THE uncertainty that continues to cloud Demba Ba’s future does not extend to his value to Alan Pardew and his ailing Newcastle United.
Of that, there is not one iota of doubt – as he proved with a match-winning contribution in the most important match of Pardew’s two-year tenure.
Put simply, Ba is Newcastle United’s Mr Reliable at the moment. Whatever else seems to be swirling around St James’ Park at any given time – be it the unedifying spectre of his contract negotiations playing out in public or the poor form that has hamstrung Newcastle’s season – he always manages to deliver.
Ten times he has found the back of the net in the Premier League this season and nearly all of those have come at critical junctures for the Magpies. Last night’s brace was no different, lancing the threat of the visiting Latics while also loosening talk of Newcastle’s campaign reaching crisis point.
When he hobbled off on 86 minutes – gingerly treading the turf as he headed towards the dressing rooms – you could hear St James’ Park inhale. The hope has to be that Newcastle’s talisman will not be facing a long spell on the sidelines, for he is a player of pivotal importance to any black-and-white recovery.
It was perhaps typical that his evening ended on a note of uncertainty. His advisers have turned down Newcastle’s latest contract offer and, in St James’ Park’s senior circles, his presence beyond January is not taken for granted.
He certainly doesn’t look like a player on his way, although his desire to have his importance to the cause reflected in his contract is understandable.
Ba is not motivated by material things, but his advisers are seeking the best possible deal for the prolific striker, and his continuing excellence is the strongest argument they could wish for as contract negotiations rumble on.
Ba was the talisman as Newcastle delivered an emphatic riposte to the pressing questions that have been posed by their alarming November slump.
Buoyed by an early red card that was a shade contentious, United were finally able to impose themselves on a Premier League game and the results were pleasing to the eye.
The charges laid at Pardew’s door during a disappointing month have been that his team goes direct too often, and don’t seem to be set up in a formation that makes the most of their talent. Last night, both accusations were unpicked in a display that replenishes black-and-white confidence ahead of a testing festive programme.
Newcastle certainly passed the ball last night, and if the mitigation is that they were playing with a man advantage it should also be pointed out that they made their initial breakthrough thanks to a move of genuine one-touch quality.
It owed much to Vurnon Anita, who seems to be growing in authority with every minute in a Newcastle shirt. He exchanged passes with Ba and the striker found Cisse, who was crudely barged by Maynor Figueroa.
Referee Mike Jones had a decision to make, and he was emphatic in pointing to the spot and dismissing the Honduran. Wigan’s bench was apoplectic and perhaps they had a point – for while it looked a penalty, the red card seemed a shade harsh.
No matter, it was the stroke of luck that Pardew had craved for his under-pressure team. All it required from his dressing-room lieutenant was to apply a killer touch, and Ba did that by stroking the ball confidently to the right of Ali Al-Habsi.
In one second, the tension around St James’ Park lifted. The anxiety that had rebounded around the stadium in the defeats by Swansea and West Ham was replaced by a gaiety rarely present on Tyneside during this suffocating campaign.
It helped that Pardew appears to have struck on a formula for offensive success: 4-3-3 has been the stick used to beat the Newcastle manager this term, but the deployment of Sylvain Marveaux just behind Ba – with Cisse to the right of him – seemed to free up United’s forwards to do the maximum damage to the depleted Latics.
Marveaux, in particular, enjoyed himself. He has been the forgotten man at times this year, but his goal in the Europa League last week suggested that there is life in his Newcastle career yet. For 90 minutes here, the winger illustrated a willingness to run at defences with pace and poise that would have made Hatem Ben Arfa blush.
United were two up before long thanks to the adventure of Davide Santon, who burst through a crowd of red shirts to lace a 20-yard shot on goal. Al-Habsi parried it, but only into the path of Ba – who grabbed his second strike of the season from close range.
Marveaux then went close with a stunning run and shot before half-time as Newcastle began to flex their creative muscles.
The second half was a similar story of black-and-white dominance, even if Wigan did make tentative attempts to gain a foothold. Newcastle absorbed those raids before scoring a sensational third, substitute Gael Bigirimana slamming his first Magpies goal past Al-Habsi from the edge of the box.
United’s night was spoiled by injuries to Santon and Ba, which required both to be removed from the action. It looks as if neither will be risked in Bordeaux but the worry is that injury has claimed another two key performers.
This was the perfect antidote to the toxic tension on Tyneside. Now we must anxiously await the injury bulletins.