The red halves of Manchester and Liverpool had hoped a team would be a bag of nerves at St James' Park last night and they got their wish. Instead of Newcastle United going down a tense path to self destruction, however, it was West Ham, who began the game as a team on the rise and ended it a tired and depleted mess.
Newcastle were terrific, betraying none of the jitters that might have undermined them. They swept West Ham aside with relentless waves of attacks that, but for the visitors goalkeeper Les Sealey, would have doubled their total. As a commanding return to the top of the Premiership it could not have been bettered.
Goals by Philippe Albert and Faustino Asprilla - his first at home - and Les Ferdinand means they have a three-point lead this morning with a game in hand and the attention now focuses on whether the chasers can keep up. Certainly West Ham could not, their dismal evening being completed by the sending-off of Steve Potts.
"My only criticism is that we passed for passing's sake towards the end," Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager, said. "I wanted them to go for the jugular. But we had 40 shots at goal which must be something of a record. I'm nit-picking I suppose."
Two weeks had elapsed since Newcastle's previous fixture, a period when the home defeat by Manchester United could have worn away confidence, and their state of mind could not have been improved by losing their lead at the top on Saturday.
If their nerves were raw they hid it wonderfully well. They tore at the visitors from the start and but for Sealey, who last started a game in September 1994 where he let in two goals when playing for Blackpool, could have been four up by 18 minutes.
After nine minutes he sprang to his left to thwart Ferdinand; four minutes later he arched backwards to pluck David Ginola's shot out from the top corner; after 18 he dived brilliantly low to his left after Ferdinand had headed powerfully towards the right-hand corner.
All shades of the Manchester United match where Newcastle had dominated the first half without scoring and then succumbed in the second when tiredness set in. St James' Park was desperate for a goal so when it arrived after 20 minutes there was a colossal roar of relief.
It was a goal worth waiting for, too, the home team's one-touch passing ripping through the defence. Ferdinand found Asprilla and with one glorious flick the path was cleared for Albert. The Belgian centre-back was one- on-one with Sealey and coolly side-footed past him.
West Ham were being run ragged and things got worse after 31 minutes when Potts was dismissed. First he pulled Ginola back to get a booking and when the Frenchman received the ball again 30 seconds later he dived in from behind, giving the referee had little option but to send him off.
West Ham tried to pull the game around but they were a trickle against a torrent. Sealey denied Ferdinand again just after half-time, saving with his feet after Ginola had put him clear.
It was just a temporary relief. After 53 minutes Ginola found Asprilla in almost the same position as Ferdinand had been before. The Colombian did not try to beat Sealey round the side but exquisitely chipped over the goalkeeper.
After 64 minutes it was 3-0, Ginola's corner being headed on by Steve Howey to the back post where Asprilla knocked it into the six-yard box. From a range of a yard Ferdinand volleyed in.
"We are in the driving seat," Keegan said. "We have some tough away games ahead of us but if we play like that and battle we'll take some catching. I think we would be great champions for this country."
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Barton (Barton, 56), Howey, Albert, Beresford; Beardsley, Lee, Batty, Ginola; Asprilla, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Peacock, Gillespie.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Sealey; Potts, Bilic, Rieper, Dicks; Rowland, Williamson, Bishop (Breacker, 76), Hughes; Dowie, Dumitrescu (Dani, 76). Substitute not used: Shilton (gk).
Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).
Results, page 23
P W D L F A Pts GD
Newcastle 29 20 4 5 55 26 64 +29
Man Utd 30 18 7 5 57 30 61 +27
Liverpool 30 17 8 5 60 26 59 +34
NEWCASTLE: 23 Mar: Arsenal (a). 1 Apr: Liverpool (a). 6 Apr: QPR (h). 8 Apr: Blackburn (a). 14 Apr: Aston Villa (h). 17 Apr: Southampton (h). 27 Apr: Leeds Utd (a). 5 May: Tottenham (h). TBA: Nottm Forest (a).
MANCHESTER UNITED: 20 Mar: Arsenal (h). 24 Mar: Tottenham (h). 6 Apr: Manchester City (a). 8 Apr: Coventry (h). 13 Apr: Southampton (a). 17 Apr: Leeds Utd (h). 27 Apr: Nottingham Forest (h). 5 May: Middlesbrough (a).
LIVERPOOL: 23 Mar: Nottingham Forest (a). 1 Apr: Newcastle (h). 6 Apr: Coventry (a). 8 Apr: West Ham (h). 16 Apr: Everton (a). 27 Apr: Middlesbrough (h). 1 May: Arsenal (a). 5 May: Manchester City (a).Reuse content