£80m spent in the last two windows and Newcastle United fans were left scratching their heads wondering how this was the starting line-up for our trip to Stoke tonight:
STARTING XI: Elliot, Dummett, Lascelles, Taylor, Janmaat, Colback (Doumbia), Shelvey (c), Gouffran (Riviere), Sissoko, Wijnaldum, Mitrovic (Perez)
An ongoing injury to Mbemba and fresh injuries to Colo and Townsend picked up during a supposedly battery recharging warm weather break would add to the increased anxiety of the Toon Army faithful as NUFC started the game 2nd bottom of the Premier League table.
Much of the pre match talk by McClaren had been of 'playing a different way’ away from home, and with the second worst record in the league this season that should have gone without saying.
The fact that Newcastle lined up with the same defensive partnership that conceded 6 against the great unwashed down the road in a behind doors ‘friendly’ a few weeks back was concern enough. Whilst a recall for fans favourite (you can hear the sarcasm) was greeted by disbelief by those travelling to the Britannia and those at home alike.
The first half of the game would prove a completely one sided affair with Stoke dominating possession (with 60% of the game) and chances with 4 to just 2 for Newcastle. Both of those came in the first 5 minutes as first Mitrovic saw his strike blocked before Shelvey hit one straight at the keeper.
For Stoke, Shaqiri looked a constant threat throughout the opening period. Whilst Shelvey also also mis-controlled when having another chance to get a strike at goal.
In truth any chance of a game of flowing football were quite literally blown away by gale force winds that at time lead to farcical scenes. In the first half Jack Butland had real trouble clearing his area with some kicks and whilst playing into the wind is often seen as an advantage for the attacking team with in conditions such as those tonight the fear at half time had to be the the Newcastle goal would not stand up to the pressure that would undoubtedly come in the second 45.
For all Stoke’s dominance however, McClaren would have been pleased to get in at the break at 0-0 and with his defence relatively untroubled.
The second half would be more of the same, with Stoke having most of the ball and Newcastle continuing to keep a wall of men behind the ball determined to do something they’d only achieved twice away from home all season and keep a precious clean sheet.
And as the game moved on it looked like it would it may take a slip up in very difficult conditions may be the difference between the sides as time after time both sides seems to misplace passes that under normal conditions (and even these) you’d expect them to make 99% of the time.
Just before the 70 minute mark the introduction of Crouch and Diouf showed Stoke’s intent. The introduction of the two big men (joining Muniesa who came on for the injured Bardsley in the first half) was a risky strategy from Hughes but with the wind still swirling one he hoped would mean a repeat of the 1-0 win secured by Crouch on our last visit.
At 74 minutes McClaren made a change of his own. Adding Riviere to the fray with Newcastle playing two up front. Quite why, with only 15 minutes remaining, the NUFC manager decided to ‘go for it’ was a puzzle to many. The question now would be if the gamble would end up in us weakening what had to this point been a surprisingly solid display. Surely we wouldn’t go on and win it?! With news filtering through that Swansea had taken a surprise 2-1 lead at Arsenal we had to take something from this game.
And then the moment we all feared. Shaqiri picked up the ball from well outside the box and produced the games first moment of real quality, wrong footing Elliot with what seemed to be a significant deflection and finding the back of the Newcastle net.
The introduction of Perez and Doumbia for Mitrovic and Colback would prove too little too late with Stoke comfortably seeing out the remaining ten minutes. Although one outstanding save from a Doumbia strike could have rescued a vital point for the visitors.
And with victory confirmed for Swansea at Arsenal, Newcastle find themselves now in more desperate trouble than ever.
What a mess.