Football: Shearer's renaissance lifts Gullit

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The Independent Online
Newcastle United 2 Aston Villa 1

SO ALAN Shearer is on the wane is he? Well, Aston Villa would argue otherwise after he made a substantial hole in their title credentials. If this is the England captain when he is struggling then defences are in for their worst nightmares when he is at his peak.

Enough hot air on the subject of Shearer has been generated on Tyneside to power a Richard Branson balloon twice round the planet, and it shows no sign of deflating. He cannot get on with his manager, he is not fit, he has lost the goal touch: the rumours swirl in the air and on Saturday he shot down most of them.

Sharp? He rampaged round the Villa defence like an elephant who had just learnt he is about to be trained by Mary Chipperfield, dulling some polished reputations on his destructive way.

Gareth Southgate was roughly and thoroughly rattled, Gareth Barry was made to look light years away from a full England call-up and Ugo Ehiogu had not won a header against the Newcastle No 9 when Shearer's boot accidentally reminded him he had something on his shoulders and forced him to retire bloodied from the fray.

As for the man himself, he sported that "what me?" look on his face and pushed the laws of the game and the Villa back three to the limit, scoring one goal, making another, hitting the bar and causing mayhem Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been proud of. "It was nice of Alan to give the referee his whistle back at the end," was John Gregory's wry comment.

"Alan is a great player," Ruud Gullit said, dispelling rumours that the Newcastle manager regarded him as the poor man's Mark Hughes. "He has worked very, very hard to get his form and fitness back. Today he showed everyone he's the Alan Shearer of before his injury."

Gullit had a serious injury himself and reckons it took 18 months before he attained full fitness, and it is probably not a coincidence he is singing praises now where before he was defensive. Much is gleaned from the training ground - even if you visit it as often as Amsterdam - and it is clear Newcastle anticipate Shearer in full flow in the near future.

The irony is that Villa have lost a centre-forward to Roehampton Priory stress clinic just as Newcastle have rediscovered theirs, and there is an unmistakable whiff of concern circulating around Gregory, who described the first-half performance as "awful".

Stan Collymore, Paul Merson and Richard Scimeca have all gone public with grievances in the recent past and self-belief seems to be dripping from the team. Last week they lost to Fulham; this week they lost the chance to go top of the Premiership, albeit temporarily. Not only Oscar Wilde would note that that smacks of carelessness.

Certainly there was a huge dollop of the slapdash in Newcastle's' fourth- minute opening goal. Stephen Glass, who made Steve Watson's return to St James' Park a thoroughly depressing one, sped towards the corner and when his cross was delivered, Shearer had drifted behind the ball-watching Barry. Give him a free header from 10 yards and the result is inevitable: his first Premiership goal since 26 September.

Within seconds Michael Oakes had missed a low cross to have his defenders flapping like tethered hawks, Shearer had a "goal" disallowed for pushing and Temuri Ketsbaia had blazed too high after a sweeping move so it was far from a shock when Newcastle doubled their lead after 26 minutes.

Again Shearer was prominent, shaking off central defenders like ill-fitting jackets before playing Glass inside Watson. This time he chose the low road and Ketsbaia could pass into an empty net.

Villa threatened to get back in the game with Paul Merson's spectacular shot from just outside the box but it would have been a profound injustice if they had escaped with a point. If the scoreline had been 5-1 it would not have flattered Newcastle.

"When we lost to Chelsea I asked the players to win the next four matches," Gregory said. "We won three and that's the kind of effort I'll be looking for." That is a minimum requirement if the championship is to be won.

Goals: Shearer (3) 1-0; Ketsbaia (26) 2-0; Merson (60) 2-1.

Newcastle United(4-4-2): Given; Barton, Howey, Dabizas, Domi; Solano (Brady, 81), Hamann, Speed, Glass; Shearer, Ketsbaia (Andersson, 62). Substitutes not used: Pearce, A Hughes, Harper (gk).

Aston Villa (3-5-1-1): Oakes; Barry, Ehiogu (Grayson, 38), Southgate; Watson (Vassell, 83), Scimeca, Taylor, Hendrie, Wright; Merson; Joachim. Substitutes not used: D Hughes, Lee, Rachel (gk).

Referee: R Harris (Oxford).

Bookings: Newcastle: Ketsbaia. Aston Villa: Hendrie, Merson.

Man of the match: Shearer.

Attendance: 36,766.