For like themselves, Kenny Dalglish's new pragmatic Newcastle can be considered among the five, at most six, teams who can win the championship. After a week which also saw Chelsea lose at home to Arsenal and take only a point from Manchester United when three seemed theirs, this was a mighty victory rendered all the more important given the stumbles of others near the top of the table.
The decisive moment came courtesy of Gustavo Poyet, who had hitherto shot or headed wide a variety of half-chances that came his way. Then, finally, the Uruguayan rose to meet unchallenged Dennis Wise's hanging, outswinging corner from the right and head powerfully through the Newcastle defence and into the net.
Perhaps Chelsea have what it takes after all. In the first half hour, they struggled to assert themselves against a side playing canny Kenny's old Liverpool keep-ball away game but persistence paid. "These are the victories that please you most," said Ruud Gullit. "Normally Chelsea wouldn't win these matches in the past."
It was hard on visiting goalkeeper Shay Given, who had turned aside all that a Chelsea below their fluent best but still potent enough could throw at him. As Chelsea improved so did an eventually entertaining match in which an ordered, composed Newcastle suggested initially that they would take some reward but were ultimately short of finishing power.
Gullit had shuffled his pack once again, resting Dan Petrescu, dropping Mark Hughes and pairing Tore Andre Flo with Gianfranco Zola. He also departed from usual tactics by playing a back four as a counter to Newcastle's 3-5-2. The visitors were without Faustino Asprilla, victim of a stomach bug but likely to be fit for the Champions' League match against Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday. Robert Lee was also missing with a hamstring injury.
Initially it backfired on the Chelsea coach. If Gullit's aim was to outnumber Newcastle in the centre of midfield, the plan was at first ineffective, due in no small measure to John Barnes, who passed the ball neatly, accurately and swiftly to stop Chelsea building any early momentum. His industry and ingenuity, indeed, should have been rewarded with Newcastle taking an early lead.
Jon Dahl Tomasson drew a fingertip save from Ed de Goey with a low left- footed drive and, soon after, came an even better chance. David Batty and John Beresford swopped passes on the left, causing Paul Hughes to commit himself, and from Beresford's cross an unmarked Tomasson glanced a header wide.
Gullit quickly dragged Hughes off, to be replaced by Frank Sinclair, and Chelsea seemed finally stung into action by the coach's displeasure. At last they troubled a hitherto dominant Newcastle defence in which Alessandro Pistone had been ruggedly assured and the Stamford Bridge crowd responded. It was the start of the mood change that was ultimately to bear fruit.
Given, though, showed himself to be in great form. He flung himself twice to his right to turn aside long-range shots from Roberto Di Matteo and Zola, though he was more fortunate when Flo's sidefoot, from Zola's pass, dribbled just wide. Cleverly, Given then forced Zola wide after Wise had sent him clear.
That the balance had changed was due to Chelsea pressing more vigorously to deny Newcastle time and space to pass, a message Gullit reinforced at half- time. Still, Newcastle had chances on the break, and an Ian Rush of several years ago might have taken one of them.
First Rush, 36 next month, laid off a low cross from Tomasson to Warren Barton, whose shot was blocked, when he might once have turned and shot, then he allowed Frank Leboeuf to intervene when Tomasson's through ball looked to have sent him clear. They were never to come as close again and Chelsea grabbed the goal they deserved.
The only surprise was that it came not from Zola, but Poyet, whose overhead shot and two low drives, as well as another header, had all failed to find the target. But Chelsea now have a variety of sources that make them major players in the mini-league developing at the top.Reuse content