This has been an awful autumn for Newcastle United and could well be a very difficult Christmas. Last season they threatened the Champions League, but tonight they lost again, defeated 2-1 by a Fulham side who might have scored three or four more.
Nearly halfway through the season, this has gone far beyond a slow start. This was Newcastle’s fifth defeat in six games, not one of them against a team likely to finish in the top six. Those opponents are yet to come: Newcastle host Manchester City on Saturday before travelling to Manchester United and Arsenal between Christmas and New Year. 2012 was nearly a brilliant year at St James’ Park but it could well end rather uncomfortably.
Newcastle finished last season one point ahead of Chelsea. They are now just two ahead of Southampton, Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic, and four clear of 18th placed Sunderland. “It’s a worry,” admitted Alan Pardew afterwards. “We haven’t got enough points on the board.”
Pardew did not sound too upset with the performance but Newcastle lacked cohesion, control and balance. Without Yohan Cabaye there is no direction to their midfield. Vurnon Anita has not yet settled into the Premier League while Cheikh Tiote was dismal, doing almost nothing right all night. He gave the ball away almost every time he touched it, and gifted away the free-kick from which Hugo Rodallega headed in Fulham’s winner. “It was a cheap free-kick,” regretted Pardew, “and a soft goal.”
Newcastle’s defence was little better. Fabricio Coloccini was often left covering for the mistakes of others, desperately trying to do the work of four men. Tim Krul had to charge out to make good saves from Dimitar Berbatov and Steve Sidwell. Fulham were not excellent but will be frustrated to have only scored twice.
Although Fulham’s goals were finished by Sidwell and Rodallega, there was no doubt whatsoever as to their best player. To point out that Berbatov’s touch and vision were magnificent is a waste of words but he was brilliant again. This was not obviously the perfect game for him, as it was so frantic and frenetic, but he did his remarkable best to bend it his way. To choose one illustrative moment from the first half: Mark Schwarzer kicked the ball into the clouds and as it returned Berbatov trapped it on his stomach mid-spin to beat Coloccini.
“He was special tonight,” admitted Pardew afterwards. “Everything he seemed to pluck out of the sky, it would just die on his toe.” Martin Jol was delighted with how Berbatov took creative responsibility in the absence of Bryan Ruiz. “He was vital, he linked us up and kept the team together. Although he didn’t score, he covered more ground than ever before. He was probably a bit tired when we needed him to score goals.”
Berbatov did miss two good chances to put Fulham 2-0 up, either side of half-time. But he need not have worried. Rodallega was there to be a more direct threat and he succeeded, making the first goal and scoring the second.
After 19 minutes Rodallega, on the right hand side, spun past a challenge before playing in Damien Duff behind Coloccini. Duff rolled the ball back to the edge of the box where Steve Sidwell, arriving from midfield, scored via Mike Williamson’s thigh, the cross-bar and the goal-line.
In the second half, Rodallega re-took the lead for Fulham, rising highest from Duff’s free-kick to head past Krul.
Newcastle had been level for 11 minutes. Their equaliser had, unsurprisingly, come from nowhere. Hatem Ben Arfa, the second most talented player on the pitch, had the ball on the right hand side. Everyone was expecting a cross, including Schwarzer. But Ben Arfa shuffled inside Sidwell and curled the ball round John Arne Riise and into the near top corner of the goal.
Coloccini did shoot against the bar but Newcastle created almost nothing, despite throwing bodies forward in the second half. Fulham had more than enough chances to kill the game on the break but could not take them. It did not matter. Fulham had enough for their their first league win since October, setting up a far more comfortable Christmas than some others will enjoy.
Fulham: SCHWARZER 5/10, RIETHER 7, HUGHES 6, HANGELAND 6, RIISE 6, DUFF 6, SIDWELL 7, BAIRD 6, KACANIKLIC 5, BERBATOV 7, RODALLEGA 7
Newcastle: KRUL 6, SANTON 5, COLOCCINI 6, WILLIAMSON 4, SIMPSON 5, GUTIERREZ 5, ANITA 5, TIOTE 3, BEN ARFA 6, BA 5, CISSE 4
Goals. Fulham: Sidwell 19, Rodallega 63. Newcastle: Ben Arfa 54
Substitutes: F ulham Dejagah 5 (Kacaniklic, 62), Petric (Rodallega, 86). Newcastle United Shola Ameobi 6 (Ben Arfa, 70), Marveaux (Anita, 86), Bigirimana (Tioté, 86). Booked None. Man of the match Berbatov. Match rating 5/10. Possession: F ulham 49% Newcastle United 51%. Attempts on target: F ulham 7 Newcastle United 13. Referee L Mason (Lancashire). Attendance 25,270