Newcastle United did not make it through the November / December "Stretch of Doom" unscathed. It was hoped that they would emerge from their matches against Man City, Man United, and Chelsea with two points. Instead, they emerged with the luckiest point of any team this season and the loss of star defender Steven Taylor to a torn ACL. They were battered, exhausted, and undiciplined (as evidenced when Dan Gosling got dirty and earned himself a three game suspension).
I wanted to blog all about this stretch a month ago. But Newcastle's dense and busy scheule had me transfixed and nervous with each passing round. We Newcastle fans were on edge as the midfield and defense suffered failures and made too many mistakes. In effect, Newcastle went into a new Stretch of Doom as they dropped points to Norwich, Swansea, and West Brom. Three more matches, just one point. They needed to shift gears.
And the shift came rather organically. Manager Alan Parew didn't have to make any call ups from the reserve squad. He didn't have to start Alan Smith. He simply rested the right players (notibly Hatem Ben Arfa) and released them onto the pitch when they were ready. And the point scoring resumed (the dismal loss to Liverpool notwhithstanding).
Since Christmas, Newcastle have taken 9 out of 12 available points. They also won a thrilling third round FA Cup match to earn a very winnable fouth round draw. And the points earned in the last four league games have been obtained in very different ways. At Bolton on Boxing Day (a day Newcastle had not been victorious lately), two very quick goals caused an almost instant deflation and concession by the hosts. Then at home against Manchester United, Newcastle expected to face a furious Red Devil side, eager to avenge the pont Newcastle stole in November as well as the embarassing loss to Blackburn Rovers the week before. However, Manchester United's midfield didn't exert its superiority. Forward Wayne Rooney only got off one shot.
Newcstle played a spirited game that fetured two extraordinary shots by Demba Ba and Johan Cabaye to put Newcastle up 2-0 and cruising to victory. It was a win for this generation, despite Man United's lack of energy and drive. United's performance was unnacceptable, but Newcastle still had to break through twice to put Man U away, in difficult, windy conditions at a packed St. James' Park. It was a true team performance, and it was inspiring.
In the thriller against Blackburn in the FA Cup third round, the key to victory was playing Hatem Ben Arfa on the right wing. It had to be an epiphany for Alan Pardew, who has not seen eye to eye with Ben Arfa since his arrival as Manager over a year ago.
And then today, Newcastle simply had to play possession football against a depressed and sinking QPR squad. Three wins. Three different ways to win.
There are 17 matches remaining for the Magpies in league action this season. Today's game against QPR should prove to be the easiest through May. There will be no more easy points this season. But the Toon have 36 points, and sit in sixth place in the Premiership table. If they can upset Everton, Aston Villa, or Arsenal, they would have a shot at 60 points for the season. The Magpies have proven that they can defend well without Steven Taylor. Now they have to score goals without Bemba Ba and Cheik Tiote, as those players are serving their nations in the African Cup.
17 games. 51 points for the taking. I think they can take 24. They are on pace for it. They just need one upset against a stronger club, and defeat Wolverhampton and Swansea, among other events.
Stay the course, Newcastle....and set fire to the rain.