ALAN Pardew will lose his talismanic top scorer in the next 24 hours, but Demba Ba’s imminent departure is the least of Alan Pardew’s worries.
The 13-goal hole that the ambitious Ba will leave behind is a big one, but it is nothing compared to the gaps that have emerged in Newcastle’s defence over the course of a troubling couple of months. As Papiss Cissé proved within 70 seconds last night, goalscoring is not necessarily Newcastle’s problem – it is play at the other end that is threatening to drag them into the abyss.
You had to feel for Cissé, who did his bit by nodding opportunistically over Tim Howard with less than two minutes on the clock. Freed from the shackles of playing alongside a compatriot who had hogged the goals and the central striking role this season, his goal was the signal for joyous celebration around St James’ Park.
As the crowd chided the departing Ba, Cissé beat the Newcastle badge on his chest and it appeared as if the perfect script had been penned to tee up a better 2013 for black-and-white observers.
Almost immediately, it became apparent that Everton were not going to play the role of willing fall guys though. They possessed enough menace and cunning in the final third to ensure that Newcastle’s Achilles heel – their desperate defence – was well and truly exposed.
Everywhere he looks, there are things that Pardew needs to sharpen up. Resources are required too – the uncomfortable presence of Nile Ranger on the pitch in the final minutes emphasising the lack of credible alternatives the manager has in reserve. Is the month of January really going to be long enough for Pardew to put it all right? You had to feel sorry for Tim Krul, who made three fantastic saves to keep Everton out in a first half where their influence on the game grew as the minutes ticked by. In front of him Mike Williamson and an ailing Fabricio Coloccini didn’t offer enough resistance, while the curiously poor form of Cheick Tioté is becoming a problem.
United will get a reinforcement they sorely need soon – Mathieu Debuchy was a smiling presence in the Milburn Stand alongside friend Yohan Cabaye – but more than that is required. A senior centre-back is every bit as much of a priority as a replacement for Ba, whose absence hung heavy in the air before kick-off. Newcastle appeared desperate to respond, and Cissé’s headed goal was a perfect start. He was in the right place at the right time to nod over Howard, and the stadium erupted.
But if Cissé’s early invention ensured the spotlight was on him, it was telling that Krul was the most outstanding player of the first quarter of an hour.
His sprawling save to palm away Leighton Baines’ fourth minute free-kick was an emphatic rebuttal to anyone worried about the goalkeeper’s mindset after shipping seven at Arsenal – and it was followed up by a smart block from the same player a few minutes later. He made it a hat-trick of superlative stops before the half-hour mark, saving superbly at the feet of Steven Pienaar after Baines’ pass had sliced open the Newcastle back four.
Everton certainly didn’t appear cowed by the cathartic first act of the evening, and were as good as Pardew’s warning that they arrived in the North East with a black-and-white health warning attached to them. Morouane Fellaini was a strong, barnstorming presence up front while Pienaar’s effervescence ensured emergency right-back James Perch was ably employed for most of the first half.
Still, there was defiance – in the stands at least. Newcastle crowds always seem to respond well to adversity and the imminent transfer of their top scorer was used as a theme to bring the club together rather than a reason to ruminate. The players left behind by Ba’s opportunism might not have his pedigree, earning power or potential but they all seem unified by a desire to do the best for Newcastle United – not always something that was apparent in the Senegalese’s off-field machinations. And for all that you worried about the gaping holes that Everton were able to stride through from time to time, Newcastle did possess a considerable threat.
Gabriel Obertan has been an inconsistent frustration for a year or so but he built on some fine work at Arsenal with some sprightly charges from deep. Davide Santon, too, found space in behind the Everton defence to give David Moyes’ men a fright.
Perch even smacked the post before Everton found their range, finally breaching Newcastle’s resistance before half-time with one of several free-kicks that United ceded in dangerous territory.
Referee Martin Atkinson had already signaled his intolerance of infringements in and around the box and when Coloccini tangled with Fellaini some 30 yards from goal, he had little hesitation awarded Everton a foul.
Baines’ delivery had been first-rate up to that point but even so, his breathtaking strike to draw the teams level was something else. Hit with sufficient power and swerve to defy Krul’s desperate dive, it was a goal worthy of any match – and a surefire contender for any goal of the season awards come May.
The Toffees’ goal had not exactly come out of the blue, and the anxiety of the Emirates was never particularly far away for Newcastle’s parlous back four.
Sure enough, a second arrived in the first knockings of the second half and Newcastle’s defence had to be held accountable. Baines surged past Perch far too easily and his flat, fizzing through ball found substitute Victor Anichebe, who knocked it past Krul from close range.
It was a decent move but the ease with which Everton were able to slice through the black-and-white resistance was alarming. Three days on from the Arsenal evisceration, United’s defensive problems were again exposed for a national audience and it didn’t make for pleasant viewing.