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Newcastle run riot against nine-man Stoke
THUMBS UP: Newcastle United midfielder Yohan Cabaye celebrates his goal from outside the box to put the Magpies 4-1 up
WHAT a difference 12 months makes. This time last year, nothing was going Newcastle United's way as a sense of mounting crisis engulfed the club.
Shorn of a number of their leading players through injury, the Magpies shipped four goals as they lost at Manchester United on Boxing Day, before conceding seven goals at Arsenal three days later as they tumbled to within three points of the relegation zone. If Alan Pardew's side had any luck at all last Christmas, it was assuredly bad.
LONG-AWAITED: Papiss Cisse scores his side's fifth goal of the game, and his first of the season, from the penalty spot
The contrast to this year's festive events could therefore hardly be more stark. Ensconced in the top six, and with a fully-fit squad, Newcastle ran riot as Stoke's disciplinary indiscretions, and some further assistance from referee Martin Atkinson, enabled them to claim a seventh win from the last nine league games.
By the end of a remarkable afternoon, they had torn Stoke to shreds, and were within three points of the Champions League places. Yet at the half-hour mark, things felt considerably different.
Trailing to Oussama Assaidi's deft strike, Newcastle appeared strangely flat. Then, in the space of 15 madcap minutes, Stoke contrived to have two of their players sent off and their manager, Mark Hughes, sent to the stands.
Not content with that in terms of self-implosion, they also conceded a penalty, which was missed, and a goal, which saw Loic Remy earn immediate redemption for his spot-kick setback. So much for a quiet post-Christmas afternoon.
Boasting a two-man advantage for the whole of the second half, the hosts scored further goals through Remy, Yoan Gouffran, Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse, who finally proved that a Newcastle player is capable of beating Thomas Sorensen from the St James' Park spot.
Their first goal saw Atkinson miss a handball from Mike Williamson in the build up, and their second came despite the ball appearing to roll out before Hatem Ben Arfa cut it back to enable Gouffran to score. So it is fair to say there was a sizeable element of fortune in their success.
You make your own luck in this game though, and Newcastle are reaping the reward for some astute squad building, some effective management from Pardew and the positive effect of having a group of players who are playing close to the top of their game.
It is certainly hard to remember Cabaye playing better for the Magpies than he has in the last couple of months, with yesterday's second-half display proving every bit as creative and authoritative as his recent excellent displays against Chelsea, Manchester United and Crystal Palace.
Sissoko was equally effective playing alongside him, and after struggling in the early weeks of the season, the midfielder is now producing a consistency of performance that makes him a hugely valuable asset.
Throw in Remy, a predatory marksman, and Gouffran, one of the most under-rated attackers in the Premier League this season, and you have the makings of a hugely productive attacking unit. Provided they keep it together, Newcastle should continue to be a threat throughout the second half of the campaign.
They were certainly full of goals yesterday, although any admiration of their attacking prowess must be tempered by an acknowledgement that the scale of their task changed markedly when Stoke were reduced to nine men.
Glenn Whelan was the first player to go, booked as he clashed with Cabaye after kicking the ball away and dismissed after he allowed his feud with the Frenchman to escalate to the point where he lost his control entirely and hacked into his opponent's legs. Mark Hughes was sent to the stands as he reacted furiously to the dismissal, and the Stoke boss was still clambering to his seat when Marc Wilson hauled down Remy as the striker raced on to Vurnon Anita's through ball.
Wilson was deservedly dismissed for a professional foul, and while Remy's spot-kick was saved, the striker made immediate amends as he drilled in a low strike via the aid of a deflection off Ryan Shawcross to fire Newcastle level.
Mike Williamson appeared to handle the ball in the build up to the goal, but there was much to admire in the mazy dribble from Ben Arfa that paved the way for Remy's strike.
With huge areas of space all over the field, the second half played straight into Ben Arfa's hands, and while the winger was unable to score as he made his first Premier League start since October, he did just about everything else.
Not only did he hit the post on two separate occasions – the second strike came at the end of a fantastic dribble that saw him go past three opposition defenders in the area – he also won a penalty and set up Newcastle's crucial second goal three minutes after the break.
There was an element of controversy to that as well, as the ball appeared to cross the byline before he pulled it back for Gouffran to fire in his fifth goal in as many home games.
With the game becoming increasingly open, it became a question of how many Newcastle would score, and they claimed a third when Remy nodded home at the back post after Sissoko flicked on Davide Santon's cross.
Number four came shortly after the hour mark as Cabaye side-footed home to round off a brilliant passing move that also involved Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy, and the scoring was complete when substitute Cisse scored from the spot after Erik Pieters fouled Ben Arfa.
There could have been more goals before the end of play, but the final result was still more than enough to keep Newcastle in the thick of the European hunt.
Two seasons ago, when they eventually finished fifth, the Magpies were seventh after beating Bolton on Boxing Day. This time around, they are one place better off, and with the likes of Remy, Gouffran and Sissoko to call on, are arguably in even better shape.
Their final game of 2013, against Arsenal, will be instructive in terms of their future ambitions. Unlike this time 12 months ago, however, Newcastle will head into January looking forward to a Happy New Year.
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