Friday, February 22, 2013

Sweet sixteen

Metalist Kharkiv 0 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Freezing temperatures, the threat of racist abuse from the terraces, an opposition side brimful with cultured Brazilians and Argentinians who'd already shown glimpses of their considerable talent on Tyneside: on paper, our trip to the Ukraine to face Metalist Kharkiv did not look like being a comfortable experience. And yet, against the odds, that's exactly what it was - for over an hour, at least, until Big Lad scored the only goal of the game and our hosts belatedly came to life, though they weren't lively enough to prevent our passage into the last sixteen.

Despite Sunday's vital Premier League clash with Southampton looming large, the Silver Fox served notice of a genuine desire to stay in the competition by fielding another strong side. Davide Santon was left behind for a well-earned rest, while Spidermag, Saylor and Obertan Kenobi dropped to the bench. Drugged milk had got Mr T onto the flight, but once on foreign soil he succumbed to a bug. His place was taken by Vurnon Anita, with Big Lad, Sylvain Marveaux, football ace Danny Simpson and Massadio Haidara (the latter for his debut) also named in the starting line-up.

Our players could have been forgiven for standing around scratching their heads in the early stages, so surprising was the lack of enthusiasm from the home side. We'd expected to see very little of the ball and to be pressurised relentlessly on the rare occasions when we did win it, but Metalist looked strangely lethargic. If their dullness in attack was borne out of anxiety about conceding a crucial away goal, then they didn't exactly defend particularly stoutly either.

Though Big Lad and Papiss Cisse were struggling to function as a front pairing, Moussa Sissoko carried on his recent role of driving us forwards, given licence to gallivant all over the pitch. One effort dribbled wide of the post via a deflection and another was scuffed straight at Olexandr Goryainov after a run in from the right. Our best first-half opportunity, two minutes before the interval, fell to Cisse who burst onto a lay-off but couldn't beat the Metalist 'keeper. After last Thursday's two disallowed goals, it was shaping up to be another one of those games for our misfiring Senegalese marksman.

Meanwhile, the only real threat to our goal came in the form of a header from Cristaldo that bounced narrowly wide. Though we won our fair share of free-kicks, Dreamboat perhaps guilty of not making the most of them with sub-par delivery, we also conceded far too many, Sideshow Bob and Anita in particularly guilty of repeatedly giving fussy Belgian referee Serge Gumienny an excuse to blow up. However, he didn't whistle on either of the two occasions when a visibly riled MYM accused opponents of throwing elbows.

If we were concerned that the break would disrupt our rhythm and we'd rue not capitalising on our first-half superiority, then we needn't have worried. Little changed in the second period, with those in black and white continuing to dictate the tempo and look most dangerous in advanced areas. Marveaux squandered a glorious chance, lashing high and wide when Big Lad and Cisse were unmarked in the centre for a two-yard tap-in.

When the all-important goal came, though, it was courtesy of a howler by defender Papa Gueye, whose misplaced backpass was seized upon by Sissoko. The Frenchman was running away from goal but Goryainov, racing back into position, panicked and took away his legs. That left Big Lad with the spot-kick, and our all-time second top scorer in European competitions sent the 'keeper the wrong way.

That, perhaps inevitably, was the stick that finally poked the hornet's nest and before long - after a quick breakaway from Sissoko that could have led to Anita doubling our advantage - we found ourselves up against a side transformed. As is so often the case, the decision to protect the lead by withdrawing Cisse and Anita and replacing them with Perchinho and Spidermag threatened to backfire, inviting further pressure.

While Big Lad will go down as the nominal matchwinner, that accolade should really go to Tim Krul, who, having been a bystander for the first hour, was suddenly the busiest man in the stadium. He made a fine stop from substitute Willian, then two even better ones in quick succession from Cristaldo, and finally capping it off with a brilliant smother onto the upright when a near-post flick from a corner looked destined for the back of our net. Perchinho deserves enormous credit, too, for a brave block when penalty box pinball could have ended in an equaliser.

At the end we were clinging on - but then the aggregate victory was merited on the strength of our first-leg performance, at least, and in any case it's worth remembering that Metalist actually needed two goals to win (so even 1-1 would have been enough).

Next up on 7th March are Anzhi Makhachkala, who will once again be tough opponents. Given our league form, just making it this far is no mean feat, though, especially as Liverpool, Napoli, Ajax, Dynamo Kiev and holders Atletico Madrid are among those to have fallen at this hurdle.

Our more immediate concern now, though, is ensuring a win over the Saints on Sunday. Rather than draining the players, hopefully our Ukrainian exertions will have buoyed the mood and underlined that, on our day, we are actually a decent side.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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