Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A Month Of Saturdays: February 2013

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly things can turn around for this unfathomably loveable, inestimably infuriating club of ours. Results-wise, January was as dark as night both literally and metaphorically, and yet that flurry of acquisitions from across the channel and the vital victory over Villa sent us coasting into February on a high. Chelsea and their sitting duck manager Rafa Benitez had the misfortune of rolling into Toon just as the French revolution was gathering pace, and blue-blooded Premier League royals were duly sacrificed to the delight of the baying hordes in the stands.

It could have been very different, of course, had referee Howard Webb awarded a penalty and perhaps even a red card for Sideshow Bob's innocent though ill-advised high foot. He didn't, though, and said boot's forceful collision with Demba Ba's mug brought the returning former idol's afternoon to a premature end. A shame that some saw fit to boo him - interviewed later in the month, Llambiarse was justified in his refusal to criticise the striker and his gratitude for the goals he contributed during his time on Tyneside.

Back to that pulsating match, though, and Spidermag gave us a half-time lead with a rare-as-hens'-teeth header. Even when 2-1 down to the reigning European champions early in the second period to two stupendous strikes from Frank Lampard and Juan Mata, we never panicked or hung our heads, instead buoyed by renewed self-belief and a home crowd as noisy and boisterous as any in recent memory.

Goofy certainly played his part in the comeback, breaking free and having a shot saved for the equaliser, but our undisputed hero was Moussa Sissoko, a man mountain and a vigorous driving force between midfield and attack, who ran opponents ragged with his incredible energy and grabbed the goals that secured the win. Sometimes you don't know what you're missing until it's gone - and sometimes you realise you didn't know what you were missing until it's in place. Hopefully Sissoko will be channelling the spirit of Patrick Vieira in black and white for some years to come.

Not that he's completely infallible, mind. Four days later he couldn't prevent a France side also containing club colleague Dreamboat from slipping to a friendly defeat to Germany, and neither could he help us to a hat-trick of Premier League wins at Spurs the following weekend. On that occasion our man of the moment was outshone by the one in the home team, two moments of lax defending handing Gareth Bale the opportunity to do that irritating heart celebration.

Bale's goals sandwiched a first Newcastle strike for Goofy, albeit with the aid of a deflection. 2-1 was a significant improvement from last year's 5-0, and we acquitted ourselves reasonably well, particularly in recovering from the initial deficit, but once Spurs had regained the lead, Tim Krul was called upon several times to keep the scoreline respectable and prevent Bale from having an automatic claim to the match ball.

During Llambiarse's interview with the Ronny Gill - which touched on everything from stability and responsible investment to an admission of being ill prepared for the rigours of European competition and the autumn injury crisis, having to accelerate summer signings and the club's rampant Gallophilia - he ventured to suggest that we'd already replaced Ba. A little premature, given that Goofy's still got a lot to prove - and in any case our main striker is Papiss Cisse, who continued to frustrate in front of goal despite being handed the central striking role.

The goalless first leg of our Europa League tie against Metalist was a case in point. With Goofy ineligible, the burden fell squarely onto Cisse's shoulders but he couldn't provide the winner our dominance deserved - though two very dubious offside flags certainly did him no favours. Preventing our visitors from snatching an away goal was pleasing, but they were tidy enough to suggest that they'd cause us serious problems on their own turf.

Or so we feared. As it turned out, an uncharacteristically controlled and composed performance in the Ukraine - during which we were watertight in defence and dynamic in attack - saw us through. The fact that it was a penalty - awarded following errors forced by Sissoko's persistence and scored, unerringly, by spot-kick specialist Big Lad - that did the trick shouldn't detract from the dominant display beforehand and the resolute rearguard action which followed. Massadio Haidara made his debut in trying circumstances, while Krul was exceptional.

Sadly, though, the Dutchman also picked up an injury that meant a Premier League debut for Rob Elliot against Southampton - one which didn't get off to the best of starts when Morgan Schneiderlin scored for the Saints just three minutes in. In what was a crucial clash against another side upon whom the threat of relegation is casting its shadow, we recovered to lead at the break through Sissoko's tap-in and Cisse's long-range spectacular (why, we wondered, could he do it from 30 yards but not three?).

Rickie Lambert equalised early in the second half but the Silver Fox wasn't to be denied finally getting one over on a former club. It was a substitution which swung it in our favour, but one made by Mauricio Pochettino. Danny Fox didn't have the best of times after coming off the bench, first literally handing us a penalty that Dreamboat tucked away on French Day and then whacking an attempted clearance off team-mate Jos Hooiveld and into the back of the Saints net. The win took us six points clear of the relegation zone - and, pleasingly, meant we finished the month restored to our rightful place above the Mackems.

February promised to be a big month for Curtis Good but turned sour, the Bradford loanee hauled off at half-time in the League Cup final as the Bantams were battered 5-0 by Swansea. Hopefully fellow loanee Brad Inman will have better luck when his Crewe side contest the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final later this season. Their passage to Wembley was hastened in significant part by the Aussie midfielder's brace at Coventry in the first leg of the semi-final at Coventry. Meanwhile, Little Big Lad was sent to Middlesbrough (tough luck, son) and Michael Richardson to League 2 leaders Gillingham, and no fewer than three Newcastle employees met in the game between St Johnstone and St Mirren, Mehdi Abeid claiming bragging rights over Conor Newton and Paul Dummett.

So much for players responding to their exclusion from the first team constructively. Our lot are hardly strangers to suffering a beating in Manchester, though not usually of the very physical sort dished out to drunk, gobby "football ace" Danny Simpson outside a takeaway in the early hours. Perhaps inevitably, the displaced right-back wasn't the only member of the squad to get themselves in trouble during February, with Mr T arrested on the vague charge of motoring fraud. If Northumbria Police are going to push for a custodial sentence, I wonder if they'll have taken into account the fact that he's already escaped from a maximum security stockade...

That Newcastle players seem to have a nose for naughtiness is nothing new, though February did see a few of the current squad reveal more commendable hidden talents. Steve Harper and Big Lad, for instance, were acclaimed as comic geniuses for their performances at a tribute evening in memory of Sir Bobby Robson, while Dreamboat guest-edited Le Journal, though this actually only really amounted to the wraparound front and back pages.

Nevertheless, the episode indicated that the Frenchman has a rather better relationship with local journalists than JFK, who - no doubt in a mental institution somewhere - can finally celebrate getting the recognition he deserves from his finest hour in charge at St James' Park. I wonder if it was a fellow in-patient who came up with the idea of having slides outside the ground?




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