FOR a long time now, Newcastle United have been one injury from panic stations. On Saturday they got two.
Matches against Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea looked like the point where we would find what the Magpies were really made of. It now appears that will come with consecutive games at Norwich City, Swansea City, West Bromwich Albion and Bolton Wanderers.
While Newcastle have only gleaned one point from their last three games, they were able to take encouragement from their performances. In the next four, they will be judged on results just as injuries – and important ones at that – are threatening to take their toll on a flimsy squad.
Manager Alan Pardew admitted in an October radio phone-in that the Magpies were vulnerable at centre-half. Having ridden their luck all season, they have finally been exposed.
Steven Taylor broke his nose days later against Wigan Athletic but, thanks to a protective mask and his own determination, did not miss a Premier League game. Partner and captain Fabricio Coloccini suffered back spasms the day before the trip to Old Trafford, but with the help of injections produced another outstanding display.
As a result, the Magpies’ entire back five has gone unchanged for the entire league campaign. That run will end at Carrow Road on Saturday. Taylor may not play again this season after surgery on a ruptured Achilles yesterday, while Coloccini is set to miss out with a thigh strain.
Both faced Chelsea but there were significant defensive absentees, and it showed. Keeping the ball out of the net is a collective effort and while he may be a winger, Jonás Gutiérrez is a vital part of Newcastle’s defensive strategy. It was little surprise that with the Argentinian serving a one-match suspension, left-back Ryan Taylor had one of his most difficult afternoons this season, too often left to deal with Daniel Sturridge alone.
Outnumbered two to three, Newcastle badly lost the first-half midfield battle. Yohan Cabaye and Danny Guthrie are fine passers, as they demonstrated again, but the Magpies were crying out for the energy and tenacity of Cheick Tioté, particularly with Juan Mata regularly drifting behind Didier Drogba.
Tioté has been out since mid-October with a “short-term” knee injury, and is doubtful for Saturday. Cabaye and Guthrie have made light of his absence, but with two makeshift centre-backs, the extra protection he provides will be needed more than ever.
Apart from losing Drogba for Chelsea’s opening goal, James Perch did an admirable job for 62 difficult minutes at the weekend. But he is not the sort of frontline central defender you would want to pitch in against English football’s best strikers on a weekly basis. Perch, though, could be the least of Pardew’s worries. Someone will have to partner him in East Anglia, and candidates are desperately thin on the ground. Mike Williamson is still not fit after an ankle injury, Tamas Kadar yet to play for Pardew, and James Tavernier on loan at Sheffield Wednesday. If Newcastle are denied the attractive option of Tioté as an emergency centre-back, full-backs Danny Simpson or Davide Santon could be called on.
It is the problem Pardew has long feared.
A deal for Liam Ridgewell fell through on deadline day, and efforts to sign a centre-back will be revived in January. Perhaps Newcastle might now look for two.
Norwich are not a good team to play without a specialist in that position. The Canaries have only failed to score in two league games this season, and in Carlisle-born Grant Holt they have on old-fashioned centre-forward well capable of roughing up slender sub-six foot players like Perch and Simpson.
Williamson’s is another injury which is dragging on – in August he was ruled out for “at least five to six weeks” – but sometimes you cannot fight nature.
Having had his pre-season disrupted by paternity leave and injury, Williamson must make up that lost time on the training pitch.
Pardew has talked of trying to “accelerate” the process but anyone unsure of the pitfalls need only look at Sunderland’s injury record under Steve Bruce.
It could be a matter of weeks before Newcastle are able to call on a none-too-shabby defensive triumvirate of Coloccini, Williamson and Tioté. The worry is that in the meantime the confidence and momentum built up at the start of the season could be lost.