Anzhi vs. Newcastle United: 6 Things We Learned
Far from a thriller, the game managed just four shots on target and was notable more for the lack of ambition of both sides until the latter stages of the game.
Alan Pardew will doubtless be the happier of the two managers, despite the lack of an away goal, with Guus Hiddink now needing to plot either a score draw or victory at St James's Park.
Without the influential duo of Papiss Cisse and Fabricio Coloccini, it can only be considered a successful evening's work for the English side. But, what else can we take from the game in Moscow?
Anzhi Need Willian's Creativity
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Willian, pictured in his Shakhtar days, was Anzhi's big signing this January as he joined the Dagestan club for €35 million from the Ukrainian giants.
Unfortunately for Anzhi, though, he lasted just 22 minutes in the encounter before injuring his ankle after a challenge with Newcastle defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.
Anzhi had started brightly although they created little. Willian's departure, though, put an end to that dynamism and saw the team become highly ponderous in their build up play.
The Brazilian was not adequately replaced in his role, with Samuel Eto'o chosen to drop deeper and fill in as the No. 10. With Moroccan Mehdi Carcela on the bench, perhaps he would have been a better option.
Anzhi ultimately never looked like playing through Newcastle's organised defensive unit, and in that respect it is a shame that we did not see more of Willian on this occasion. He may also now be a doubt for the return leg.
Newcastle Have Depth in Defensive Areas
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Steven Taylor, Davide Santon and Mathieu Debuchy were all rested from Newcastle's side for the Premier League fixture with Swansea last weekend but the Magpies still claimed a valuable clean sheet in Russia.
In came Danny Simpson at right-back, with the Englishman continuing to show good form in the Europa League. James Perch partnered Yanga-Mbiwa at centre-back, while French teenager Massadio Haidara played at left-back.
As a unit, they were exceptional with Perch and Yanga-Mbiwa particularly impressive.
In front of that quartet, Dutch midfielder Vurnon Anita was also brought in to play alongside captain Yohan Cabaye. The duo provided brilliant cover for their back four all game and consistently harried the opposition to great effect.
On an unfamiliar surface, in the snowy conditions that Moscow offered, it was a fine showing from a predominantly second string defensive unit.
Relative youngsters Anita, Yanga-Mbiwa and Haidara, in particular, continue to greatly impress.
James Perch Is a Much Improved Player
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It's a comment I never thought I'd make, having previously judged James Perch to be below the level Newcastle require from their players.
However, a brilliant display at centre-back against Anzhi on Thursday evening was yet another fine performance from a player who is enjoying a fine season across a variety of positions.
For a player whose Newcastle career took quite some time to get off the ground, it has been quite some turn around. While not good enough to start in their first choice side, he is proving a very useful option.
He also appears to be very popular with the club's hierarchy for his positive attitude, as coach Peter Beardsley recently explained in the Chronicle:
"Perchy is brilliant with the younger players. Sometimes for first-team players not playing, it is hard. His attitude around the place is fantastic."
Perch has become a versatile and reliable professional that is willing to fill in everywhere for the club. He is the type of player that every manager loves to have around the squad.
Plastic Pitches Don't Necessarily Make for Good Matches
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For all the intrigue of the various star players on show and the tactical battle that ensued, it was a terrible match for the neutral observer.
Newcastle played for the draw, while Anzhi spent too long seemingly worrying about the possibility of conceding an away goal. The result was that neither side impressed.
The technical quality of the match was also poor for long periods with a combination of the plastic playing surface and snowy conditions making the ball bobble rather than roll smoothly.
Passing therefore was not always as easy a skill as it should have been.
Artificial pitches should make the game quicker and benefit the more technically gifted players. They can, though, make for a scrappy game with frequent mistakes as players adapt to the new conditions.
This fixture, in particular, will not be remembered as a footballing classic.
Gabriel Obertan Isn't Good Enough
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Gabriel Obertan. So naturally talented yet so unable to do even the basics right at time. This game, though, was undoubtedly one of his worst performances in his time in England.
For a player with the ability to mesmerise with the ball at his feet, Obertan's bemusing inability to pass is somewhat difficult to explain.
According to Whoscored, the French attacking midfielder found his target with just 74% of his passes. Pre-game, he would have been a player expected to have the technical ability to cope with the different playing surface.
Although he has put in some good Europa League displays this season, Obertan does not meaningfully contribute with enough regularity. Beyond that, on occasion he can be a massive hindrance to the side.
As a youngster there was a lot of expectation about the player that Obertan could eventually become. Sadly, aged 24, he still looks some way from achieving his potential.
Yanga-Mbiwa Is a Ready-Made Coloccini Replacement
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Newcastle were hit on Thursday with the news that club captain Fabricio Coloccini will be out of action until May with a back injury. (BBC)
While that is clearly a blow, what is clear is that in Yanga-Mbiwa the club already have the perfect replacement to play alongside Steven Taylor at the heart of the defence.
The former Montpellier man has already impressed since his January arrival at St James's Park but has been largely limited to Europa League and substitute appearances.
Once more, against Anzhi, he put in the type of performance that suggests he should not have been made to wait until now for Premier League starts.
With Newcastle conceding possession too easily at times, the Central African Republic-born defender was assured in his distribution and also confident enough to bring the ball out of defence on occasion.
Defensively, he was also excellent. According to Whoscored statistics, Yanga-Mbiwa won 75% of aerial balls—many against 6'7" striker Lacina Traore.
He also made six tackles, six interceptions and 11 clearances—leading his team in all counts. A fine performance from an exceptional player.