IT was labelled “French Day” at St James’ Park, so Newcastle United must have expected to encounter stout resistance.
By the end of an entertainingly open encounter against Southampton, however, Alan Pardew’s side find themselves six points clear of the bottom three in 14th position. Pardon the pun, but the hope with 11 games of the season to go, is that their relegation fears are dead and “beret-ed”.
Two of Newcastle’s French contingent – Moussa Sissoko and Yohan Cabaye – found the net in a 4-2 win, with French speaker Papiss Cisse scoring a contender for goal of the season as the Magpies won off the back of a European away game for only the second time this season.
Morgan Schneiderlin and Rickie Lambert ensured they did not have things their own way with goals of their own.
But by the time Jos Hooiveld deflected the ball into his own net with 11 minutes left, Newcastle had merited their third victory in the last four league matches.
The January transfer business has transformed the Magpies’ season, and it was no coincidence that Sissoko, Yoan Gouffran and the hugely impressive Mathieu Debuchy all made telling contributions.
Suddenly, Pardew finds himself with a number of goalscoring options and a deep enough squad to be able to cope with the demands of continental competition. Yesterday’s side boasted seven changes from the team that lined up in Kharkiv, yet both line-ups were good enough to do the job.
Not that it was plain sailing against the Saints. La Marseillaise rang around St James’ Park before kick-off, and the refrains of the French national anthem had barely died down when Schneiderlin, the only Frenchman on Southampton’s books, fired his side into a thirdminute lead.
When Newcastle officials dreamed up a ‘French Day’ to provide inspiration to their cross-Channel contingent, presumably they forgot to check the nationality of the players they would be playing against.
Football being football, there was a high degree of inevitability that Schneiderlin would score, and unfortunately from a home perspective, there was also plenty that was predictable about the defensive deficiencies that contributed to the opener.
Lambert was able to nod down Jack Cork’s cross with an unacceptable degree of comfort, and Steven Taylor failed to challenge Schneiderlin as he swivelled in the area before drilling a low shot past Rob Elliot.
With Tim Krul nursing an ankle injury sustained in Kharkiv, Elliot was making his first Premier League start. He would not have envisaged his first act in the top-flight being to pick the ball out of the net.
Southampton keeper Artur Boruc gets back to his feet as Papiss Cisse celebrates after scoring a wonder goal to put Newcastle 2-1 ahead
Trailing in the first five minutes for the second league game in succession, Newcastle took the best part of half-an-hour to get into their stride.
There was an untidiness to much of their early play, perhaps reflecting the limited time this team has spent together since it was hastily assembled at the end of last month.
However, with Cabaye and Sissoko becoming increasingly influential in the central areas, the Magpies gradually developed some rhythm.
Sissoko saw his low shot turned around the post by Artur Boruc, Cisse scuffed an attempted shot wide from a decent position in the area and Taylor might have earned a penalty when his attempted overhead kick smacked into Hooiveld’s hand from close range. Still, when Newcastle’s equaliser arrived in the 33rd minute, it still came somewhat out of the blue.
Yoan Gouffran was the architect, surging onto Cabaye’s pass down the left and bamboozling Nathaniel Clyne with a series of step-overs. Boruc blocked the forward’s near-post effort, but the ball broke kindly for Sissoko to slot home his third Magpies goal from the edge of the six-yard box.
The midfielder’s two previous efforts came against Chelsea, and it was impossible not to think of last season’s victory over the Blues when Cisse fired Newcastle into the lead three minutes before the break.
Was yesterday’s goal as good as the one he scored at Stamford Bridge last May? Possibly not. But it will still be United’s Goal of the Season by a distance.
Elliot’s long clearance eluded both Luke Shaw and Jonas Gutierrez, although Southampton’s players clearly felt the Newcastle winger had pushed his opponent.
Cisse is closed down by Saints’ Jos Hooiveld
Still, there appeared little danger when Cisse advanced onto the loose ball 30 yards out, but without breaking stride, the striker crashed home a ferocious half-volley that ripped into the net via the underside of the crossbar.
Alan Shearer’s strike against Everton in December 2002 has become a staple of any greatest Premier League goals package, but Cisse’s explosive effort was every bit as impressive.
It gave Newcastle a half-time lead they just about deserved, but their advantage disappeared in a ten-minute spell at the start of the second half that saw the standard of their play drop markedly.
Having barely been involved throughout the first half, Adam Lallana suddenly started running amok against Davide Santon, and when he delivered a low 50th-minute cross from the right flank, Lambert stole ahead of Taylor to slot home.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa had replaced the injured Fabricio Coloccini at that stage, but it was Taylor rather than the substitute who was dawdling as Lambert scored.
Newcastle fans get into the Gaelic spirit as they celebrate French Day at St James’ Park
The Saints striker went close again moments later, heading wide after Lallana delivered another dangerous cross, and had Newcastle fallen behind at that stage, the final half hour would surely have been very different.
As it was, the hosts were able to see things out with a degree of comfort after they regained the lead from the penalty spot in the 66th minute.
Debuchy’s hooked cross struck substitute Danny Fox on the arm in an incident that was reminiscent of the penalty decision that went against Sunderland’s Craig Gardner on Saturday.
Referee Chris Foy also pointed to the spot, and Cabaye drilled a clinical strike past Boruc.
The Frenchman was an influential figure all afternoon, with his deeper-lying role enabling him to produce a string of telling balls to propel Newcastle forward.
Ultimately, the hosts’ drive and energy was too much for a Southampton side who look good enough to avoid the drop.
Santon’s willingness to power down the left flank set up the fourth goal that made the Magpies’ win safe 11 minutes from time.
The full-back twisted this way and that before delivering a low centre, with Fox’s attempted clearance cannoning off Hooiveld before rebounding into the net.