Monday, October 31, 2011
Newcastle's lasting impression
Eight years ago, as a Russian oligarch prepared to invest in an English club, Chelsea won their final game to finish fourth in the Premier League. Ahead of them, a regular sight in the division's upper echelons, were Newcastle United. The footballing landscape has been transformed between 2003 and 2011 but there is a sudden similarity: Newcastle are third again, Chelsea fourth.
The assumption is that the established order will reassert their authority, that this is an early-season oddity. It is probably true, too, but Alan Pardew's upstarts are ignoring the law dictating that money talks. Roman Abramovich's lavishly-funded plaything trail Mike Ashley's shrewdly-run business. They are frugal on both the balance sheet and the football pitch, statistically the country's best defence and one of its most potent strikers combining to see off Stoke.
The surprise package have lost their novelty value but, far from fading away, Newcastle recorded their best result of the season. Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool had visited Stoke in the league, scoring only once. "All the big teams have come here and no one's won," Pardew noted. Or not until the Toon Army stormed the Britannia Stadium with the aid of a man City coveted. Instead, Demba Ba delivered a hat-trick.
Because, with the ruthlessness top teams display, Newcastle are benefiting from others' misfortunes. But for a failed medical in January, Ba would be a Stoke striker. Instead, he went, via West Ham, to Tyneside without a transfer fee. With eight goals in four games he is, along with Robin van Persie, the form forward in England and might be the signing of the summer. Then again, given the class of Yohan Cabaye, he might not even be Newcastle's most astute addition.
"Demba's played like that all year," said Pardew. "He's been brilliant for us. He doesn't miss a day's training." Sadly for Stoke, he doesn't miss many chances either. For the opener, Leon Best flicked on, Gabriel Obertan raced clear and whipped in a first-time cross. Hanging in the air, arching his neck and sending Asmir Begovic the wrong way with his header, Ba converted it brilliantly.
The second was simpler, the Senegalese rolling the ball over the line after Best's scuffed shot became a telling cross. Once again, however, Stoke's uncharacteristic inability to deal with aerial ball was their undoing, Matthew Upson glancing the ball to Best. "Two poor goals," lamented Tony Pulis, who was philosophical about the one that got away. "We really fancied Demba for a while. People have to remember we weren't getting him on a free transfer: we were paying £9 million for him. The medical people didn't think that was a risk we could take."
Ba's treble was completed from 12 yards after Robert Huth barged Best in the back. Before then, however, his contribution had extended into both boxes. His push, though scarcely powerful, resulted in Peter Crouch going to ground and Jonathan Walters thumping in the subsequent spot kick. "Both penalties were soft-ish," Pardew added. The spot kick apart, Stoke were subdued in a way they rarely are.
It was a coup for the unlikely ensemble at the back; for men like goalkeeper Tim Krul, who had started more league games for Falkirk than Newcastle before this season, and Ryan Taylor, a sometime right-sided midfielder who has proved a more reliable left-back than Ashley Cole and Patrice Evra of late, and, above all, the excellent Fabricio Coloccini. The fright-wig that seemed suitable for Halloween, if not the other 364 days of the year, should not deflect attention from the fact he is a seriously good defender.
Whatever their individual attributes, it was a triumph of teamwork. United has been an inaccurate suffix for many a Newcastle side, but not the current collective. A shared commitment to defend was epitomised by Jonas Gutierrez, haring back to provide additional cover against Jermaine Pennant, and all the more admirable as Cheik Tiote, whose battling qualities make him ideally suited to such fixtures, was absent injured. His regular accomplice, Cabaye, caressed passes with masterly assurance. Elegance, however, was less apparent than effort.
"You have to show real character and my players did that tonight," Pardew added. "They showed another side to them." They showed they are a side with unusual staying power. This is their longest top-flight unbeaten run for 61 years, since Jackie Milburn terrorised defenders on Tyneside. But United sides tend to be known for their goalscorers, rather than the group. It was Wor Jackie then. Now it is Wor Demba reminding Newcastle of past glories.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Demba Ba - Plenty impressed and Gutierrez was fantastic, but it is hard to ignore the claims of the scorer of a second hat-trick in the space of four league games. Ba's first goal was brilliantly taken and his partnership with Best is shaping up nicely.
STOKE VERDICT: A dispiriting start to a gruelling week that includes a 7,000-mile round trip to Israel in the Europa League. It is rare to see Matthew Etherington substituted when Stoke need a goal, but that was one sign that the usual threat lacked his normal spark. Crouch, too, was unimpressive. Not for the first time, Walters overshadowed some of the bigger names although there were times when Huth appeared their major attacking threat.
NEWCASTLE VERDICT: Terrific result, outstanding performance. They were organised, determined, hugely energetic in their pressing game and displaying a remarkable work ethic. It is worth remembering that some tipped them for relegation; instead, with 22 points, they are more than half way to safety already. The acid test of their credentials, however, comes after the international break when three successive Saturdays feature meetings with the Manchester clubs and then Chelsea.