NEWCASTLE have already played Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, but surely found their biggest test of the season at Carrow Road on Saturday.
Shorn of a centre-half pairing that started every league game until now in Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor, the Magpies’ patched-up backline could not deal with Norwich City’s attacking threat and succumbed to a 4-2 reverse.
Defeat in Norfolk has left Newcastle without a win since beating Everton five weeks ago, but manager Alan Pardew has refused to hit the panic button just yet, and is confident that the wins wins will return once his side is restored to somewhere resembling full-strength.
"Going into a game with so many key players missing, we've had some serious injuries this year - Steven Taylor and Marveaux out for the season, two first team players, so that's been disappointing. It's knocked us off our heels a little bit. Today we would have preferred to have more first-team players available,” said Pardew, who was buoyed by the news that Coloccini at least will return for the visit of Swansea on Saturday, with Cheik Tiote to feature too.
If Pardew’s side harbour serious intentions of achieving a top-six spot, defeating the Swans is a must.
The Newcastle boss added: "I think every game's a big game for us. We've got ourselves in a position where we've got a nice points tally but we've come into a run against the top teams and we've lost players through injury.
“We haven't played our best team against the top teams. We're just having one of those little injury runs and it's affecting us this year.”
If the result was unsatisfactory, Pardew will take some comfort in Newcastle’s part in a thoroughly entertaining game of football.
Wes Hoolahan’s 39th minute opener was cancelled out by Demba Ba’s 10th goal of the season in a fractious first half at Carrow Road, but the second half erupted into life with goals from Grant Holt and Steve Morison as the Canaries stretched ahead, while Ba added a second to give Newcastle hope after Dan Gosling had been sent off.
Hoolahan scored the first of the game after Andrew Crofts’ goalbound header from an Andrew Surman corner was palmed out by Tim Krul. The Dutch goalkeeper was furious as the corner was given against Krul who had been ajudged to have carried the ball out of play. Newcastle’s fury was compounded with Hoolahan’s fortuitous goal.
Norwich’s lead lasted seven minutes, however, as Yohan Cabaye dinked a perfect ball through the Canaries’ backline as Demba Ba raced through, took a perfect first touch and slotted past John Ruddy.
Norwich restored their advantage on 59 minutes when Holt nodded past Krul at the second attempt from Andrew Surman’s cross, and Morison made it three four minutes later when he powered a header past Krul from Andrew Crofts’ centre.
It got worse for Newcastle when Gosling was dismissed for a clumsy challenge on Russell Martin, before Ba gave the Magpies hope with a 71st minute goal.
However, all hope was in vain as Holt rose to head his second from the cross of substitute Bradley Johnson on 82 minutes.
The early exchanges had hinted towards an ill-tempered affair, as Newcastle’s patched-up back four struggled to deal with the physical threat of Norwich’s frontmen Holt and Morison, whose careers had both included lengthy spells in non-league football - Holt with Barrow and Morison with Bishop’s Stortford and Stevenage Borough.
Both Morison and Holt went close with chances, before referee Martin Atkinson waved away claims for a penalty kick against Davide Santon who looked to have handballed inside the area.
It was perhaps this perceived injustice that led to the linesman awarding a corner against Krul 15 minutes later, but in the aftermath of the goal it was Newcastle’s protests which fell on deaf ears.
Krul was clearly furious at the decision to award a corner, an argument which carried some credence when replays clearly showed that the ball was not over the line when Krul collected it.
Ba spurned a decent opportunity a minute after the interval when he collected Shola Ameobi’s lofted ball across the face of the goal, but the Senegalese striker could only fire over Ruddy’s crossbar.
But a six-minute horror spell did for Newcastle as Holt and Morison got on the scoresheet, then Gosling’s 65th minute foul on Martin saw the former Everton trainee heading for an early bath.
Ba’s low finish from Shola Ameobi’s through-ball raised the Magpies’ spirits, but Holt’s second of the game put a thrilling contest to bed.
Defeat at Carrow Road exposed Newcastle’s frailties in defence, with Perch and Simpson inadequate replacements for the thus-far imperious Coloccini and Taylor.
From the off, Norwich could smell blood and peppered the rookie pair with diagonal balls, while the tale of the tape will show that all of the Canaries’ goals were from set-pieces or crosses into the box.
But Pardew hinted that perhaps even his first-choice pairing would have struggled to deal with Holt and Morison’s physical threat.
"When you're under pressure you're going to concede set plays, we just had to do better at them,” he said.
“Just looking at them we should have been a bit more competitive when the ball was being delivered, regardless of our centre-halves.
"Of course when a team is missing centre-halves you incentivise your side to put delivery in and go and attack it. There was perhaps a little more venom in them at set plays.”