Friday, March 08, 2013

Anzhi, Anzhi, you can't say we never tried*

Anzhi Makhachkala 0 - 0 Newcastle Utd

All hail Perchinho and MYM. A tremendous defensive performance from our central defenders in particular saw us claim a second clean sheet in Eastern Europe in quick succession, though we couldn't quite nick the away goal that would have given us a significant advantage going into next week's second leg.

Not that a positive result seemed too likely when the teamsheet was announced. With skipper Sideshow Bob joining Tim Krul in the treatment room (possibly until May), Goofy and Mathieu Debuchy ineligible, Spidermag and virus-stricken Papiss Cisse left on Tyneside, and Davide Santon, Saylor and Mr T rested on the bench, the side had a distinctly unfamiliar look to it. Rob Elliot continued to deputise for the Dutchman between the sticks, with Danny Simpson and Massadio Haidara reprising their roles from the trip to Metalist Kharkiv in the full-back positions, either side of that central defensive pairing. Anchoring the midfield were Vurnon Anita and captain for the day Dreamboat, with Moussa Sissoko, Sylvain Marveaux, Obertan Kenobi and the returning HBA ahead of them.

The Silver Fox claimed he'd selected a "technical side" - which I suppose he had, if by that he meant one without a recognised striker (Big Lad, matchwinner in the last round, was kept in reserve owing to medical advice that the plastic pitch wouldn't be good for him). Still, I suppose it's worked for Barcelona at times this season, though you could argue the calibre of the personnel doesn't bear comparison...

The opening period saw some speculation as to whether it was Sissoko or birthday boy HBA who was nominally leading the line - it wasn't clear, though that shapelessness in the forward third was hardly matched at the back, where we set out to defend with discipline and resolve. There was some relief when, on a bobbly pitch, £35m Brazilian striker Willian picked up an injury following a well-timed intervention by MYM, but his departure actually threatened to prove the catalyst that would get the lethargic home side going.

Samuel Eto'o, whom we faced all those years ago playing for Real Mallorca in this competition, profited from the introduction of Mr T's international colleague Lacina Traore, as it meant he could drop a little deeper and find more space. On one such occasion he fired in the only meaningful effort of the half, hammering a shot that Elliot palmed upwards and, thankfully, over the bar and onto the roof of the net.

There was precious little else to report from the first period, other than the satisfaction of seeing our illustrious hosts put in a straightjacket by the Silver Fox's tactics and the performances of his players. Only Obertan Kenobi seemed not to have got the memo, consistently gifting the ball to those in yellow and then not bothering to try winning it back.

Even after the interval we maintained a vice-like grip on our opponents, the lanky Traore shackled superbly by Perchinho, who was busy outshining the two genuinely Brazilian central defenders in Anzhi's ranks. When Eto'o did get an opportunity to send a shot skidding towards goal, Elliot did brilliantly to push it behind for a corner, from which Oleg Shatov volleyed harmlessly wide.

Brazilian midfielder Jucilei had been a dominant force in the first half, but as his influence faded we started to look more threatening in forward areas. The best chance by some distance fell to HBA after some neat interplay, but his attempt to chip 'keeper Vladimir Gabulov, rather than drill the ball low and hard, was ill-judged and a sign of the inevitable rustiness that saw him replaced by Big Lad shortly afterwards.

Later there was a surging run and dipping shot from Anita, and Marveaux had an effort deflected behind for a corner, but we never quite showed sufficient courage to really push for that all-important away goal. Sissoko's energy was admirable but, like HBA, Marveaux and Obertan Kenobi (who did at least belatedly wake up), he often ran into defenders and was dispossessed, while we also suffered from poor decision-making with the final ball. Thankfully, though, Anzhi couldn't muster much either - only a dribbler from Eto'o that was never going to trouble Elliot.

So, zero goals to go with the sub-zero temperatures - the first time this European campaign that Anzhi have been denied three points at "home" or indeed prevented from scoring. Just a shame that only 70 Toon fans were present to witness it - one of whom, at least, had the additional joy of receiving Perchinho's shirt post-match as a thank you for standing around in the cold outside the team hotel in the hope of getting a glimpse of his heroes.

However, while we should be proud of the performance, it's worth remembering that many viewed our 0-0 first-leg home draw against Metalist as a positive result for us, as it denied our visitors an away goal. Anzhi may be a bit miffed at not continuing their winning streak, but will travel to Tyneside knowing that if they can score, they'll put us in a very difficult position.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

* With apologies to the Rolling Stones...

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