Rodallega's leaping winner adds to Pardew's concerns

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The Independent Online

This may not be a happy Christmas for Newcastle. The team who threatened the Champions League last season have turned into something quite different. Last night, they did almost nothing right, and were flattered by their 2-1 defeat to Fulham.

What looked at first like a slow start is now something else. This was Newcastle's fifth defeat in six league matches, none of them against teams likely to finish in the top six. Those sides are yet to come: Newcastle host Manchester City on Saturday before travelling to Manchester United and Arsenal between Christmas and New Year. 2012 was nearly a brilliant year at St James' Park but it could well end rather uncomfortably.

In the first half both teams played in more of a rush than they needed to. Newcastle threw bodies and the ball forward without much precision, but it was Fulham who nearly scored in the first minute. Alexander Kacaniklic ran through on goal but was just squeezed out.

Dimitar Berbatov tried to bend the chaos into order, memorably taking down a clearance returning from the clouds with his stomach on the spin. But his strike-partner, Hugo Rodallega, looked more at home in this hectic game, volleying over before setting up Fulham's opening goal.

Rodallega has a sharp turn of pace and he spun past a challenge before playing in Damien Duff in behind Fabricio Coloccini. Duff rolled the ball back to the edge of the box where Steve Sidwell, arriving from midfield, scored via Mike Williamson's thigh, the crossbar and the goal-line. Berbatov ought to have scored a second straight after, taking advantage of Cheick Tioté's dismal pass to Coloccini but failing to find a way past Tim Krul, charging out of goal.

It was only when Alan Pardew swapped Hatem Ben Arfa, above, and Jonas Gutierrez, damming up the gaping left-wing, that Newcastle got into the game. Then they started to create. Sascha Reither had to block Coloccini's header on the line before doing so again when Demba Ba shot on the turn and then Ben Arfa volleyed over the bar.

Fulham could have made their second half slightly easier five minutes in when Berbatov, through on goal, waited but stabbed the ball into the side-netting. The miss was punished four minutes later by the next most talented man on the pitch.

Ben Arfa had a frustrating evening but when he had the ball 20 yards out on the right hand side, everyone was expecting a cross. Mark Schwarzer certainly was. But Ben Arfa shuffled past Sidwell and curled the ball round John Arne Riise and into the near top corner of the goal.

Newcastle, though, were just not defending well enough to stay in the game and when Fulham retook the lead, it was little surprise. Tioté, who played thoughtlessly all evening, gave away a free-kick. Duff curled it in from the right and Rodallega rose above Coloccini to head past Krul.