Monday, December 02, 2013

November reign

Newcastle Utd 2 - 1 West Brom

Reflecting in midweek on our trio of wins, I was acutely aware that celebrating our triumphs might be tempting fate, particularly ahead of another eminently winnable home game. So it was relieving and gratifying that against West Brom on Saturday the team seemingly set out to prove me right in every respect.

Not only did our form players perform well, but the formation worked a treat (with Big Lad turning in another man-of-the-match-winning display), and Goofy continued his goalscoring contribution. Even more pleasingly, my comments specifying possible improvements appeared to have been noted; for once, we weren't reliant on a Loic Remy goal, the winner instead coming from the boot of Moussa Sissoko, the one first-team regular I'd identified as needing to up his game.

The availability of Mathieu Debuchy after suspension tempted the Silver Fox into tinkering with a winning side, MYM the unfortunate man to drop to the bench, but otherwise we were unchanged against a Baggies team that haven't won often this season but have nevertheless regularly proven hard to beat.

We started a little nervously, Tim Krul pushing behind a Chris Brunt free kick that was sailing well wide of the post, and Dreamboat snatching at a shot from a similar position to the one from which he scored the opener against Liverpool. Our first real chance, though, came largely courtesy of Sissoko, whose show of upper-body strength against Liam Ridgewell on the right wing allowed Debuchy to whip in a dangerous cross. Remy's goal-bound header deflected off his marker's shoulder and behind for a corner.

Remarkably, given our record from flag kicks before last weekend, it was from a corner that we took the lead. Dreamboat did little more than loft the ball into the six yard box, but when Boaz Myhill fluffed his punch, Goofy took advantage to glance a header past the man on the line.

A goal up at the break, and some fans thought we could have had a man advantage too. Following a smart turn on the edge of the area, Remy's arm was tugged back by Jonas Olsson. In truth, other defenders were converging on our striker, so a red card would have been unmerited - but for referee Phil Dowd's failure to either award us the free kick or alternatively book the Frenchman for what was admittedly a somewhat theatrical collapse to the turf was mystifying.

The lively Remy swiftly set about trying to extend our lead early in the second period, Myhill smothering at his feet following a neat turn and pass from Big Lad, but instead it was the previously shot-shy visitors who registered next. From a right-wing cross, Shane Long's flicked header took out two defenders, leaving Baggies skipper Brunt free to wallop home from an angle.

Having been pegged back level after dominating the match, and by a side that two months earlier had beaten Man Utd 2-1 at Old Trafford, those of us in the stands had reason to become jittery. The players kept their cool, though - no one more so than Sissoko, who, from Remy's cushioned header, allowed the ball to run across him before smashing a screamer into the top right-hand corner of Myhill's net.

It was a goal worthy of winning any game, though should have been supplemented by Dreamboat, who blasted straight at Myhill after the 'keeper's throw had landed a defender in difficulty. Gloss could also have come from the penalty spot, after a reasonable handball shout against Billy Jones, but we did end up being thankful that substitute Victor Anichebe couldn't quite pop up to haunt us again, the former Everton man's late header failing to find the net.

Having clearly tucked into the egg nog too early and with relish, Baggies manager Steve Clarke claimed afterwards that "Anyone who is fair-minded about the game would say that we should have got something from it" - so I guess you can mark us down as not being fair-minded, then.

Meanwhile, the Silver Fox's post-match comments were notable for two reasons. First, a not-at-all veiled message to a pair of players who've apparently recently expressed interest in leaving: "Everybody is fit and available, so your Yohan Cabayes and Colos can look around that dressing room and see quality, and quality not even involved - Steven Taylor didn't even make the bench." Second, a reiteration of the claim that not being in Europe is beneficial: "We have got a strength in depth that we didn't have even when we finished fifth two years ago, but certainly the fact that we are not playing Europa League and we are getting that extra work on the training ground is definitely showing."

If European qualification really is seen as a curse, then we might want to think about applying the brakes - this fourth successive victory elevated us to the heady heights of fifth place, with yesterday's results only nudging us down one position. Above both Man Utd and Spurs, and two points off second - it would have seemed unthinkable after that defeat at the Dark Place.

Two tough away assignments now lie in wait - Swansea on Wednesday and Man Utd on Saturday - but we currently have sufficient confidence and form, as well as sufficient ability, to be able to return home with decent results.

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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