Friday, December 27, 2013

Boxing Day bonanza

Newcastle Utd 5-1 Stoke City

5-1 victories can rarely be described as fortuitous, but this one - superb entertainment for a Boxing Day afternoon - certainly can. Had referee Martin Atkinson not sent off both Glenn Whelan and Marc Wilson late in the first half, at which point the visitors were deservedly in front, we could never have dreamt of winning, let alone by a four-goal margin.

Not that the dismissals themselves were fortuitous, mind, regardless of whatever Mark Hughes might maintain - far from Atkinson acting as Santa in our favour, he was given no choice about twice brandishing his red card. And we should also be afforded some credit for ruthlessly capitalising on our two-man advantage - what Hughes won't admit is that his side's defeat could and should have been even heavier.

The Silver Fox's pre-match dilemma was who to select in place of the suspended Mr T. Big Lad would have helped us to counter Stoke's aerial power and strength (still very much a feature of their game, despite Hughes' attempts to remodel them), but instead HBA got the nod, following his electrifying goalscoring cameo at Selhurst Park. That suggested, refreshingly, that we were determined to cause our opponents problems rather than worry about the problems they could cause us.

However, for the first 39 minutes, the Silver Fox's recent Midas touch with regard to tactics appeared to have deserted him. HBA, our most dangerous player, saw too little of the ball wide on the right; Davide Santon was off the pace; Loic Remy looked like a man suffering under the shadow of a goal drought and a court case; and Moussa Sissoko, deployed in a more central role, was utterly hopeless both in possession and in the tackle. While we did have a smattering of efforts on goal - a curler from HBA, a dribbler from Goofy - we weren't attacking with sufficient pace and purpose to trouble Stoke.

Meanwhile, the Potters' Steven Nzonzi was largely controlling midfield and Charlie Adam was revelling in his role behind Peter Crouch, twice accepting the invitation to blast left-footed at goal. There had been plenty of groaning and moaning in the stands before Mathieu Debuchy showed right-footed left winger Oussama Assaidi inside for the umpteenth time, and he promptly planted a curled shot beyond Tim Krul into the far corner.

Thankfully, things weren't bleak for long, as Stoke's ill-discipline got the better of them. Whelan was booked for booting the ball away and six minutes later earned himself an early bath with an unnecessary and stupid challenge from behind on Dreamboat. Whelan's petulance was obviously catching, with Hughes kicking a spare ball onto the pitch, throwing his coat into the air in disgust and getting sent to the stands (and subsequently charged with improper conduct) for his trouble - all much to the delight of the home faithful.

Before Hughes had even assumed his new position, his team were reduced to nine. Mini V - who earlier had raised chuckles for taking on Crouch in an aerial battle - threaded a pass through to Remy who was tugged back by Wilson for the inevitable red card and penalty. Remy himself dusted himself down for the spot-kick, but Thomas Sorensen already had form for saving penalties at St James' and easily saved the striker's poor effort. A crazy five minutes came to a happy conclusion, though, Remy making amends by receiving HBA's pass and firing a deflected shot into the Leazes goal, those in red and white protesting about an alleged handball from Mike Williamson in the build-up.

No team talk was required and the Silver Fox made his intentions plain by replacing Mini V with Big Lad at the break. It took all of three minutes for us to complete the turnaround, Goofy making the most of lame clearances by placing a shot into the bottom left corner to register for the fifth successive home match.

Stoke understandably concentrated on fighting battles in the centre of the pitch, which meant that we continually had two-on-one situations when Dreamboat drilled the ball out to the right or left. HBA came into his own, attacking the space, terrifying defenders and hitting the woodwork twice (first the post and then the bar) in the space of four minutes.

Those close shaves came either side of the goal that sealed the victory, Santon's cross flicked on by Sissoko and nodded in by Remy. That was the last of the Italian's major contributions, with Massadio Haidara introduced on the hour mark. Some fans felt this was a bizarrely negative move, but as it turned out the French youngster found himself in acres of space and deployed predominantly as a left winger. Had his crossing been better, Big Lad might have added his name to the score sheet, which was lengthened further when Dreamboat stroked in a peach of a finish.

4-1 up against nine men: an ideal time to bring Papiss Cisse into the fray, with Goofy leaving to a standing ovation. A penalty-area foul on HBA presented an interesting situation: who would take it? The victim of the challenge, who scored from the spot at Palace? Remy, on a hat-trick but already guilty of missing from 12 yards earlier in the match? The cool-headed and in-form Dreamboat? Big Lad, who can boast of having never missed a penalty? In the end, and to the delight of the crowd, the responsibility went to Cisse, who dispatched the ball with aplomb for his first league goal since April. The roar was deafening.

In the remaining ten minutes we should have been awarded another two penalties, one for a shove on Dreamboat and another for a lunge on Haidara, but Atkinson seemingly took pity on the beleaguered visitors, turning a blind eye to the laws of the game and denying us the opportunity to boost our improving goal difference further.

The final whistle brought confirmation of our biggest win of the season (superceding Saturday's victory at Selhurst Park) and, courtesy of the Mackems' unlikely triumph at Goodison Park, of the fact that the gap to fifth place had closed to one point. We'd be foolish to think the result makes us any more likely to beat Arsenal, given the circumstances in which it was achieved, but we nevertheless go into Sunday's meeting with the league leaders in fine spirits.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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