Newcastle knew that the first two games in February would be very difficult. They would face a resurgent Fulham on the road, and title contenders, Arsenal, at home. With 30 points at the start of February, Newcastle were within 10 points of the projected safety zone. My prediction at the start if season was that 36 points should be enough. That translates into 10 wins and 6 draws.
However, the delegation battle this season is very tight. Not only does it put into question the Premier League's reputation as the world's fastest and most dominant league (thanks to all around dismal defending in La Liga, its reputation is still safe, I think), but it threatens to increase the necessary points total to secure safety. Several of my fellow supporters now believe that 40 points will be the minimum. I myself have chosen 39, meaning Newcastle must win at least two more games, and grind it out for three draws I. the remaining 15 matches. So no need to beat a dead horse. Newcastle is going to be just fine.
But of course unexpected events and unexpected results are going to keep the Geordie supporters on edge, and the first thirteen days of February did just that. First, there was the forgetable loss at Fulham on February 2nd. Everyone seemed to see that defeat coming. However (and perhaps fortunately) only a few people actually watched the match. It was not broadcast in North America, and migh not have even been brodcast nationally in the UK.
And that's probably a good thing. Geordie supporters had no desire to see former Newcastle midfielder (and former Irish international), Damien Duff, score the game's only goal. It would have been frustrating and painful to watch. First, it would serve as a reminder how the magpies used to have world class midfielders. Guys like Robert Lee, Kieron Dyer, Damien Duff, James Milner, Nolberto Solano, Emre, and Nolberto Solano, kept the team afloat for over 15 years. Second (the painful part), Newcastle lost veteran striker Shola Ameobi to a fractured jaw or cheekbone just 13 minutes into the game. So they lost the striker who had been assigned to replace Andy Carroll in the starting 11. And while I know it is fashionable to ridicule Shola, he is now Newcastle's leading striker this season with four goals in 21 Premier League appaearances. He's also pre paid, so you could say his services have been 'free' this season.
I used to consider Peter Lovenkrands world class, but this has been a season to forget for him with only two goals to his name. Jonas is quality, but he is nowhere near the bar set by Dyer years ago. Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton are also good, and are the elder midfielders at age 28. There is promise in keeping Cheick Tiote, Hatem Ben Arfa, and Dan Gosling. They are the team's best hope for the next tandem of attacking midfielders.
Newcastle's woes this season havey mainly been offensive, due to an inability of veteran midfielders to effectively deliver the ball into the box (except Kevin Nolan, who does charge ahead and score often). As I have suggested before, the team would be wise to sell James Perch and Allan Smith. And the summer simply cannot end without another quality midfielder signing. Newcastle are far from ready for a European cup run, but that's what they should be preparing for under Alan Pardew. Otherwise, why was Chris Hughton sacked?
Here's what the Newcastle blogs had to say about the defeat at Fulham:
Blog On The Tyne: "It was a night to forget for Newcastle, who lost Shola Ameobi to a suspected fractured cheekbone just 13 minutes in, less than 48 hours after selling Andy Carroll to Liverpool."
Black & White & Read All Over: "What is apparent is that Pardew needs to earn his money now by getting the team to pull together again - and quickly."
Newcastle returned home to St. James' to host Arsenal on February 5th. By now, all Newcastle fans know what happened. For the first time in the history of the reorganized English Premiership (1993-), a team conceeded four consecutive goals and came back to draw level at the final whistle.
The game was extraordinary. The Newcastle collapse in the opening minutes was swift and shocking. They conceeded four goals in under 27 minutes. Their comeback in the second half was both improbable and difficult to appreciate or even comprehend as it unfolded. It was sublime, but only half of Newcastle's four goals were the result of pure offensive effort. Newcastle made history, but they needed help from the ref, their opponents, and old fashioned luck.
The stunnng second half demanded another viewing and some expert analysis. For that, I only had to watch Bobby McMahon on the February 8th edition of the Fox Soccer Report. He was able to fully explain the catalyst (or culprit) of the entire Newcastle comeback. His name is Tomáš Rosický.
[At this point in my post, I have to state that Tomáš Rosický should not be used to represent the Czech people or even the Czech national team, which he captains. I like the Czech national team. His performance should not reflect poorly on them. But it is obvious that Mr. Rosický is now severely damaged goods after his disasterous performance against Newcastle.]
Bobby McMahon called Rosický the, "substitute from hell." And minutes later said that Rosický's performance was "probably the worst display that any substitute has ever put on in the Premier League." Rosický was involved in two of Newcaslte's comeback goals, and could have been involved in a third, had the linesman judged that he was closer to the line than Leon Best (which replays show he was).
The Newcastle comeback began in the 50th minute, when Abou Diaby grabbed Joey Barton by the neck and threw him down in an altercation that followed a rough, yet legal tackle by the Newcatle bad boy. An extra shove to Newcastle captian Kevin Nolan sealed Diaby's fate. It was all Newcastle after that. Danny Simpson got a wicked shot on goal in the 56th minute. Arsenal keeper Laurent Koscielny's unusual tackle of Leon Best in the 68th minute led to the first Newcastle goal - a penalty by Joey Barton.
Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, then made the fateful decision to take Andrey Arshavin out, and replace him with Tomáš Rosický.
Fire, meet gasoline.
In the 73rd minute, Mike Williamson received the ball from a corner, and shot on target. In the 74th minute, Barton made a wonderful pass to Best in the area, only to be called offside. Best blsted the ball into the net, but the whistle had blown. However, replays show that Rosický was playing Best onside. Rosický, seemingly playing in a fog, unaware of his position, opened the door wide open to the Newcastle attack. The goal should have been allowed. However, just one minute later, Leon Best put the ball away for a brilliant goal, through the legs of running defenders. Nile Ranger narrowly missed just one minute later.
Are you following so far? Seven minutes, three shots, two goals. What does this fire need? Yep. Cue the Czech national.
A ball sails towards Williamson in the box in the 82nd minute. He has no chance of getting it. But Rosický puts up his arms in Williamson's face like a poor NFL cornerback. It was nothing, except it looked like something. So a penalty is given to Newcastle, which Joey Barton finishes.
Now Newcastle need to tie the game. They have gone too far to be stopped now. And despite all the help they received from the referee and Tomáš Rosický, they still needed a beautiful, immaculate goal to seal the deal.
And it came from the left foot of Cheick Tiote in the 87th minute. He's right footed, but showed lighting fast judgement and conrol by striking the ball with the foot he had available. The ball was defelected back to him by, you guessed it, Rosický, following a shot by a Newcastle teammate. Tiote did not hesitate. As soon as the ball came to him he rocketed it into the lower left corner of the net from about 20 yards out. It was an immaculate strike, but it wasn't a laser beam. It curved beautifully downward and to the left, out of the reach of the Arsenal keeper, Wojciech Szczesny. You could watch it again and again and conclude that it has to be a top ten Premiership goal when this season is over.
And you would think, at the 91st minute, that Kevin Nolan's final shot would go into the lower right corner. But it missed wide by about two feet. And that's how it would end. Newcastle 4, Arsenal 4.
On to the trusty Newcastle blogs:
Blog On The Tyne: "At 4-0 down you have to say Newcastle were as woeful as any team to grace the sacred black and white jerseys. But by full time they looked like one of the best teams ever to be scribbled on a team sheet. Indeed, Arsenal didn't know what had hit them by the end and Newcastle left the field disappointed not to WIN the game."
View From The Shite Seats: "The worst 45 minutes I have ever seen from a Newcastle side was followed 15 minutes later by the most spirited and driven 45 minutes that I have ever seen from any team."
Black & White & Read All Over: "So, of the six contentious decisions that the Gunners felt went against them, in only two instances do they have any cause for complaint. And it's worth remembering that we were also on the wrong end of a poor decision, Best having a goal disallowed despite being played well onside by Tomas Rosicky."
And then, just one week later, Newcastle settled down and delivered a solid defensive performance, led by Jose-Enrique, and earned a vital point in Blackburn.
It was mainly a boring game, but Newcastle needed to re-establish stability. Goalkeeper Steve Harper needed a clean sheet. And Jose-Enrique needed to continue his stellar season. The former Under-21 Spanish international might even be considred for the Spanish national team at age 25. And he has tentatively expressed an interest to remain at Newcastle after his contract expires in June.
The game was a frustrating one, offensively, with just two serious chances for Newcastle - a narrow miss and a shot off the bar. I do not share the temporary gloom and doom demonstrated by the blogs (linked below), but I do agree that the lack of goal scoring is due to a suboptimal midfield. Newcastle have five strikers. They need better balls delivered to them to score goals.
It was important for Newcastle to stabilize their path to safety. One point brought their season total to 32. Last season, that would be just two points shy of safety. The players seem to understnd that they cannot allow setbacks and distractions sink their season. Newcastle have endured bigger setbacks and shocks than any of the other teams on the relegation bubble. There may be unhappy players. They have a lot of work to do on offense. But Newcastle have it together heading into the final quarter of the season. And if they have to do it one point at a time, then so be it, as long as they avoid a losing streak.
Here's the final word from the Newcastle blogs:
View From The Shite Seats: "To score goals at this level is not easy, but to try and do so with a five-man strike force which cost a grand total of £1m (all of that on Leon [Best]) is stupidity of the highest order."
Blog On The Tyne: "Newcastle United fans filed out of Ewood Park knowing they could be celebrating much more than just a single point and you could not forgive them for thinking if the Magpies had a natural born predator in front of goal then this game would have been won."
Black & White & Read All Over: "An ultimately frustrating afternoon in the North West saw Newcastle return from Ewood Park with one point added to the total, but left with a nagging sense that it could have been more."