Robson must wait for revenge

FA Premiership: Chelsea hang on grimly to thwart Newcastle's bid for fifth straight victory at St James' Park
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Exactly 12 months ago, a 66-year-old Newcastle United fan was swapping the Gallowgate terraces for the dug-out and, in doing so, realising his lifelong dream. On that occasion, as Bobby Robson marked his return, both to his North-east roots and English football management, the party was ruined by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Yesterday was meant to bepay-back time.

Exactly 12 months ago, a 66-year-old Newcastle United fan was swapping the Gallowgate terraces for the dug-out and, in doing so, realising his lifelong dream. On that occasion, as Bobby Robson marked his return, both to his North-east roots and English football management, the party was ruined by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Yesterday was meant to bepay-back time.

In the event, Newcastle were unable to break down Chelsea's improved defence, although the quality of the home team's performance said everything about the impact of the former England manager. Conversely, it also said much about the problems facing Gianluca Vialli, even at this infant stage of the season. The two clubs are not exactly travelling in opposite directions, but their recent fortunes suggest that the better days may lie on Tyneside.

Robson spoke yesterday about the irony of his team facing Chelsea precisely a year after he took over the managerial reins. "We were bottom then but we started this Chelsea game top," said August's manager of the month. "Now we're third and, although we would have liked to have won, I feel we're doing well."

This is not quite the rampant Newcastle of the Kevin Keegan days, but the new vintage are playing attractive football once again. Certainly the bad old Ruud Gullit times are but a distant memory and, most importantly, Newcastle are threat- ening to win matches they would have lost a year ago.

Leaving here with all three points was never going to be easy for Chelsea, particularly in light of their poor away record (they have not won on their travels since April) and Newcastle's excellent home form. And so it proved early on, as the Magpies looked to secure their fifth successive victory at St James' Park. Daniel Cordone, a £500,000 summer signing from Racing Club of Argentina, went close with a low drive in the first minute, but Chelsea's teenage goalkeeper, Carlo Cudicini, saved low to his left.

By and large, the first half belonged to Newcastle. The home team played enterprisingly, with the partnership of Gary Speed and Kieron Dyer dominating central midfield. Both have blossomed under the guidance of Robson. The attacking trio of Alan Shearer, Cordone and Kevin Gallacher put the Chelsea defence under constant pressure with their probing runs, and Shearer will be disappointed he did not convert Cordone's 20th-minute right-foot cross. His header was well-directed, but not powerful enough to beat Cudicini.

Shearer has cause to be happy, though, having scored his 200th League goal on Wednesday at Coventry and then seen his wife give birth to their first baby boy. Robson believes his striker's international retirement will also help him stay fresher and more focused for Newcastle and, on the evidence of the last week, the former England manager is right. Yesterday, Shearer led the line powerfully, as expected, but intelligently, too, often dropping off a defender or peeling away to the wing in order to release space for the runs of Speed and Dyer from midfield.

Chelsea, for their part, created few chances in the first 45 minutes. An attempted hook shot by Tore Andre Flo, who was preferred to Gianfranco Zola to partner Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in attack, was the best of the visitors' rare attempts. Vialli opted for the Norwegian's height and power, but it was the little Sardinian's trickery and guile which were desperately needed to outsmart Newcastle's resolute defence.

In midweek, Vialli admitted his team sometimes lacked self-belief. Their defeat at Bradford and surrender of a two-goal lead against Arsenal on Wednesday would appear to support that view, but it does not tell the whole story.

True, Chelsea, and in particular Hasselbaink when he was one-on-one with the Newcastle keeper after 60 minutes, dwelt on the ball too much. But, as was the case four days ago, yesterday's erratic performance owed more to the opposition's determination than to Chelsea's failings.

"I thought we did well," Vialli said. "After the poor last 15 minutes against Arsenal we had to get things right. We've done that and we can build from here."

Where Newcastle were superior to Chelsea was in their willingness to play without asking themselves too many questions. Sometimes, simple is beautiful, as the best move of the second half, and the match, proved.

Starting from their own goal-line, Newcastle engineered a sequence of six first-touch passes which culminated in a right-foot volley from Speed. Unfortunately, the Welshman was slightly off-balance, and his shot sailed just over the bar.

Minutes later, Newcastle produced another glorious scoring opportunity as Norberto Solano, who worked tirelessly on the right flank, hit his shot into the side-netting. Close, but not quite close enough for the win Newcastle, and their evergreen manager, deserved.

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