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Newcastle gnawed by doubt

Arsenal 2 Marshall 3, Wright 17 Newcastle United 0 Attenda nce: 38,271; FA Premiership: United go top and have chance to pull clear as Arsenal catch fire and Forest show fight
AND now you have to disbelieve them. The heart has gone out to Newcastle United for most of the season, so vibrant and vivacious has their football been, but now you wonder if the heart has gone out of them. Suddenly the head doubts whether they can withstand the strains of the Premiership title race and it seems that the team have had the same thought.

Listless and nervous yesterday, they were swept away, never to recover, in a blistering first quarter by Arsenal, whose two goals in that period enable Manchester United to reclaim the top position on goal difference without even playing. With Liverpool also defeated, United will be laughing all the way to the kick-off against Tottenham at Old Trafford this afternoon.

Newcastle have now lost three of their last five league matches, form worse than that of Bolton Wanderers at the foot of the table. There is scarcely comfort for them in their next match, against Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday week. Should United win today and Newcastle lose that, their advantage of two games in hand will have gone.

Beyond any logistics, the incisive fluency of early season has deserted them, the pleasing and effective shape being pulled asunder as new personnel struggle to integrate themselves.

David Batty added little creatively from deep in midfield while Faustino Asprilla, though showing elaborate ball skills, often disrupted the pass- and-move flow. Peter Beardsley frequently competed for the same space and too much service was expected from David Ginola with the other winger Keith Gillespie, left on the bench again. Les Ferdinand looked as if his toes have been trodden on.

"There were one or two of them a bit uptight out there, yes," Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager, admitted. "But the real problem was that we had to carry five or six. If you picked out players who didn't play well for us, it would be a long list. He proceeded to reel off the names of his attacking players initially, but decisively it was his defenders who were found wanting.

It was all a surprise after Newcastle's exciting 3-0 home win over West Ham last Monday. It was all a surprise to Newcastle as well, it seemed, as they fell behind after only two minutes, one of which was occupied with treating an injury to Nigel Winterburn.

Paul Merson's corner from the left was flicked on by Andy Linighan and Scott Marshall, a 22-year-old central defender forming part of an impressive three-man back line with Tony Adams and Steve Bould injured, arrived unimpeded to head home. Coincidentally Marshall's father, Gordon, had once kept goal for Newcastle.

John Hartson should have doubled the lead soon after when he blazed Dennis Bergkamp's low cross over the bar from eight yards but no matter. Winterburn robbed Warren Barton on the left, crossed low and Ian Wright stole in ahead of Philippe Albert to clip the ball neatly over Pavel Srnicek. It was Wright's 142nd goal for Arsenal, taking him to third behind Ted Drake and John Radford in their all-time list.

Arsenal were rampant, Newcastle bemused in confronting this interesting new formation of wing-backs, Bergkamp playing just behind Hartson and Wright, and Merson roving forward to good effect from midfield.

Only in a spell just before half-time did Newcastle look likely to reduce the deficit, but Asprilla wasted a quick series of chances. After Ferdinand headed the ball down to him, he dwelled too long and David Seaman turned aside his shot from 10 yards. The goalkeeper parried another from the Colombian, then watched as he back-heeled a low cross just wide.

Even then the closest Newcastle came was of Arsenal's making, Seaman just turning past the post Marshall's header back to him. In truth they could have gone into the interval three down. Srnicek saved Wright's shot from close range well and Albert looked decidedly guilty as Arsenal appealed for a handball in the penalty area.

The second half could never live up to the frantic first, with Arsenal - diminished as an attacking force with Wright substituted because of a back injury - content to play on the break and let Newcastle chase the game.

Though in control, it was a feeble pursuit. A Beardsley shot flew just wide and Asprilla drilled a cross-shot against a post in the last minute but by then Arsenal were home, having no need of the third that should have come 15 minutes from time when David Platt sidefooted wide Ray Parlour's low cross.

Keegan will no doubt be reassuring his Newcastle side that no matter the setbacks away from home, there is always home comfort. They must expect to take maximum points at St James' Park from their last four matches, with only Manchester United having denied them such so far, and one away win may just be enough to give them the championship.

An average of 79 points won the title in the three years at the turn of the decade when the top division last featured 38 games, though the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, believes it will take 82. "I'm sure he will be right," said Keegan ironically. "I wouldn't know because I've never been there, have I?"

The heart wishes Newcastle well but the head needs to be convinced anew of Keegan's insistence that: "Yes, I do think we have the bottle to win the league."