The sound of sharpening knives is in the air at St James Park this afternoon, but they’re not for Alan Pardew. Newcastle United arrive here for the final match of the trilogy that will go some way towards determining whether their early season league position was due to the order of their league fixtures. The first two of this trilogy saw them beaten by Manchester City and picking up a draw at Old Trafford. Today, though, is perhaps their real acid test. If ambitions of winning the Premier League title are a little over-stated, a Champions League finish at the end of season still doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable possibility and a win against Chelsea will further cement the belief that this team is capable of such an achievement.
For Andres Villa Boas, however, it never rains but it pours. Chelsea were beaten at home by Liverpool in the League Cup during the week, a result which, whilst it might not have been the club’s highest priority of the season, might at least be considered a disappointment. Chelsea, still in the Champions League, in fifth place in the table, are not in crisis by any reasonable definition, but the pressure is building and the autocratic nature of Roman Abramovich’s history of running the club – and in particular his hiring and firing of managers – would tend to suggest that the expressionless-faced Russian might already start to be developing an itchy trigger-finger again.
Before the match, however, comes a reminder. A little perspective, if you like. A minute’s applause is held for Gary Speed prior to kick-off, another fitting tribute from a game which has proved over the last week or so that it might not have completely lost its soul just yet. There are numerous familiar faces at St James Park this afternoon as well as tears from many, including the staff on the sidelines, and it is to be hoped that the loss of Speed will force us to face up more honestly to the mental wellbeing of our sportsmen, who are put under enormous pressure for our entertainment – very much, we might pause to reflect, as Andres Villa Boas is this afternoon.
At the referee’s whistle, the applause steps up several notches, like the sound of a jet engine as an airline speeds down a runway. It takes just four minutes for the noise to reach a crescendo. A ball through the middle sets Demba Ba away from David Luiz, and Luizs tackle on Ba, which suggests that Luiz may have spent last night watching professional wrestling DVDs, ends in a free-kick and a yellow card. It should, by any stretch of the imagination, have been a sending off, and the only so much decision for Mike Dean not dismissing Luiz is that he felt that it was too early in the match to do so – not something that is within the laws of the game.
After this beginning, the match settles into an enjoyable, sparkling tempo. Luiz continues his apparent one-man bid to see Villa Boas out of a job at one end of the pitch, with every touch now looking skittishly nervous. At the other end of the pitch, however, Chelsea are given a golden opportunity to take the lead after Daniel Sturridge is brought down inside the penalty area by Cabaye. Frank Lampard steps up to take the penalty, but his shot is so tame that Tim Krul may have tickled his nose and given him a sugarlump afterwards. It is palmed against the base of the post and wide. Newcastle breathes a sigh of relief.
At the other end of the pitch, Demba Ba brings a magnificent one-handed save from Petr Cech and heads against the left-hand post, but Chelsea have come to dominate the possession now, and the spritely Sturridge is Newcastle’s biggest problem, working into decent positions on several occasions and once bringing another smart stop from Krul. With seven minutes left of the half, though, Chelsea do take the lead, and the goal comes from a more familiar danger. Juan Mata crosses from the left hand side and Didier Drogba, a player with the head of a proverbial traction engine, powers the ball past Krul and into the roof of the net. Chelsea hold their lead until half-time.
The second half continues the hustle and bustle of the first and with both sides creating plenty of half-chances, although much of the rhythm of the game feels as if it has been lost with the opening goal. Drogba aheads against his own post, and within a minute Sturridge releases Ramires, who sees his shot saved by the very impressive Krul. Chelsea, more than aware of the importance of three points this afternoon, are looking increasingly cautious, sitting back and allowing Newcastle to come at them. With the introduction of the Ameobis for Newcastle, there is a sense of an increasing throwing of caution to the wind, but Chelsea are starting to look increasingly comfortable with each tactical change that Pardew introduces. With ten minutes to play, though, a great chance – a curling shot from Shola Ameobi, which beats Cech and smacks out – again – off the inside of the post. Sammy Ameobi’s follow-up shot from an angle is smothered by Cech.
In the final couple of minutes, Chelsea deliver the killer blows. Fernando Torres, introduced with a little over ten minutes left, finds himself some space on the left-hand side but, rather than shooting, checks inside and passes to Solomon Kalou, whose deflected shot beats Krul and sneaks inside the right-hand post. In stoppage time comes the icing on Chelsea’s cake, as Daniel Sturridge – who has been duelling unsuccessfully with Krul all afternoon – steps inside from the right and smashes a low shot past the goalkeeper to give Chelsea a somewhat flattering three goal lead, although this was a goal that Sturridge deserved for a performance that stood head and shoulders above any other performance in the Chelsea team, bar the similarly exceptional Juan Mata.
Chelsea, then, are back up to third place in the table with this result, although they remain only level on points with Tottenham Hotspur and the North London side have two games in hand upon them. At the end of a week that began with considerations on the suicide of a football manager, it is perhaps appropriate that it should end with the tempering of the pressure valve that has started to bear down upon Andres Villa Boas in recent weeks. Newcastle United, meanwhile, may have to reconsider their ambitions for a place in the Champions League for next season. As exceptional as their start to the season has been, they are now three games without a win against the sides that they need to be really competing against if they are to be in the mix for a place in the Champions League come the end of the season.
Things might have all been different had Mike Dean sent David Luiz off after four minutes, or had several of the Newcastle efforts that cannoned out from the woodwork been several inches lower, higher, to the left or the right. Upon such variables stands the difference between no points, one point and all three points. Sometimes, it just isn’t your day and Newcastle United supporters can only consider that this was not theirs. Still, though, they can at least take a little consolation from the fact that their start to the season has been, thus far, way beyond the expectations of the majority of the club’s supporters. The question that Alan Pardew faces now is that of whether Newcastle’s Indian summer was the start of a new beginning for a long beleaguered club, or whether what has come to be regarded as normal service is starting to resume.
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