Sunday, May 09, 2004

French kiss of death

On Thursday night in the Stade Velodrome the sky really did fall in on our season. Alas, it just wasn’t to be.

Quite simply, we were Drogfucked. Didier Drogba, Marseille’s most impressive performer during the first leg of the UEFA Cup semi-final at St James’s Park, had another outstanding game, scoring once in each half to propel his side into an encounter with Spanish league leaders Valencia in the final and leave us down and out.

Most of the details of the match are hazy, recollected only dimly through the alcoholic fug, but the overriding impression of our first half display was that we simply carried on where we left off against Man City: lethargic, anaemic, spineless – the sort of performance that communicates nothing but white flag waving. I may have feared for our chances going into the game, but the players themselves seemed convinced of their own inferior quality. Given did as much as could be expected of him, Shearer battled manfully up front and Speed did his best to stem the flow of the Marseille midfield – but on a night when we were deprived of key players and so already knew that vital contributions were needed all over the pitch, three displays of modest conviction and effort was never going to be enough. And the less said about Viana and Robert the better. Drogba grabbed the only goal of the half after making a lightning break following a Newcastle free-kick that was knocked clear, beating Hughes with power and skill before slotting past Given.

Thankfully there was a marked improvement in the second half, Ameobi causing a few problems and a few chances going begging. Going into the last ten minutes, the score was still only 1-0, and we knew that an equaliser would probably be the killer blow – but only the most blinkered Newcastle fan could possibly argue that we deserved to get back onto level terms. For the most part Shearer and Ameobi had been well-marshalled by a strong Marseille defence, their midfield had been fluent with the ball and combative without it, and Drogba posed a constant threat up front. Just when the French side were getting jittery about the possibility of a fatal equaliser, O’Brien allowed Drogba to wheel away from him at a free-kick and fire home the decisive second unchallenged. The dream was not so much dead, as lying stretched out in a wooden box six feet under.

Of course there will always be a host of if onlys: if only Ameobi and Speed had taken very presentable chances in the home leg, if only we’d been able to field something approaching our strongest team – Woodgate’s importance to the side is underlined more strongly with every game he misses, Dyer’s energy and attacking intent might have made a crucial difference in midfield, Bellamy’s pace could have unsettled their central defensive pair… But the truth of the matter is that on the night the better team won. That much can’t be denied.

Not that that makes the pain of defeat any easier to bear. Heads were in hands once again, a shrug of the shoulders and a sigh not enough. 2004 – another year in the litany of so-near-yet-so-far catastrophes the fans have had to endure since the Fairs Cup glory of 1969, eight years before I was born. 1974 – FA Cup final defeat to Liverpool. 1976 – League Cup final defeat to Man City. 1995-1996 – 1st place in the Premiership conceded to Man Utd after holding a 15 point lead. 1996-1997 – 2nd to Man Utd in the Premiership again. 1998 – FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal. 1999 – FA Cup final defeat to Man Utd. 2000 – FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea. How much longer must we wait for success? How much more ignominy can we take?

(To read Paul's thoughts on the whole sorry charade, click here.)

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