Final Score: Fulham 2, Newcastle United 1
WHEN Newcastle's players stepped off their team coach ahead of last night's game at Craven Cottage, they were greeted by a choir singing carols. The applause of the visiting supporters made it hard to tell what song was being sung, but “In The Bleak Midwinter” would seem appropriate.
This remains a testing period for the Magpies, who have now won just one of their last ten matches in all competitions.
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Their latest setback came courtesy of goals from Steve Sidwell and Hugo Rodallega, with even a typically flamboyant second-half effort from Hatem Ben Arfa proving insufficient to prevent a seventh league defeat of the season.
Newcastle will drop to within two points of the relegation zone if their North-East rivals Sunderland beat Reading tonight, and things are unlikely to get any easier given that three of their next four matches are against Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal. Christmas is coming, but the prevailing mood on Tyneside is hardly festive.
Alan Pardew has decried his club's mounting injury list in recent weeks, but Steven Taylor and Yohan Cabaye were the only absentees who could realistically have hoped to force their way into last night's team.
This is as strong as Newcastle can hope to be before the transfer window opens, which is hardly a warming thought. Desperate for the opening half hour, the Magpies improved after the interval, but too much of their play remained ragged and error-strewn.
Starting slowly has been a feature of their recent struggles, with no Premier League side having scored fewer first-half goals this season.
The trend continued last night, and to make matters worse, the visitors also conceded inside the opening 20 minutes as their defensive inadequacies reared their head once again.
Newcastle's defenders failed to get close enough to their opponents from the outset, and while they got away with it in the second minute as Danny Simpson's scrambled challenge put off Alexander Kacaniklic as he was shaping to shoot, it was only a matter of time until Fulham's attackers exploited the space they were being afforded.
Hugo Rodallega should have broken the deadlock in the 18th minute, but after controlling Damien Duff's right-wing cross on his chest, the Colombian hooked an acrobatic volley wide of the target.
No matter. With Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson appearing almost as frail as they had been when they conceded five goals in 40 manic minutes at Craven Cottage last season, another opportunity presented itself within 60 seconds.
Duff pulled beyond Coloccini in the area, and the former Newcastle winger picked out Sidwell with his pull back. The midfielder's shot looped off the outstretched leg of Williamson and found the back of the net via another deflection off the underside of the crossbar.
Coloccini's positioning was awry in the build up to the goal, but the Argentinian was far from the only visiting player to perform below par.
Cheik Tiote gave the ball away repeatedly, and one particularly slack first-half pass sent Dimitar Berbatov scampering clean through, only for Tim Krul to produce an excellent save to deny the Bulgarian. Tiote has appeared out of sorts for much of the season, and while Newcastle will miss his combativeness when he heads to South Africa for the Africa Cup of Nations next month, on this form his departure might not be the worst thing in the world.
Another loose pass almost proved costly on the half-hour mark, but Krul parried Berbatov's swivelled half-volley from Sascha Reither's cross and Williamson was able to hack clear.
Newcastle had offered nothing as an attacking force at that stage, with Pardew's early switch of formation from a three-man attack to a straight-forward 4-4-2 suggesting a lack of clarity when it comes to the best way of maximising the talents of Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse and Ben Arfa in the same side.
The Magpies finally roused themselves in the final 15 minutes of the first half, although while Reither was forced to produce two clearances from close to the goalline, neither was especially pressurised.
The first denied Coloccini what would have been a spectacular goal, with the centre-half sprinting from the edge of the centre-circle to meet Vurnon Anita's corner with a powerful header that was destined for the top right-hand corner before Reither cleared. The second was more routine, with the Fulham full-back blocking Ba's shot after Mark Schwarzer had flapped at another corner.
At least Newcastle had served notice of some increased intent, and their second-half display contained much more spirit and enthusiasm than had been on display before the break.
Anita drilled a rising drive over the crossbar, but it was yet another moment of magic from Ben Arfa that hauled the Magpies level nine minutes after the break.
The Frenchman has a knack of making the spectacular appear ordinary and while the looping strike that caught out Schwarzer might have owed much to a flick off the boot off John Arne Riise, there was still much to admire in the drop of the shoulder that took Ben Arfa past Sidwell and the audacity that was required to attempt the finish.
It is just a shame that more sloppy defending rendered the goal irrelevant within six minutes. Duff delivered a teasing free-kick from the right, and Rodallega nipped ahead of Coloccini to plant a simple header into the net. So much for the comeback.
Newcastle's hopes of a second equaliser were hampered by the decision to replace Ben Arfa with 20 minutes left, but Coloccini could hardly have come closer as he picked up a loose ball on the edge of the area and curled an excellent strike against the intersection of crossbar and post.