NEWCASTLE United departed Elland Road with questions still to answer as the Premier League kick-off looms large on the horizon.
Considering the number of probable starters absent in West Yorkshire, there is only limited harm from losing to a highly-motivated Leeds United side that will hurtle headlong into Championship combat in five days.
But other issues that cropped up in this penultimate friendly could not be ignored – certainly not the defensive lapses that will need to be eradicated long before Arsenal saunter into St James’ Park looking for a measure of Premier League revenge in a fortnight.
Chief among the losers here was Fraser Forster, whose one calamitous mistake may be significant when Alan Pardew makes a final call on his first choice goalkeeper. Forster made a couple of terrific saves at Elland Road but little could overshadow the fifth-minute mistake which has to be taken into account when Pardew assesses the credentials of his three top class stoppers. While Steve Harper will surely get another chance to impress against Fiorentina next week, Forster’s dress rehearsal was marred by dropping a routine Robert Snodgrass cross into the path of Patrick Kisnorbo – who prodded home with glee.
Pardew will also have discovered little to suggest that Demba Ba, although dangerous in spells, will profit from being partnered by Shola Ameobi. The tortuous hunt for another striker – there is little to suggest the prolonged pursuit of Mevlut Erdinc is bearing fruit – needs to be stepped up as a matter of urgency.
There were positives to consider too. Joey Barton looked smart and motivated drifting in from the right while Yohan Cabaye – possessing a terrific engine – continues to showcase the attributes that persuaded parsimonious United to part with the best part of £5million for his services.
This was a decent run out for a side still a little bit leggy from all the shuttling between cities in the States. Jose Enrique missed out – “a transfer hamstring”, one Press box wag opined – while skipper Fabricio Coloccini and Sylvain Marveaux were also rested.
Although a friendly, there was a cup-tie feel about Elland Road with nearly 20,000 in the stadium basking in the West Yorkshire sun. The home support had been denied their pantomime villain – Alan Smith reporting a slight groin strain to conveniently prevent him from running the gauntlet at a ground where his name still evokes open hostility – but they still made a tremendous racket as kick-off approached.
And within five minutes they had a goal to cheer as Forster dropped a clanger that hammered a huge dent in his first team chances next season.
Under no pressure from a white shirt, the big goalkeeper inexplicably dropped a routine free-kick from Robert Snodgrass which left Patrick Kisnorbo with the easiest of tap-ins to hand Leeds the advantage.
Newcastle then had a scrambled clearance from Yohan Cabaye to thank for not falling further behind as Ross McCormack’s examining cross was hacked clear by the France midfielder in somewhat desperate fashion.
It was a stirring start to a half that probably encouraged and frustrated Pardew in equal measure. For while there was enough rustiness among an unfamiliar back four to keep Newcastle’s sizeable travelling support gnawing at their fingernails, there were sprightly signs from Joey Barton, Dan Gosling and new arrival Demba Ba.
Barton, in particular, looked bright and sent one rising drive soaring over the bar as he helped United search for a route back into the contest. But United rode their luck in the opposite penalty area, with Leeds having one Max Gradel header chalked off for offside and Steven Taylor fortunately escaping on the stroke of half-time when it appeared as if he’d handled Snodgrass’s cross.
Referee Andy Haines appeared to have blown for the penalty but when his assistant was unmoved, he waved played on.
By that point United had parity – finally making a 35th-minute breakthrough that their smart play in the final third fully merited.
It came from a dead ball and a source that became increasingly familiar during the final weeks of last season. Cabaye’s deep corner evaded a crop of white shirts and fell nicely for Taylor to sidefoot a cracking volley past debutant Leeds goalkeeper Andy Lonergan.
The second half followed a similar path until a slew of substitutions began to disrupt the rhythm of the game. Indeed it was after a triple Newcastle switch that Leeds scored their second goal of the game – Mike Williamson tied up in knots by the trickery of Lloyd Sam, who slid his shot through the legs of Forster.
United nearly found a riposte from their own substitute Leon Best, who steered a smart Sammy Ameobi cross goalwards only for Lonergan to claw the ball out from under the crossbar.
They levelled for the second time in the game when Haris Vuckic powered past Lonergan with 14 minutes to go.
Leeds’ winner came with six minutes left on the clock and again, you might have been able to find fault with Forster’s reaction when Billy Paynter rose to nod a Lloyd Sam cross off the post and the ‘keeper’s body into the back of the net.
Sammy Ameobi nearly levelled things up in the closing stages but he dragged his low drive just wide of Lonergan’s left-hand post.
LEEDS UNITED (4-4-2): Lonergan; Connolly, O’Brien (Bromby 45), Kisnorbo (Bodor 57), Parker (Lees 57); Snodgrass (Sam 57), Brown, Howson, Clayton (Nunez 65); McCormack (Paynter 65), Gradel (Mendy 65). Subs (not used): Rachubka, White.
Goals: Kisnorbo (5), Sam (67), Paynter (84).
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-4-2): Forster; Simpson (Dummett 79), Williamson, S.Taylor, Tavernier (R.Taylor 57); Barton, Gosling (Sammy Ameobi 66), Cabaye, Gutierrez (Vuckic 66); Ba, Shola Ameobi (Best 66). Subs (not used): Krul, R.Taylor.
Goals: S Taylor (35), Vuckic (76). Attendance: 20,457.