lots of energy but no quality or control. As the game wore on, we ceded ground and therefore the initiative to a side who are hardly pulling up any trees in their homeland, overdribbling with the ball to waste valuable possession and then chasing shadows in trying to tackle back. At a time when we really need our squad players to show their worth, neither Little Big Lad nor Marveaux did themselves justice.

While it's true that we could have extended our lead had Little Big Lad not prodded a great chance wide or Ba connected with a Santon cross from the left, we can't argue that Maritimo's equaliser was unforeseeable. Unlike the Silver Fox, when the Portuguese side's manager Pedro Martins made a substitution it was tactical - and the decision to throw on Fidelis on the hour certainly paid dividends. Tim Krul, largely a spectator in the first half, had had his palms stung on at least two occasions and also watched a Sami header flash wide before the Brazilian striker burst past Saylor into the area and drilled the ball through Krul's legs.

It was the visitors' first goal away from home in the competition this season - and it could easily have been worse, had the same linesman whose flag chalked off Cisse's first-half effort not signalled to do the same to Fidelis' finish. The Brazilian had yet another chance to snatch it at the death, but hit a tame far-post volley that bounced harmlessly wide with Krul a bystander and the fans' hearts in mouths.

Bordeaux's victory in Bruges meant the point was enough to ensure progress, but that wasn't sufficient to appease those in the paltry sub-22,000 crowd who greeted the final whistle with muted boos. This could - and indeed should - have been a morale-boosting victory ahead of Sunday's trip to the south coast. Instead we once again underlined our brittleness and lack of form, and suffered further casualties to boot.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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