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Everton defeat plunges Newcastle closer to crisis
IF 2012 ended with Newcastle United in a state of considerable disarray, then 2013 has begun with the club lurching even closer to crisis.
On the day that Demba Ba's departure to Chelsea became a reality, goals from Leighton Baines and Victor Anichebe condemned the Magpies to their ninth defeat in the last 11 Premier League matches and left Alan Pardew's side just two points clear of the relegation zone.
Papiss Cisse's second-minute opener might have hinted at a bright response to yesterday's gloomy transfer developments, but Newcastle have now conceded 13 goals in their three festive fixtures and look like spending the second half of the season mired in a frantic battle against relegation.
They were outplayed for the majority of last night's game, and had Tim Krul not made three excellent saves, things could have been even worse.
James Perch struck the woodwork in the first half, but as events conspire against them off the pitch, Newcastle's performances on it are doing little to dispel the mounting anxiety. Mathieu Debuchy, watching from the stands ahead of his impending £5.5m move from Lille, must be wondering what he has signed up for.
The news of Ba's exit broke early yesterday afternoon, with the Magpies releasing a statement revealing that the striker had been given permission to speak to Chelsea. By the time Pardew was being interviewed by Sky Television a quarter-of-an-hour before kick-off, the Newcastle boss was confirming that the deal was done. It is hardly how he would have chosen to prepare for his side's opening game of the year.
There had been no opportunity for Newcastle to train without Ba, so while Shola Ameobi was promoted to the starting line-up, Cisse remained in the right-wing role he had been earmarked to fill prior to yesterday's developments.
Beyond the two established strikers? Next to nothing. Nile Ranger was the only centre-forward on the bench, a fact that underlines the chronic need for a new attacker. Or perhaps it just emphasises how important Cisse could be now his compatriot has gone.
Since exploding onto the scene in the second half of last season, Cisse has retreated into his shell. His demeanour throughout the current campaign has vacillated between disinterest and dismay, while his performances have rarely come close to matching last season's efforts.
Despite sharing the same nationality, he never got on with Ba, and those close to Cisse admit he has felt slighted by the enforced change to his role in order to accommodate his erstwhile colleague.
Will he be a different player without him? On the evidence of the opening two minutes of last night's game, unquestionably, although his overall performance dipped after an explosive start.
It took just one minute and 12 seconds for Cisse to make a successful start to life without Ba, with Newcastle's opening attack resulting in his fourth goal of the season.
It could hardly have been simpler, with Krul launching a long kick downfield, Everton defender John Heitinga making a complete hash of trying to clear it, and Cisse reacting quickest to loop a header beyond Tim Howard.
It was a dream start for the £9m man, and if he felt he had a point to prove, it could hardly have been made any more emphatically.
Cisse also came within inches of reaching Ameobi's driven fourth-minute cross, and with Gabriel Obertan maintaining his recent upturn in form on the opposite flank, there was a brightness about the home side's early attacking play.
Everton have attacked with pace and purpose all season, and while David Moyes' side might have been temporarily unsettled by Cisse's early intervention, it did not take them long to regain their composure.
Krul had to be at his most alert to turn Baines' early free-kick around the upright, and the Newcastle goalkeeper was repeatedly called into action as Everton's midfielders directed a series of long cross-field balls into the gaps behind Perch and Davide Santon. Santon produced an excellent block to deny Marouane Fellaini midway through the first half, while Krul produced the save of the game to prevent Steven Pienaar equalising after he held off Vurnon Anita to reach Baines' through ball.
Everton dominated possession for large spells, but Newcastle would have doubled their lead had Perch not headed Anita's 30th-minute free-kick against the base of the post from the edge of the six-yard box.
Ameobi was left frustrated when Martin Atkinson failed to award a penalty following a tangle with Phil Neville, and the referee had a major hand in Everton's equaliser when he penalised Fabricio Coloccini for a foul on Fellaini two minutes before half-time.
Baines stepped up and, from fully 30 yards, the full-back cracked a ferocious swerving drive past Krul. It was a magnificent strike from a player whose ability from set-pieces has caused opposition defences problems all season. Pegged back at the break, Newcastle came close to regaining the lead when Ameobi stabbed a hurried 58th-minute shot narrowly wide of the upright.
It proved a costly miss as, two minutes later, Everton scored their second. Anichebe had been on the pitch less than two minutes when Nikica Jelavic burst past Perch and delivered a low cross from the left, but the substitute stole ahead of a dawdling Santon to convert from close range.
It was another example of tawdry Newcastle defending, and while Obertan and Cisse both forced Howard into decent second-half saves, the hosts rarely looked like recovering despite Pardew's belated switch to a two-man attack.