NEWCASTLE United’s unlikely Carling Cup dream ended in a nightmare for Tim Krul last night as the young goalkeeper’s unfortunate own goal set Arsenal on their way towards the quarter-finals.
In a breathtaking first half, both sides wasted good opportunities to open the scoring, but on the stroke of half-time the visitors snatched a crucial advantage when Krul failed to deal with Nicklas Bendtner’s header and, as Ryan Taylor tried to help him out, the defender’s clearance off the line bounced in off the back of Krul’s head.
It was a bitter blow ruthlessly capitalised on by Arsenal, who doubled their lead early in the second half through Theo Walcott and never looked like allowing their hosts back into it after that, before putting a gloss on their night with two more late goals.
Everybody knows league survival is Newcastle’s main priority this season, but that doesn’t mean supporters should not be able to dream of cup glory to go with the rather more mundane objective of finishing above the bottom three.
Not that anything is ever mundane where the Magpies are concerned. After days of distractions it was another difficult one for Hughton yesterday.
As he and the team settled down for their pre-match meal, Sky Sports News was running a story suggesting he could be about to get the sack as manager because bookmakers had stopped taking bets on his removal. Whatever was on the menu, it will not have gone down easily.
The story was denied once again by senior club officials, although constant speculation about the manager’s future is unhelpful to say the least.
Some might call it mischief-making, but the more cynical will constantly look to suggest there is no smoke without fire.
However, as Steve Bruce has said elsewhere in The Journal this morning, the very fact Hughton is constantly having to answer these sorts of questions is ludicrous given their position in the league table and the steady job he has done over the last 14 months.
Football is a ruthless business, but anyone with an ounce of understanding will recognise the good job he has done in difficult circumstances.
Playing through this sort of thing has become Newcastle’s forte, although nobody could underestimate the size of the task awaiting them last night.
The problem for Newcastle came as soon as the draw was made.
Arsene Wenger may have started the trend of using youngsters in this competition but, after five years without a trophy to celebrate at the Emirates, the League Cup is being taken a lot more seriously this year.
The Gunners made changes but it still had the feel of a first-team set-up, Craig Eastmond the only name which won’t have already been widely known in Tyneside households. The visitors looked capable of scoring at will in the first few minutes, Carlos Vela drawing a save from Tim Krul after Mike Williamson had lost possession on the edge of his own area after just 20 seconds.
Krul was needed again from the resulting corner, this time to keep out Bendtner after a goalmouth scramble, but the Magpies hit back immediately. Nile Ranger did well to turn his man and, when he was fouled, Haris Vuckic carried on, drilling a shot into the side netting.
The home defence was struggling, but a jinking run from Emmanuel Eboue went through the middle of the defence. Thankfully, his shot was a tame one straight at Krul. Bendtner might also have done better when he held off Williamson in the area, but his shot was scuffed wide of the far post.
Once again, Newcastle broke and caused problems of their own. Indeed, it was their best chance so far, Danny Guthrie sending Ranger in on goal with perfectly weighted chipped pass.
The striker got the ball beyond goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, but centre-back Laurent Koscielny got back to block. When Arsenal struggled to get the ball clear, Alan Smith smashed a long-range effort which was helped on to the crossbar by the keeper.
After a pulsating start, the game fizzled out a little after that as both team got to grips with each other in midfield.
Peter Lovenkrands did have the ball in the net, only he did so from an offside position, while Eboue’s clever run down the left saw him the fire wide from a tight angle.
United looked as though they would hold firm only for Krul’s moment of misfortune to ruin that. A James Perch header from a corner almost saw United grab an equaliser, but Newcastle were two down inside ten minutes of the second half in controversial circumstances.
Walcott sprang the offside trap running on to Johan Djourou’s hopeful header, but as Williamson got back to try to cover the danger he ran into the retreating Bendtner.
It was accidental, perhaps, but there is no doubt it made Walcott’s job, dinking the ball over Krul, far easier than it would have been under pressure from a defender.
Newcastle huffed and puffed in search of a way back into the game and brought on key men Andy Carroll, Jonas Gutierrez and Joey Barton, but there is not a better team in English football than Arsenal at keeping possession to kill a game off and they did just that.
Newcastle came close to getting back into with nine minutes left when Ranger’s header was just about kept out by Szczesny under pressure from Taylor, but Arsenal scored with their next attack through Bendtner’s curling shot.
Carroll should have scored moments later with a free header and Taylor was denied by an excellent save from the goalkeeper, but the game was already over by then, a fact emphasised by Walcott’s second of the night as broke clear for a cool finish past Krul.