After a dose of cold reality with successive matches against the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea yielding a single point, Newcastle United were plunged into an ice bath by yesterday's news that their defensive strongman Steven Taylor will miss the rest of the season. He requires surgery on an achilles injury sustained towards the end of Saturday's game as Salomon Kalou and Daniel Sturridge scored late goals to secure victory by a flattering margin.
It is a huge blow, not least as Taylor, who was brought up on Tyneside, epitomises the spirit that has underlined the club's unexpectedly successful start to the campaign after losing players like Kevin Nolan, Jose Enrique and Joey Barton. The goalkeeper and the whole back four had remained unchanged through the first dozen games as Newcastle soared as high as third before slipping down to a more realistic sixth amid the recent run against Champions League opposition. Much earlier in Saturday's game Taylor's partner Fabricio Coloccini, the team captain, limped off with a thigh strain and he is unlikely to be fit for this weekend's visit to Norwich.
With Mike Williamson, who played 29 games last season, still absent, Newcastle's manager Alan Pardew admits he will have to consider buying a central defender in January. "Williamson's back running and I'd suggest he might have an outside chance of playing in the Christmas programme, but I don't think they'll be involved before then," Pardew said. "Like all the teams in the Premier League, we've got a big, healthy squad and we've invested well. We've had a brilliant season so far, but injuries are going to come our way and you have to cope with it. If you have to ask players to play in different positions, then so be it."
The effect of disruption was evident once Coloccini went off, however, with James Perch, inexperienced at this level, being outjumped by Didier Drogba for the opening goal and struggling to cope with the menacing counter-attacks that Chelsea launched throughout the second half. Pardew, meanwhile, was left "sick in the stomach" by a combination of the injuries and the referee Mike Dean's refusal to send off David Luiz in only the fourth minute after he brought down Demba Ba just outside the penalty area. Pardew claimed yesterday that Dean had admitted his mistake.
The visitors' performance, Drogba suggested, was "more like the Chelsea of old". Which would be fine except that three League titles, three FA Cups and two League Cups in the last seven seasons were not sufficient for a demanding owner and so the task for the latest manager is to construct an entirely new Chelsea while maintaining, if not improving, that level of success. Andre Villas-Boas has unsurprisingly found it a daunting task and he knows that a second successive 3-0 win to spring into fourth in the table will count for nothing if on Tuesday he becomes the first manager under Roman Abramovich whose team fail to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League. That will be their fate if Valencia leave Stamford Bridge tomorrow with either a win or a score-draw. On the other hand, should Chelsea secure the result they need, morale will be high for the visit of Manchester City a week today.
"If we go past Valencia we will set the right emotional stimulus to face the League leaders," Villas-Boas said. Emotions were high all round the ground on Saturday, from the pre-match tributes to Gary Speed, through the Luiz incident to the late brace of goals celebrated so provocatively by Chelsea's fitness coach Jose Maria Rocha that Villas-Boas had to apologise on his behalf.
The changing of the guard will continue in January, Nicolas Anelka, who has lost his place to Sturridge, and the Brazilian defender Alex have both had their requests to leave agreed to. Frank Lampard will also have a decision to make about his future if he continues to be substituted as early as the 60th minute, which clearly annoyed him.