Football really can be a cruel game can’t it? Just when Newcastle fans think that the world really can’t get any more anti-Magpie, they have to endure this. A defeat that is harder to swallow than a Toblerone that has been in the fridge for a fortnight.
Ok so football fans rarely find any defeat easy to take, be it a last minute winner, a debatable offside decision or just plain good football that snatches the points away from their side. But Newcastle fans walked away from St James’ Park here having seen their side produce a committed, full-blooded, competitive ninety minutes of football and……been roundly trounced, leaving them marooned in the bottom three with just eight league games remaining.
It should have been different. The home side were buoyant in the opening stages, with Obafemi Martins & Peter Lovenkrands- a more shrewd acquisition than the Newcastle management team have been given credit for- causing more than enough problems for William Gallas & Kolo Touré to suggest that goals could be found. And when Ryan Taylor was clumsily impeded by Manuel Almunia in the area, Martins was given the perfect opportunity to give the Toon something precious to cling to. Unfortunately it was Almunia doing the clinging, holding on with ease to the Nigerian’s tame right footed effort low to his left.
Still Newcastle could have found the lead, Martins clipping a right foot shot on the half-turn just wide of the near post, whilst Lovenkrands failed to adjust to Kevin Nolan’s left wing cross with the goal gaping. And suddenly Arsenal clicked into gear, Andrey Arshavin made a mug of Steven Taylor in midfield and arrowed a 25 yard drive past Steve Harper, but against the top of the crossbar. Taylor was in the thick of things as ever, producing goal-saving blocks to deny Robin Van Persie and Arshavin, whilst also showing his nasty side with a forearm to the Russian’s cheek.
After the break however it was his namesake Ryan who gave away a soft free kick for two cynical fouls on Gael Clichy down the left, from which Arshavin picked out the head of Nicklas Bendtner seven yards out. 1-0 to the Arsenal. The Gallowgate End fell silent, but it was in full voice ninety seconds later as Gallas’ clearance sat up kindly for Martins to instinctively prod a left foot volley past Almunia from the edge of the box. Cue delirium on Tyneside.
But even the most optimistic of Geordies would have been apprehensive about how long their side could hold out against an Arsenal side increasingly slipping into their effortless passing rhythm. Six minutes to be precise, although in a cruel quirk of fate Arsenal’s decisive breakthrough came with Taylor (S) off the field injured. Abou Diaby was the man to punish the Taylor-shaped gap in the Newcastle defence, playing a one-two with Van Persie and striding Patrick Vieira-esque through the middle of the field to smash high past Harper from 16 yards. Newcastle managed to get their substitute on- Michael Owen at 2-1 as opposed to Geremi at 1-1- but by then it was too late.
And to heap further misery on the home side, Samir Nasri kicked them when they were down just three minutes later, collecting Van Persie’s astute pass with a fine first touch and beautifully struck right foot effort that fizzed inside Harper’s near post from a tight angle. It really was game over. Owen never got a kick, Harper made a heroic save one-on-one with Van Persie, whilst Diaby thundered a left foot strike off the post as Arsenal threatened to do irreparable damage to both Newcastle’s confidence, and goal difference.
For Arsene Wenger it is time to look forward, a winnable UEFA Champions League Quarter Final with Villarreal should set up a semi final showdown with Manchester United. And his side are currently embarking upon their longest Premier League unbeaten run since their 49 game streak in 2003/2004, with Aston Villa falling away fast, and Everton defeated yesterday, fourth place is now a probability where two months ago it was a possibility.
For the caretaker’s caretaker manager Chris Hughton, there was a stern relegation warning. “I accept it’s going to be a dogfight through to the end of the season. We are well aware of the position – we have eight games left. We need to get enough results to stay in this division and we need to get results quickly,” With away games at Liverpool, Villa & Spurs looming, those results may prove hard to come by, and with Stoke & Portsmouth winning yesterday, it is the North East which is in peril, with Middlesbrough joining their neighbours in the relegation zone.
It is a far cry from a promising start to the season, which began with a well-earned point at Old Trafford and a Michael Owen-inspired win over Bolton under Kevin Keegan. Newcastle bought wisely in the January window, Nolan & Ryan Taylor are solid professionals who know what it takes to battle relegation successfully, whilst Lovenkrands is a versatile player who adds a zest to Newcastle’s attack.
They need the likes of Martins & Owen, plus Damien Duff, to recapture some form and fitness. And they also need to be wary of falling into the age-old cliché of being “too good to go down”. The simple fact is…they aren’t.