Newcastle fail to hit the heights as big names stall
TEETHING troubles that can easily be addressed or a more deep-rooted malaise that threatens to seriously undermine Newcastle United's season? Alan Pardew has the two-week international break to
discover the answer.
For the third league game in succession, Newcastle failed to come close to hitting the heights they scaled last season. They scrambled over the line in their previous home game with Spurs, but were
unable to repeat the trick against an Aston Villa side that arrived on Tyneside rooted to the foot of the Premier League table.
Once again, too many of the club's leading lights were off the pace, with Papiss Cisse proving every bit as ineffectual as he has been all season, Demba Ba offering little alongside him in attack and Yohan Cabaye struggling to make an impression against a Villa midfield that was short on experience and household names. The one exception to the general malaise was Hatem Ben Arfa, who added yet another strike to his lengthening list of St James' Park classics in the second half.
Picking up the ball close to the left touchline, Ben Arfa stepped inside Brett Holman to unleash an exceptional strike that arrowed into the top right-hand corner of the net. It was a fantastic finish, perfectly in keeping with another bright, enterprising display from Ben Arfa, who has unquestionably been Newcastle's stand-out performer in the opening three weeks of the season. For all of Ben Arfa's abundant qualities, however, the Magpies cannot keep relying on him to dig them out of a hole. At the moment, he appears to be their only attacking threat, and Pardew has some serious work to do before Newcastle return to action with a trip to Everton in a fortnight's time.
At the end of last week, the Magpies manager hinted that some of his players' heads had been turned in the transfer window. If that is the case, and it is believed he was referring to Cisse, Cabaye and Cheik Tiote in particular, he had better ensure their minds are refocused now the window has closed and they remain in the North-East. Any lingering concerns about a lack of pre-season fitness should be eradicated by the time the Premier League resumes in mid-September, and while Cisse, Ba and Cabaye will disappear on international duty this week, burn out should not be an issue in the first two months of the season.
If motivation is the issue, Pardew will have to call on all his managerial skills to reunite a squad that cited unity and shared ambition as one of its key strengths last season. He will do so with only one fit full-back for the next few weeks, and the first-half hamstring injury that forced Danny Simpson to hobble from the field highlighted the folly of not signing a right-back last month. A renewed approach for Mathieu Debuchy never materialised, and while Vurnon Anita slotted into the full-back role effectively yesterday, the lack of summer arrivals means Newcastle's squad will be stretched if injuries bite in the first half of the season. Anita switched from his midfield berth to replace Simpson seven minutes before the break, and by that time, United were already a goal behind. There was a lethargy about Newcastle from the outset, and Tim Krul was forced into two decent early saves to deny former Sunderland striker Darren Bent , who was bright and industrious throughout. Krul was eventually beaten in the 22nd minute as the Magpies defence switched off on two separate occasions to ease Villa's path towards goal.
First, Barry Bannan was given far too much room as he delivered a teasing cross from the left, then neither Steven Taylor nor Fabricio Coloccini got close enough to Ciaran Clark as he headed home from the edge of the six-yard box. It was a poor goal for Newcastle to concede, but it had been coming and at least it sparked the hosts into a limited response as the interval approached. Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who was a surprise selection ahead of former Newcastle goalkeeper Shay Given, was finally called into action on the half-hour mark, getting down well to save Cisse's instinctive first-time strike with his legs.
Ba dragged a shot narrowly wide of the target as the hosts built up a head of steam for the first time in the game, but the opening period ended with Andreas Weimann lobbing wide after Bent's flick on unlocked the Newcastle defence. There was little sign of a Magpies recovery after the interval, but just as he had against Spurs, Ben Arfa emerged as the catalyst for an improved second-half display. The Frenchman drilled a sensational right-footed strike past Guzan, and while the goal might not have been on a par with his dribbled efforts against Bolton and Blackburn, it was still a wonderful effort. With the scores level, Newcastle spent the final quarter of the game pushing for a winner, but their attacking lacked cohesion, and while Ba headed a chipped cross from Gael Bigirimana onto the roof of the net, it was arguably Villa who looked most threatening late on. Stephen Ireland was a huge flop when he joined Newcastle on loan two seasons ago, but the Irishman might have grabbed a winner when he flashed a 14-yard strike past the upright with ten minutes left.
Bigirimana impressed in the second half, and the youngster, who arrived in a £1m move from Coventry this summer, produced an excellent block to deny Bent. The final moment of action then saw Guzan claw away Cabaye's stoppage-time free-kick as it threatened to creep into the top left-hand corner.
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