WITH seven points in three games, it has been a good start to the new Premier League season for Newcastle United.
Hopefully not too good. Just as a few bad results can lead to panic-buying on deadline day, so a few good ones can create a false sense of security.
They have been here before. Last January, when the Magpies were scrambling to find an 11th-hour replacement for Andy Carroll, they did so with the assurance that Leon Best was fresh from a top-flight hat-trick.
Eight months on, Best and Peter Lovenkrands – the third and fourth-choice strikers in the New Year - were again manning the front line again as Fulham came to town.
Like Shola Ameobi, Demba Ba has a dubious injury record. With those two in the ranks, a fifth striker is needed. It is something manager Alan Pardew is aware of, but has so far been unable to address. Pardew must hope owner Mike Ashley is not deafened to the urgency of his pleas by the comfort blanket that is the league table.
Printing the standings at this stage of the campaign is a nonsense anyway, but gives a particularly misleading impression for Newcastle at a stage of the campaign before their squad depth has been put to the test.
The defence is in good shape, Tim Krul unlucky to miss out on a third clean sheet of the season after a trio of outstanding saves, while Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor impressed again, albeit against insipid opponents. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and there is little cover for the back four. Mike Williamson’s midweek injury has left them soft in the centre, and the problems are full-back are still to be dealt with.
For now, though, the going is good after taking three points from a real slow burner of a game.
Lunchtime kick-offs can be flat at the best of times, and there was almost as much action in three added first-half minutes as the 45 preceding them.
Newcastle have been working hard to sell the club to signings this summer on the basis that they will can play in front of a passionate, throbbing St James’ Park. After yesterday’s lacklustre bank holiday game, a few might have asked their agents to contact Trading Standards. This was more like a wet Friday night in Lorient with 10,000 empty seats and little from either the 433 from west London or the players to provoke much reaction. There were not even any anti-Ashley chants to break the awkward silences until a 73rd-minute attempt which never got going, and not a peep about Joey Barton.
It was the 43rd minute when the game shook itself from its slumber with a clever Yohan Cabaye pass out to Ryan Taylor. Aaron Hughes cleared the makeshift full-back’s cross.
When Cheik Tiote crossed a moment later, Jonas Gutierrez flicked a header Mark Schwarzer had to be at full stretch to save. Gabriel Obertan seemed inspired, finally running to the byline and crossing for Best. Again, Hughes snuffed out the danger, deflecting the shot over.
Schwarzer was also performing well on his return to the North East, tipping over when Cabaye shot from wide on the left, where he had been to take a corner. The Australian was helpless when a corner was cleared only as far as Ryan Taylor. The defender calmly controlled and volleyed, but just the wrong side of the post.
The half-time whistle blew with New but it was a temporary stay of execution. Three minutes after the restart Schwarzer turned Cabaye’s strike onto the bar and Best was first to react, tapping into an empty net.
In flashes Obertan hinted at great things, but rarely delivered. One important exception was the pass sprayed out to the recently-arrived Ba in the 66th minute. When Ba turned it goalwards, Best took an exquisite touch and stabbed inside the near post.
Fasting over Ramadan, Ba has struggled as a Newcastle player, although this was probably his best performance after leaving the bench with half-an-hour remaining. With Ramadan over tonight, we should be able to judge him properly after the international break.
It was not one-way traffic. Krul tipped onto the bar when Steve Sidwell headed a Damien Duff cross and palmed away Chris Baird’s powerful long-ranger. He was exposed when Newcastle tried to play offside but left Sidwell to Danny Murphy’s free-kick. Martin Jol’s reaction at Krul’s save spoke volumes. Eventually he ran out of luck. When Danny Simpson committed a foul near the halfway line, Clint Dempsey headed the free-kick over the goalkeeper.
Schwarzer tipped Ba’s injury-time effort onto the bar after Obertan injected urgency into a move. It is to be hoped the men holding the purse strings do likewise before 11pm on Wednesday.