Newcastle must combat mid-term blues

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The champions lose 5-0 to the bottom club; the leaders lose to a mid-table one, making it one win in four games; their nearest challengers are held at home for the second week in succession. Is this evidence of a strong league? Or a weak one in which Newcastle United and Manchester United are merely the best of a poor vintage?

Manchester United are a team in transition. Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis are gone and the youngsters are still learning. Dips like the current one, in which they have drawn three games on the trot, are to be expected. They have done well to be as high as they are given the summer upheaval.

But Newcastle? Their season had greater expectations. With last year's promising side being strengthened by pounds 14m the belief on Tyneside, and many points south, was that the title was destined for St James' Park.

One might argue that they remain on target. Kevin Keegan's team are still four points clear at the top. Moreover Liverpool, the pre-season co-favourites, are well behind. But Newcastle's current form is less favourable; Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge means that, since defeating Wimbledon 6-1 in late October, they have won three of seven games. None of them have been comfortable, and against Liverpool they did not even deserve a point. Some of the draws, too, have been fortuitous.

Now it seems they are losing the knack of picking up points when playing badly. Minds are turning back 13 months, to the collapse of their championship challenge last year. Then the charge was that they lacked bite, all fancy dan and no hitman. It still has an air of truth, but it is not the only problem.

Last Sunday, at Wimbledon, Newcastle were outfought (which is not to suggest Wimbledon were over-physical, they were passionate). But on Saturday they were outpassed in the first half and lacked penetration in the second. Since Newcastle's game is based on those qualities Keegan will have been even more worried by this performance than the one at Selhurst Park.

The main creators, Peter Beardsley, David Ginola and Keith Gillespie, all had ineffectual games, the former pair making more impact on opponents' legs than their defence. Beardsley looked in need of a break while the wingers spent more time worrying about their respective full-backs, Dan Petrescu and Michael Phelan, than vice-versa.

In midfield Robert Lee, slowed by a thigh injury, was quiet by his recent standards allowing Dennis Wise to be the dominant influence. All of which left Les Ferdinand emasculated, a state exacerbated by the admirable marking of Michael Duberry, a 20-year-old of considerable potential who was playing his sixth Premiership match.

Alongside Duberry were two other reserves, Andy Myers and David Lee. So impressive were they that only Ruud Gullit of the trio of absent regulars may be able to get back in, and Lee produced a mature performance in his sweeping role.

Their confidence was illustrated when, after 25 minutes, both Lee and Myers took on and beat opposing defenders before Lee chipped a delicate cross which Mark Hughes glanced just wide. It was a clear indication of the influence of Glenn Hoddle and, by example, Gullit.

Newcastle, as at Wimbledon, looked less comfortable at the back. They continue to miss the calm, inspiring influence of Barry Venison in front of the back four. A further purchase may be necessary, possibly of Ince, although he does not like being restricted to a holding role.

Another solution could be to ape Chelsea's defensive formation. Newcastle have the players: the full-backs, Warren Barton and John Beresford are comfortable going forward, while all three central defenders, Philippe Albert, Steve Howey and Darren Peacock can step up with the ball. The only problem is that, if they still played two wingers, the side would be unbalanced. Keegan stressed that he intends to continue playing both flank men. The one time he brought Ginola inside, at Tottenham, it did not work.

On Saturday the best movement was all Chelsea's, notably from Wise, Hughes and John Spencer. Spencer had shot wide, Hughes headed over and Shaka Hislop denied Paul Furlong at close range before Chelsea scored after 41 minutes. Howey, beaten by Furlong, gave away a free-kick on the Chelsea right. Before it was taken Keegan switched Hislop (who will be out for at least a fortnight with a thigh injury) for Pavel Srnicek. Wise chipped the ball in, Ferdinand won it but, like a forward, headed it down rather than up. It fell to Petrescu who curled the ball in.

Keegan's exhortations ensured a better Newcastle showing in the second half but only a Ferdinand header, which Dimitri Kharin cleared at the second attempt, threatened a goal. After drawing at Old Trafford last week Chelsea must wish they played the top two all the time, like many of their supporters, they appear to save themselves for the big ones. Even Ken and Matthew were together for this one.

Newcastle's frustration showed itself in four bookings and an unruly dust-up in which Peacock was prominent. They now return to their St James' citadel (played eight, won eight) to recuperate against Everton and Nottingham Forest.

Neither will be easy opposition but maximum points will be required. Their next trip, on December 27, is to Old Trafford. Ability is not their problem. Nerve is, and that will as good a test as any. Fail it and Newcastle may be coming down with the decorations.

Goal: Petrescu (41) 1-0.

Chelsea (3-5-2): Kharin; Duberry, Lee, Myers; Petrescu, Wise, Spencer, Newton, Phelan; Furlong, Hughes. Substitutes not used: Burley, Hitchcock (gk), Hall.

Newcastle United (4-5-1): Hislop (Srnicek, 40); Barton, Howey, Peacock, Beresford; Gillespie, Lee, Clark, Beardsley, Ginola; Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Watson, Albert.

Referee: R Dilkes (Mossley).

Bookings: Chelsea: Furlong. Newcastle: Ginola, Howey, Beardsley, Peacock.

Man-of-the-match: Lee (Chelsea). Attendance: 31,098.

Winter's chill: How Newcastle slow down in November and December

1994

A the beginning of November Newcastle held a two-point lead in the Premiership

1 Newcastle (P12, Pts29)

2 Nottm Forest (12-27)

5 Nov

Newcastle 2 QPR 1

1 Newcastle (13-32)

2 Blackburn (14-30)

Leaders by two points

7 Nov

N Forest 0 Newcastle 0

1 Newcastle (14-33)

2 Blackburn (14-30)

Leaders by three points

19 Nov

Wimbledon 3 Newcastle 2

1 Man Utd (15-34)

2 Blackburn (15-33)

3 Newcastle (15-33)

Third place, one point behind leaders

27 Nov

Newcastle 1 Ipswich 1

1 Blackburn (16-36)

2 Man Utd (16-35)

3 Newcastle (16-34)

Third place, two points behind leaders

3 Dec

Tottenham 4 Newcastle 2

1 Blackburn (17-39)

2 Man Utd (17-38)

3 Newcastle (17-34)

Third place, five points behind leaders

10 Dec

Newcastle 3 Leicester 1

1 Blackburn (18-42)

2 Man Utd (18-41)

3 Newcastle (18-37)

Third place, five points behind leaders

17 Dec

Coventry 0 Newcastle 0

1 Blackburn (19-43)

2 Man Utd (19-41)

3 Newcastle (19-38)

Third place, five points behind leaders

26 Dec

Leeds 0 Newcastle 0

1 Blackburn (20-46)

2 Man Utd (20-44)

3 Newcastle (20-39)

Third place, seven points behind leaders

31 Dec

Norwich 2 Newcastle 1

1 Blackburn (21-49)

2 Man Utd (22-46)

3 Liverpool (22-42)

4 Newcastle (21-39)

Fourth place, 10 points behind leaders

1995

At the beginning of November Newcastle led the Premiership by three points

4 Nov

Newcastle 2 Liverpool 1

1 Newcastle (12-31)

2 Man Utd (12-26)

Leaders by five points

8 Nov

Newcastle 1 Blackburn 0

1 Newcastle (13-34)

2 Man Utd (12 26)

Leaders by eight points

18 Nov

Aston Villa 1 Newcastle 1

1 Newcastle (14-35)

2 Man Utd (13-29)

Leaders by six points

25 Nov

Newcastle 2 Leeds 1

1 Newcastle (15-38)

2 Man Utd (14-32)

Leaders by six points

3 Dec

Wimbledon 3 Newcastle 3

1 Newcastle (16-39)

2 Man Utd (16-34)

Leaders by five points

9 Dec

Chelsea 1 Newcastle 0

1 Newcastle (17-39)

2 Man Utd (17-35)

Leaders by four points

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