Blues 1 Newcastle United 2
Blues failed to progress to the final of the FA Premier League Asia Cup after a battling performance against Bobby Robson's Newcastle United. Playing a Champions League side in the heat and humidity that the players are exposed to out here in Kuala Lumpur is hard enough as it is with eleven men, but when the referee reduces the side to ten men in the first half, you really are up against it, and it's a tribute to Blues that they were never out of the game, and should really have taken it to a penalty shoot out.
Steve Bruce opted for pretty much the first team you would expect given Aliou Cisse's current status. The one surprise, perhaps, was the utilisation of Damien Johnson as a right back ahead of Jeff Kenna, though the fact that Kenna never even appeared as a substitute would suggest that he may have been struggling with an injury. Johnson joined Matthew Upson, Kenny Cunningham and Jamie Clapham in front of Ian Bennett, with Stephen Clemence and Robbie Savage in central midfield, Stan Lazaridis to their left, and David Dunn on the right, but no doubt given the licence to roam. Geoff Horsfield captained the side, and led the line with Christophe Dugarry.
The local fans, for whom the Premiership is watched almost as religiously as back home, turned out in their Newcastle shirts, whilst the Blues support was left to the impressive numbers who had travelled from England, along with some exiles from the likes of Australia and the US. In that respect, Blues fans severely outnumbered their North East counterparts (one fan counted 28 Blues flags overhanging the second tier alongside 2 from Newcastle), but in all fairness, Newcastle fans do have a lot more trips abroad to save for this coming season, so this would certainly not be a priority, whilst the only foreign country Blues may visit is Wales if we get Wrexham away in the FA Cup.
Given the hostile climate and the fact that at the end of the day, this is nothing more than a glamorous pre-season friendly, the pace of the game was never going to be anything like a Premiership encounter. Indeed, the two teams started at a fairly slow tempo, with Newcastle looking slightly more comfortable, though Blues had the first clear cut chance when good work by Dugarry set up Savage who hit a half volley straight at Steve Harper in the United goal, when he really should have done better. Newcastle gradually got a foothold in the game, and whilst Alan Shearer was marshalled superbly by Cunningham, Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert were both able to test Bennett from distance.
The game turned on a refereeing decision in the 35th minute. Cunningham clearly brought down Bellamy in a mistimed challenge as Bellamy advanced on goal in the Blues area. The Irish captain was also the last line of defence, prior to Bennett. In any Premiership game, you would have expected and accepted Cunningham being dismissed. However, Mr Rob Styles (notorious amongst Blues fans ever since sending Peter Ndlovu off for diving against Huddersfield Town at St Andrews when TV replays showed that the Huddersfield defender went straight through Ndlovu) obviously neglected to think of the fact that teams had come over here for fitness reasons, and to prepare for the season, and that having to play for just less than an hour with 10 men would be more of a hinderance than a help. Mr Styles also failed to comprehend that several hundred Blues fans had travelled thousands of miles to watch the team, and now he had spoiled the game - and indeed affected the whole tournament - by brandishing a red card. No doubt the only thought that ran through Mr Styles' mind was that he was being televised across the globe - most notably here in Asia - and as such, would make a bit of a name for himself whilst on his little holiday out here with Andy D'Urso. (How the Premier League opted for those two referees to represent them is beyond me...)
Alan Shearer, Gary Speed and Lee Bowyer all contested the decision to send Cunningham off, as did the Blues side, but there was nothing that could be done now. Shearer stepped up and dispatched the penalty, Blues replaced Lazaridis with Purse to bolster the by-now weakened defence, and the game, it seemed, was effectively over.
Bruce made several changes at half time, bringing on Darren Carter, Bryan Hughes and Stern John for Savage, Clemence and Horsfield respectively. The fact that Bruce was now also playing three in midfield meant that club record signing David Dunn adopted a more central role, and following a fairly anonymous first half, was at the heart of everything in the second half, for Blues looked a much better side with depleted numbers. John caused no end of trouble with his control and skill up front, whilst Dunn and Carter both provided good support from behind with surging runs forward. By the time Paul Devlin replaced Dugarry in the 67th minute, Blues were the better side.
Blues got their reward in the 72nd minute, after some neat work by Dunn, Johnson and Hughes led to Carter being sythed down in the penalty area by Titus Bramble. Again, there was no doubt it was a penalty - though no card of either colour was shown on this occasion. After being so adamant about taking a penalty at Burton Albion, it was a surprise to see Dunn personally hand the ball over to Devlin, who made no mistake from the spot, hitting it almost identically to Shearer's.
Blues foothold in the game was shortlived though, as a Craig Bellamy cross was headed home expertly by substitue Shola Ameobi just three minutes later after some very sloppy Blues defending. The game wasn't over yet though. Just minute later, following a ball by Dunn, John found himself through on goal, but managed to hit the ball straight at Harper. However, John got lucky, and the ball rebounded off Harper, back of the Trinidad & Tobago striker, and led to John having an open goal, some three yards out, which he somehow managed to miss much to the amusement of the local fans who had turned out.
In the end, the sides played out the remaining minutes of the game, and Newcastle progressed to the final to face the winners of Malaysia versus Chelsea. However, the game will only be remembered for one thing by the Blues fans who travelled out here, and that is for the referee ruining what was meant to be a prestigious occasion for the club by showing no common sense whatsoever. The fact that Newcastle's players themselves argued with Mr Styles showed just how ridiculous a decidion it was, but no doubt Mr Styles comforted himself by heading back to his hotel room, flicking on his TV, and seeing his face all over the screen across Asia for being the main protagonist in a game that's meant to be about the players.
BLUES: Bennett, D Johnson, Clapham, Cunningham, Upson, Dunn (Tebily 87), Savage (Carter ht), Horsfield (John ht) Dugarry (Devlin 67), Clemence (Hughes ht), Lazaridis (Purse 39). Subs not used: Doyle, Kenna.
NEWCASTLE: Harper, Griffin, Bernard (Hughes 70), Dyer, O’Brien, Bramble, Bowyer (Solano 70), Speed (Jenas 70), Bellamy, Shearer (Ameobi 70), Robert (Viana ht). Subs not used: Given, Cort, Ambrose, Hughes, Woodgate, Chopra, Caldwell.
Referee: A Muppet (Hampshire)