IT is all very well talking about how you have the ability to ensure Newcastle United score the goals that fire them to Premier League safety, but Leon Best and Peter Lovenkrands backed up their words with deeds against Birmingham City.
Although United had not lost at Blackburn Rovers last weekend, the team’s apparent lack of a goal threat in a game they dominated had led to fresh questions about the suitability of their two strikers to find the back of the net at the highest level.
In truth, it was harsh criticism given the lack of service and the lack of quality in Newcastle’s final ball, but all those wrongs were put right last night and Best and Lovenkrands have every reason to be smug at the manner in which they silenced their detractors.
And so will Jonas Gutierrez. So often criticised for his failure to apply a final ball to his incisive running, the Argentinian laid both goals on a plate with accurate crosses which were gratefully converted by the front men.
This was a vital win. United have been difficult to beat, a resilience that should protect them against relegation, but while a record of just one defeat in their last seven league games was encouraging, it only told half a story.
The Magpies had not won since the 5-0 thrashing of West Ham on January 5 before this success and have, effectively, been treading water in mid-table with four draws out of their last five games, allowing the teams in the bottom three to close the gap between them and the drop zone.
The trip to St Andrews last night has been Newcastle’s comfort blanket, their game in hand after the original fixture fell victim to the Big Freeze before Christmas, and the Magpies have made the most of it, extending their lead over the bottom three to a healthy eight points. In contrast, Birmingham City have been on the charge, hauling themselves clear of trouble since the start of the year, investing wisely in the January transfer window to bring in the likes of David Bentley on loan from Tottenham Hostpur, as well as former United striker Obafemi Martins and a win last night would have put them above Newcastle in table. Instead, it is they who will look nervously at the battle below them.
United had been slow to emerge from the tunnel for the pre-match handshakes, but started the game in sharp fashion, Kevin Nolan almost scoring from one cross from Jose Enrique during Newcastle’s first forage forward.
They scored with their second. Birmingham failed to clear the danger properly and when Jonas Gutierrez sent another dipping ball to the near post, Peter Lovenkrands had timed his run superbly and stabbed the ball inside the near post.
It was the ideal start and it needed to be. Birmingham’s good run, which has also seen them book a place in the final of the Carling Cup, had sent confidence levels soaring in the blue half of the second city and it showed. They were quickly taking the game to their visitors with Martins showing more energy in the first 45 minutes here than he did in virtually all of Newcastle’s previous season in the top flight.
The Nigerian is a mercurial talent, but let Newcastle down badly in that dismal relegation season, missing chance after chance as points went begging week after week, before slipping off to Germany’s Bundesliga after an uncommitted pre-season had convinced everyone it was best he moved on.
He very nearly got his revenge, just failing to get on the end of a David Bentley cross at the near post after his clever lay off had started the attack on the halfway line.
Birmingham’s best chance, though, fell to centre-back Roger Johnson. If there is one major weakness in Enrique’s game it is his tendency to get caught in possession too close to his own goal.
That mistake led to a free-kick for a foul as he tried to win it back and Johnson should have scored at the far post with a header which bounced narrowly wide.
Enrique was at it again moments later, this time enabling Sebastian Larsson to take advantage with a low cross into the feet of Nikola Zigic.
The big striker managed to get a shot away despite the attention of Mike Williamson and Steve Harper did superbly to get a hand down to tip it away as it headed for the bottom corner.
Newcastle generally defended well, but they had another fortunate escape seven minutes before the break when Craig Gardner sliced a shot wide from the edge of the area after being teed up by Larsson. Newcastle might have stolen something themselves before half-time, as Jonas and Enrique combined to allow the latter to send in a deep cross which Best failed to head on target. A shot from 20 yards from the same player also rolled weakly wide after he linked up well with Lovenkrands.
They were the sort of half-chances a striker needs to take, but the Republic of Ireland international is nothing if not resilient and he got his reward for that determination five minutes after the re-start.
Once again Jonas deserves enormous credit for the assist, this time hanging a delicious free-kick up at the far post which Best, leaping above Johnson, planted firmly past Ben Foster.
It was the former Coventry man’s fifth goal of the season in only his eighth start and he has responded brilliantly to the challenge of filling the void left by Andy Carroll’s painful departure.
Birmingham rallied, as you would expect from the home side, Zigic putting a free header over from eight yards before Harper was grateful to see a Johnson header fly straight at him from a corner. Newcastle did not flinch.