Bellamy shows fire and desire

Newcastle United 3 Southampton 1
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The Independent Online

Football crowds do not judge morality. Lee Bowyer was lionised by a section of Elland Road during his trial for causing grievous bodily harm while at Sunderland Kevin Kilbane, one of the game's most decent men, is howled down at the Stadium of Light. It is all about how you perform on the pitch; everything else is just propaganda.

There was never the slightest danger that Craig Bellamy's slapping and kicking of a female student in a fracas witnessed by three other team-mates would sour his reception or his display at St James' Park. But for his goals, Newcastle would not have surpassed even the feverish expectations of their own supporters and on Saturday he won the penalty for Newcastle's decisive third goal, struck the post and displayed a desire for the ball which has always been applauded in the North-east.

"I did not think Craig would play any differently. He has been on fire all season and he was on fire today," said his manager, Bobby Robson. "I did mention it [the incident] to him before the game. I asked if his head was all right. He had a photographer outside his house this morning."

Bellamy needed the redemption of a goal, especially against a side managed by Gordon Strachan, who had paid £6m to take him from Norwich to Coventry and for whom he had underperformed. He may not have found the net but Bellamy, often an uneasy dressing-room companion, had made his point.

Newcastle now have one more point than they managed in the whole of last season and they are among the four clubs that have begun to break away from Leeds and Chelsea, two teams where consistency does not match talent. The Champions' League appears within their grasp and so, astonishingly, might the championship, although the coming month represents a daunting granite wall for Robson's team.

Sunday sees the return of Kevin Keegan to St James' Park in the FA Cup, followed by the Tyne-Wear derby and then games with Arsenal and Liverpool. Thereafter it is downhill, and if they are still in contention on their return from Anfield on 6 March, we might have to contemplate the most extraordinary triumph.

Saturday's victory was unusual in that Newcastle scored three times in a half which they failed to control and none at all in the one they dominated. Having taken points at Highbury, Anfield and Stamford Bridge, Southampton would not have been overawed by St James', although Strachan argued that they failed where it mattered.

"I thought our build-up play from 18-yard box to 18-yard box was good and if our final pass had been better we would have been a great threat," said the Southampton manager. "But their front players were better than our front players. Reality starts in both boxes."

Reality arrived for Southampton in the 24th minute when Paul Williams brought down Gary Speed some 35 yards from goal. Laurent Robert took vicious aim and sent a free-kick dipping and swerving past Paul Jones at 76 mph.

As Michael Ricketts and Darius Vassell find themselves in England's squad for Amsterdam, it worth remembering that Alan Shearer, long retired from internationals, has now scored 12 times in the last dozen matches. Had his deliberate 25-yard shot from Nolberto Solano's lay-off not struck the same post Bellamy had hit, it would have been 13 and given him a hat-trick against the club for whom he scored three times on his professional debut.

The two he did score were typical Shearer products; a fiercely directed downward header from Solano's corner and a comprehensively converted penalty, awarded for a clumsy barge by Claus Lundekvam on Bellamy.

In between, Marian Pahars had exploited Newcastle's great weakness, their uncertainty in central defence, as Chris Marsden flicked on Paul Telfer's cross from the right. Shearer rounded on his back four throughout the game, arguing that they were allowing too much space between defence and midfield.

Shearer's passing, too, was utterly precise, especially to Bellamy and Solano, whose floated shot demanded the finest save from Jones. It was a towering display by a man whose best years were meant to be behind him.

The same can hardly be said for the 18-year-old Jermaine Jenas, who arrived to a fervent roar from St James' in anticipation of what a boy worth £5m might achieve. "It was a reception to make your mother cry," said Robson, who is half a century older. "This is an adoring public, a special place. We have to win for the people here."

Goals: Robert (24) 1-0; Shearer (29) 2-0; Pahars (38) 2-1; Shearer (45) 3-1.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 6; Hughes 6, O'Brien 6, Dabizas 5, Distin 5 (Elliott, 82); Solano 7, McClen 6 (Jenas, 76), Speed 6, Robert 6; Bellamy 8, Shearer 8. Substitutes not used: Acuna, Ameobi, Harper (gk).

Southampton (4-4-2): Jones 5; Dodds 6, Lundekvam 4, Williams 5, Bridge 5; Telfer 5 (Delap 5, 48), Oakley 5 (Tessem 6, 74), Svensson 5, Marsden 6; Pahars 6, Davies 6. Substitutes not used: Monk, Fernandes, Moss (gk).

Referee: B Knight (Orpington) 8.

Booking: Southampton: Davies.

Man of the match: Shearer.

Attendance: 51,587.

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