Petrescu mans Bridge of highs

Chelsea 1 (Petrescu 42) Newcastle United 0 Attendance:31, 098; Chelsea frustrate Ferdinand as the Premiership leaders crack and Manchester United fail to take full advantage
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The Independent Online
IT SHOULD scarcely have been a contest: Chelsea with a makeshift defence due to the ravages of injuries and suspensions and only one win in their previous seven matches; Newcastle United, settled, with eight wins from 11 unbeaten matches and Les Ferdinand having scored more goals himself than the home side have thus far managed all season. In the ever attractive unpredictability of the English game, however, every mongrel can have his day - and Newcastle were left looking like pedigree chumps.

Clearly buoyed by their point at Old Trafford last week, Chelsea hustled, hurried and harried Newcastle out of their hitherto composed stride and Dan Petrescu's goal at half-time, his first for the club, was scant reward. You sensed it might not be enough with a Newcastle onslaught inevitable, but like a Jack Russell, and like Jack Russell, grittily they clung on to inflict only the second defeat on the Premiership leaders.

"As teams start to scrap for their lives, it's a fascinating time of year," said the Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan. "The bottom teams start to realise that their prize may be bigger than winning it - survival." And if it was a gloomy day for England's most attractive team, it was also one for England; Keegan announced after the match that Robert Lee had aggravated a thigh muscle injury and is unlikely to play against Portugal at Wembley on Tuesday.

For Chelsea, it was a thoroughly satisfying afternoon, with victory downstairs being preceded upstairs by a ceasefire in the boardroom battle between Ken Bates and Matthew Harding. "It was nice to see them sitting together, but I don't know if they were holding hands," said Glenn Hoddle. "There are still issues to be sorted out."

There was, too, an edge to Chelsea on the field as they tore into Newcastle from the outset and denied them time to assemble their fluent passing game, Dennis Wise wresting control of the central midfield. Intentions were sounded almost from the kick-off; from Paul Furlong's cross, Terry Phelan - on his debut - should have at least troubled Shaka Hislop but instead headed over the bar.

It was the first of many first-half Chelsea chances. Hislop had to save low from John Spencer and Mark Hughes spurned several opportunities. First he headed Wise's free-kick just over, then he stabbed a shot straight at Hislop and, from the very next move, he just missed out as Hislop parried his downward header.

Ferdinand began to look a lonely figure as the usual support was more preoccupied with keeping an eager Chelsea, the busy, spiky Wise at the hub, at bay. It was a rare interruption to the flow when the Newcastle striker escaped Andy Myers on the right and crossed to find Robert Lee, whose shot was just scrambled clear.

Newcastle were clinging on and unusually their means were sometimes foul; Ginola was shown the yellow card for a foul on Wise and Steve Howey suffered the same fate for bringing down Furlong. From the first free-kick Furlong headed just over; from the second came what was to be the decisive goal.

Before Chelsea took it, Newcastle were forced to change goalkeepers, Hislop having pulled a groin muscle. Pavel Srnicek's first job was to retrieve the ball from the net. Wise's kick was cleared only as far as Petrescu and Srnicek could only touch the Romanian's shot on its way into the net.

You knew Newcastle would regroup in the second half and, indeed, they began to supply Ginola and Keith Gillespie more regularly - only to find the new signings Petrescu and Phelan countering with pace and experience.

Their frustration - "they are not machines," said Keegan - was apparent after Darren Peacock skewed an excellent chance wide from a rebound, Ferdinand having bundled Ginola's free-kick on to the bar. The Newcastle defender was fortunate to escape dismissal for a wild lunge at Furlong, who aimed a retaliatory blow which sparked an eight-man melee. It was an indisciplined, inelegant reaction. Now Newcastle will need a rather better one.