Friday, May 14, 2004

Champions' League, we were having a laugh

Southampton 3-3 Newcastle. One for the neutral, as they say. Not one for the Newcastle fan, for whom the result made the extremely slim possibility of Champions' League qualification vanish in a puff of smoke.

In truth, despite the disappointment that greeted the final whistle, this was very far from being a poor performance. Following the disaster against Wolves I was looking for guts and fighting spirit, and that's what we had in spades at St Mary's - but our luck was most definitely out.

Ameobi opened the scoring after just seven minutes, making use of his size and strength to hold off Claus Lundekvam and then crash a shot into the bottom left corner. We survived a couple of scares before slack defending allowed Saints to get a shot in which Given could only parry straight into the path of the malingering Beattie three yards out - 1-1. The match ebbed and flowed with chances coming at both ends, Dyer causing problems on his return from injury, and then a few minutes before half-time Ameobi escaped a defender on the left and pulled the ball back for the onrushing Bowyer to fire in a left-footed shot for his second goal in two games. Sadly, once again the celebrations were short-lived, and once again we let ourselves down with some horrible kamikaze defending. A cross came in from the Newcastle left, Caldwell sliced his attempted clearance, Bramble stuck out a knee and the ball flew past Given. The half-time whistle came, leaving me to reflect on the fact that, despite Caldwell and Bramble playing like they'd never set foot on a football pitch before let alone played with each other, we still had a good chance of snatching the vital three points.

The players evidently felt the same, coming out for the second period and battering the Southampton goal with chance after chance. Caldwell hit the crossbar with a header, while Ambrose's brilliant long-range shot also rattled the woodwork. Before the match I'd rubbed my hands optimistically when I found out that Antti Niemi, probably the best keeper in the Premiership this season, was out injured and his replacement Alan Blayney was making his debut - but, of course, sod's law would have it that the rookie had an absolute blinder, denying Ameobi and Bowyer as well as an unbelievable save from a Shearer header. Though there were still occasional flashes of danger at the other end (Given pulled off a fine diving save to deny Fernandes), our defence looked more solid and the momentum was with us.

But time dragged on and, with only a few minutes remaining, as we desperately sought a winner, Saints substitute Leandre Griffit escaped Bernard's attention and slipped the ball through Given's legs into the net. For the most part we've got what we've deserved this season, but not this time - it was a cruel, cruel blow. Two minutes into stoppage time, Robert picked out Ambrose from a corner and the youngster fired in from distance, but an equaliser wasn't what we needed or craved.

To be honest, our chances of grabbing the fourth spot had effectively evaporated before Wednesday night - the appalling Wolves draw, lacklustre defeats to Spurs, Bolton and Man City, and all those points dropped late on at Birmingham, Blackburn and Portsmouth have cost us dear. Over the whole season we simply weren't good enough. Now we have to pick ourselves up, get a result at Liverpool and hope (and pray) that Man Utd do us a favour by beating Villa so we can sneak into the UEFA Cup at the last available moment. European football is imperative if we want to strengthen (or rebuild?) the side with players of the calibre of Smith, Kezman and Beattie, all of whom I'd love to see on Tyneside. If we can't steal fifth place, then it could be a quiet summer as we watch the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool put more distance between themselves and us via their dealings in the transfer market. We don't want to go the way of Leeds, but perhaps it needs another leap of faith on the part of the board - the sort of leap they took in splashing out on Robert and Bellamy three years ago.

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