AT quarter to four on Saturday Newcastle United – courtesy of their own flying start against Wolves and Chelsea’s continued benevolence – had snuck into the top-four bracket reserved for the Champions League elite.
By the end of a chastening afternoon on Tyneside, they were damned by terrace cat calls and glancing nervously over their shoulders at Liverpool in seventh.
Such are the suffocating margins for error at the top of the Premier League as we hit the home strait in the race for Europe.
The message after Newcastle United’s deeply disconcerting weekend collapse is that they must quickly get used to it – or face up to the prospect of a fantastic campaign fizzling into mediocrity.
There was something careless about the way Newcastle frittered away priceless points against a committed but ordinary Wolves side at a frustrated St James’ Park. Alan Pardew admitted his side were perhaps still suffering a hangover from their White Hart Lane battering, but there also appeared to be a sliver of complacency after they had raced into a comfortable lead courtesy of fine strikes by Papiss Demba Cissé (pictured left) and Jonas Gutiérrez.
United aren’t good enough for that yet. They may have climbed into the upper echelons of the division courtesy of graft, drive, daring and determination but too many in black and white were below par at the weekend – Pardew included.
The Newcastle boss hasn’t got much wrong during a brilliant first full season but his trademark bold calls backfired against Wolves, his 65th-minute double substitution preceding an Old Gold equaliser that ultimately robbed his team of two precious points.
To be fair to the Newcastle boss, he needed to do something because his team were looking decidedly ragged after their super start.
Much had been made of the return of Cheick Tioté and Yohan Cabaye but both took time to reacquaint themselves with the rough and tumble of the midfield battle – and the less said about United’s creaky defence the better.
Pardew talked again about ‘little adjustments’ to his back four after seeing them ship twice at home, but it is beginning to feel like more than minor tweaks are required to rediscover the defensive authority that gave them such a firm foundation back at the start of the season.
The stark fact is that United have shipped 18 goals in the 11 games since Mike Williamson took over from Steven Taylor as Fabricio Coloccini’s central defensive partner.
They had only conceded 16 in 15 games with Taylor manning the barricades, a total that includes three conceded when the skipper was taken off injured during that fateful clash with Chelsea, which broke up the partnership.
That seems unfair on Williamson, who was one of Newcastle’s better players as they smothered Manchester United at the turn of the year. But there seems to be some residual issues following those two heavy defeats in the capital this year.
Davide Santon’s continuing presence at left-back is intriguing too. The Italian is a brilliant, bucaneering full-back in the attacking tradition of José Enríque at his best moments – but United are ceding far too much possession down that flank at the moment.
Would they be better served by the less exhilarating but more reliable Ryan Taylor in that position?
Questions like that would not have the slightest relevance this morning if Newcastle had continued to press Wolves in the manner that conjured two quick-fire goals to leave tentative visitors floundering.
They were ahead on six minutes thanks to a wonderful bit of opportunism by Cissé. Christophe Berra was caught dawdling by Cabaye and despite a brilliant save from Wayne Hennessey when Demba Ba back-heeled the Frenchman’s cross, Newcastle were utlimately rewarded for their persistence when the Senegal striker poked home Tioté’s deflected shot.
It was two within minutes – Gutiérrez letting fly with an angled 30-yard drive after Doyle had cleared a Cabaye corner into his path.
United were on cruise control, but sloppiness began to invade their play and Doyle’s movement and trickery was beginning to cause alarm in Newcastle’s back four. Twice he peeled off Williamson only to find Tim Krul his equal.
Newly-installed manager Terry Connor delivered a half-time team talk that inspired his troops and with United still labouring, Matt Jarvis got a stroke of luck to bring Wolves back into the game.
His shot, which took a wicked deflection off Danny Simpson, hauled the visitors back into the contest. It was a chance Wolves greedily accepted.
Williamson’s failed clearance presented Doyle with another chance on 65 minutes and the visitors plundered a deserved equaliser.
By then Pardew had made a double change designed to add balance and craft to a floundering midfield – Danny Guthrie and Hatem Ben Arfa introduced. the former delivered a subdued performance that seemed to hint at discontent at being unceremoniously axed from the starting XI, while Ben Arfa continues to confound expectations.
This seemed to be an ideal stage for the mercurial France international but he was too often profligate in possession. He nearly rescued the afternoon with two bits of sublime skill that almost brought Newcastle a winner, but there were also hearts in mouths when he gave the ball away on the halfway line to allow a late Wolves counter-attack.
Newcastle seem no closer to solving the Ben Arfa enigma – and his lack of consistency must go down as one of the disappointments of the season.
Some perspective is required, of course. The pre-season challenge set for Pardew after a summer of change was to finish in the top ten and they will eclipse that with ease.
But make no mistake, improvements are required to ensure an opportunity for the ages isn’t allowed to go awry.