When the final whistle sounded yesterday Sir Bobby Robson turned towards the Chelsea dugout to offer his commiserations - apologies would have been more appropriate for three points stolen from the visitors. The trouble was Claudio Ranieri was nowhere to be seen.
Had the Las Vegan casino earmarked for land next to St James' Park already been up and running a roulette wheel, the Chelsea manager might have been off there to invest his anticipated £6m summer pay-off. Then again, it was a dearth of luck rather than a surfeit of tinkering that was ultimately responsible for Chelsea's Premiership challenge disappearing on Tyneside.
As Ranieri acknowledged, when he subsequently appeared in the press room, there was no legislating for the kind of Alan Shearer wonder goal that won Newcastle a contest they were only nominally part of for 43 minutes. The same could be said of Shola Ameobi's similarly striking equaliser, the brilliant reflex save with which Shay Given kept out a point-blank Eidur Gudjohnsen header midway through the second-half and the John Terry volley that cannoned off the inside of Given's right-hand post in the fourth minute of injury time.
It was probably the last blow that prompted Ranieri's hasty pitch-side departure. It left the Italian in such a shaken state he was under the mistaken impression that Frank Lampard had struck the shot. "You can have all the spirit in the world, and the lads reacted very well after the Monaco defeat," Ranieri ruminated, "but without luck you cannot do anything." Thus, after a fourth Premiership match without a win for Chelsea, the championship was duly passed into the hands of Arsenal, who formally grasped it at White Hart Lane. "I made my congratulations to them four matches ago," Ranieri said, even before Arsène Wenger's side had rendered mathematical calculations irrelevant.
Newcastle, meanwhile, gratefully accepted their opportunity to match strides with Liverpool in the chase for the fourth Champions' League qualifying place. Not that Robson was in buoyant mood afterwards. With Craig Bellamy, Jermaine Jenas, Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer all on the injured list and unlikely to play again this season, Jonathan Woodgate added his name to the casualty list, limping out of the action suffering from a pulled thigh muscle. "That's the end of him for the season," Robson lamented. "Those injuries take three or four weeks to mend, sometimes six."
Woodgate, who has already undergone a double hernia operation this season, could be a serious doubt for the European Championships. At least Terry, the Teessider's rival for the berth alongside Sol Campbell at the heart of the England defence, is in the rudest of health and form. He was outstanding yesterday, as were his colleagues in the opening 30 minutes.
Featuring just the two changes to the side which started the 3-1 Champions' League semi-final first-leg defeat in Monaco last Tuesday night (Joe Cole for Jesper Gronkjaer, Geremi for Scott Parker), Chelsea ought to have been out of sight by the half hour. As it was, they were only 1-0 up as half-time approached - courtesy of Cole, who sliced through Newcastle's right side in the fifth minute, playing a wall-pass with Frank Lampard before claiming his first Premiership goal for Chelsea by poking a low shot in off the legs of Given.
Cole was close to his scheming best for much of the afternoon but the finish he pulled across the face of the home goal in the 28th minute allowed Newcastle to lever themselves off the hook. After 44 minutes of muddling mediocrity, they suddenly sprang to goalscoring life when Ameobi trapped a Hugo Viana ball with his chest before swivelling around Marcel Desailly and firing a right-foot drive past the helpless Marco Ambrosio from the edge of the Chelsea penalty area.
Three minutes into the second half, Ambrosio and Desailly were beaten by another shot on the turn. This time it was Shearer who did the damage. From 30 yards out on the left, he took Olivier Bernard's prompting pass with his back to goal, then turned to thump an unstoppable right-foot drive into the top right corner. It was the 28th goal of the season by the Toon Army totem, and the final concession in Chelsea's fruitless championship challenge.
Goals: Cole (5) 0-1; Ameobi (44) 1-1; Shearer (48) 2-1.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 8; Hughes 6, O'Brien 7, Woodgate 8 (Bramble, 78) Bernard 5; Ambrose 5, Speed 7, Viana 4, Robert 4; Shearer 8, Ameobi 7 (Bridges, 86). Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Chopra, Brittain.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Ambrosio 5; Melchiot 6, Desailly 5 (Huth 5, 71), Terry 8, Bridge 5; Geremi 5, Makelele 3, Lampard 6, Cole 8; Crespo 5 (Hasselbaink 3, 71), Gudjohnsen 6. Substitutes not used: Sullivan (gk), Nicolas, Oliveira, Huth.
Referee: R Styles (Barnsley) 6.
Bookings: Newcastle: Viana.Chelsea: Huth, Hasselbaink.
Man of the match: Cole.
Attendance: 52,016.Reuse content