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Newcastle's on-pitch demonstration outshines events off the field
PRIOR to Newcastle's home game with Liverpool, a number of different supporters' groups came together to stage a march protesting against Mike Ashley's continued ownership of the club. A couple of hours later, on the St James' Park turf, an even more compelling demonstration of unity took place.
For all the good intentions of the 500-or-so protesters who marched under the banner of umbrella group, Time 4 Change, it is unlikely their actions will have any effect on Ashley, a notoriously single-minded individual who does not appear to be swayed by public sentiment.
The hope, however, must be that the spirit and commitment displayed by Newcastle's players as they overcame the first-half dismissal of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa to claim a point against high-flying Liverpool is indicative of a brighter future.
Two seasons ago, when they claimed a surprise top-five finish, Newcastle's unity of purpose and strong team ethic were cited as key factors in their rise up the Premier League table.
Last season, amid the disruptive departure of Demba Ba and lingering rumours of a divided camp, that spirit appeared to dissipate. Its return would be the most welcome development yet in a campaign that remains delicately poised.
“The base for any team has to be character,” said goalkeeper Tim Krul, whose stoppage-time save from a Luis Suarez free-kick played a crucial role in the final outcome. “Everything else flows from there.
“If you have it, you know there will be times during a season when you will have to call on it, especially at times like this when we're embarking on a massive month.
“In order to come through spells like this, you need to have a togetherness, something you can rely on, and we have shown that we have that without a doubt.
“The boys showed 90 minutes of commitment, a proper display of fighting for the match. Since that first half performance at Everton, we have reacted very well.”
April's six-goal capitulation at the hands of Liverpool underlined the extent of Newcastle's implosion towards the end of last season, with Brendan Rodgers' side running riot as their opponents' resistance crumbled in the most timid fashion imaginable.
A similar collapse was conceivable when Yanga-Mbiwa was deservedly dismissed for a tug on Suarez as he broke free in the area five minutes before the break on Saturday, leaving Newcastle with the task of surviving the final 45 minutes with a centre-half pairing of the unheralded Mike Williamson and the untried Paul Dummett.
There were scares along the way, but any side would have been tested by the twin threat of Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, surely the most potent attacking pairing in the Premier League.
That Newcastle emerged with a thoroughly-deserved point is to their credit, and the contrast with the events of six months earlier was not lost on anyone.
“After what happened against Liverpool last season, it felt like it was going to be another one of those days,” admitted Krul. “You could hear it a little bit from the crowd when the sending off happened. You knew people must be fearing the worst.
“But we came out for the second half fighting. The manager just said at half-time, 'We really have to stick together', and what a fantastic confidence boost this will give us.”
The quality of Newcastle's defending stood in marked contrast to some of their more porous displays this season – most notably against Manchester City, Everton and Hull – and belied the absence of Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor, not to mention the dismissal of Yanga-Mbiwa.
Mathieu Debuchy produced his best display of the season so far, and Dummett slotted in superbly at centre-half, with his aerial ability and pace over the ground impressing as much as the successful 57th-minute conversion of Yohan Cabaye's free-kick.
Williamson was the stand-out performer in the back four, winning a succession of headers and avoiding the risk of being pulled too far out of position despite the quality of the movement of Liverpool's attackers.
In front of him, Cheik Tiote was every bit as impressive, and amid all the contributory factors to last season's malaise, the Ivorian's chronic loss of form was especially significant.
There have been signs of an improvement recently, and Alan Pardew's decision to hand Tiote the captain's armband ahead of Cabaye reflected his renewed confidence in his midfield enforcer as much as any lingering unease at Cabaye's attempt to force through a move to Arsenal at the start of the season.
Tiote out-performed Victor Moses throughout, and whenever either Suarez or Sturridge dropped deep in search of possession, Newcastle's midfield anchor went with them to negate the danger.
“I could tell he was pleased to be made captain,” said Pardew. “Some players can grow with the captaincy, and I think he did that. He will certainly carry it now as we go forward without Colo.
“I thought he was brilliant at Cardiff as well, and he is showing signs of rediscovering his best form this year. This was not a one-off.”
Ironically, given the inspiration Tiote appeared to draw from the armband, it was Newcastle's deposed skipper who claimed the first goal of a fixture that is the highest-scoring in Premier League history.
Cabaye scored a remarkable long-range goal at Everton, but this was even better with the France international picking the ball up on the halfway line and driving at the Liverpool defence before unleashing a bouncing 30-yard strike that drifted away from Simon Mignolet and into the corner of the net.
Steven Gerrard's penalty, which was the England skipper's 100th Premier League goal, levelled things, but Newcastle reclaimed the lead through the most unlikely of sources in the 57th minute.
Cabaye swung over a free-kick from the left, and Dummett made an excellent curved run to elude his marker and steal in at the back post to score.
Krul saved from Suarez, who also clipped the crossbar late on, as Liverpool pushed for a second equaliser, but the Dutchman was powerless to prevent Sturridge scoring his ninth goal of an increasingly impressive season with 18 minutes left.
Moses released Suarez down the left, and when the Uruguayan stood up a cross, Sturridge powered home a close-range header.
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