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Newcastle look in good shape for top-four push
Good Start: Yohan Cabaye stops Aaron Lennon in his tracks during Newcastle's opening day win on Saturday
IN many ways, Newcastle United's opening game of the season was all about pushing on.
For Alan Pardew, that meant the embarrassment of being sent to the stands for laying his hand on an official little more than 24 hours after he had preached to his squad about the importance of humility and self-control.
For the club's players, however, it was a statement of intent. Can Newcastle push on from last season's fifth-placed finish and mount a sustained challenge for a Champions League place?
On the evidence of their opening encounter, there is no reason why not. The Magpies were far from their fluent best, yet they still overcame one of the four sides that finished above them last term. When it comes to laying down a marker, that's not exactly a bad way to start.
“We didn't look like quite right,” said Pardew, who was able to celebrate Newcastle's first opening-day victory since 2007's 3-1 win at Bolton. “But as the results have shown, sometimes with the first game you just have to dig in and let the automatic pilot take over. We did that, but we've still got great players and they stepped to the fore.”
And that surely is the most positive thing to emerge from Saturday's success. In a tightly-fought encounter between two hard-working, well-organised teams, Newcastle possessed sufficient quality to claim a morale-boosting victory.
This is a squad that contains game changers, whether that is Demba Ba, whose delicate curling shot broke the deadlock at the start of the second half, or Hatem Ben Arfa, who was the brightest player on the pitch by a distance and whose 79th-minute burst of pace led to the penalty that ultimately settled the game.
The names of Papiss Cisse and Yohan Cabaye can also be added to that list, and that's before you even consider a support cast that features the likes of Sylvain Marveaux and Shola Ameobi.
Provided Pardew can keep his squad together beyond the end of the transfer window – and that still cannot be interpreted as a given – he will be able to boast a unit with a sprinkling of star attacking quality.
He also presides over a side that has grown together. While other clubs have changed half of their starting XI in the close season, Newcastle's players are already comfortable in each other's company and well rehearsed in their preferred style of play.
So while Saturday's game bore strong similarities to last August's opening-day draw with Arsenal, the difference this time around was that Ba was not making his debut and Ben Arfa was available and showing no ill effects from the long-term knee injury that hampered him in the first half of last season. Unlike 12 months earlier, Newcastle's key men were primed and ready to strike.
“We have match winners in this side,” said Pardew. “We kept our two strikers on and that was important because one of them has come up with a truly great goal. That's what strikers can do.
“Demba had to track his runs deep into our half a lot of the time. You're asking a striker to do that, but it keeps the strikers on the pitch if they're prepared to do it. That can give you an advantage sometimes, and that's what happened.
“And in Hatem, I thought we had the stand out player. He was taking people on in all sorts of areas of the pitch and got two of their players booked early, then won us a penalty. You need that type of player to open teams up and I thought that probably just shaded things for us.”
In fairness, Newcastle were also required to ride their luck, and on another day, they could have been two goals behind at half-time and chasing something akin to a lost cause.
After a slow opening spell, Tottenham gradually dominated the opening period, striking the woodwork twice before the break.
Jermain Defoe cut inside an otherwise impressive Steven Taylor before rolling a shot against the base of the left-hand post, before Gareth Bale planted a header against the crossbar from Aaron Lennon's cross. Had either of those gone in, the game would surely have been different.
As it was, Newcastle reached the break unscathed and were ahead within ten minutes of the restart. Kyle Walker failed to deal with Danny Simpson's right-wing delivery, and Ba cushioned the ball on his instep before curling past Brad Friedel from the corner of the penalty area.
“That was the decisive moment,” admitted Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas. “We had the most amount of chances and were the superior team, but in the split second when Demba Ba got the ball and scored, we have to improve.”
Nevertheless, Spurs got themselves back into the game with 14 minutes left when Defoe followed up his fine midweek strike for England with a rather more routine effort. Tim Krul saved the striker's initial header with the aid of the post, but Defoe reacted quickest to stab home the rebound from close range.
Four minutes later though, and Newcastle were back in front. Ben Arfa's direct running had caused problems all afternoon, and when the Frenchman surged between Lennon and Rafael van der Vaart on the edge of the area, he came crashing to the floor as he was clipped by both players.
Ba had expected to take the penalty, but Ben Arfa seized the ball first and calmly rolled a successful spot-kick past Friedel.
“I don't think you can overestimate the importance of this win,” said Pardew. “I thought it was a really tight game and Tottenham played well. But sometimes your character and spirit can see you home.”
That, and a little bit of quality. All three characteristics will be needed in abundance if Newcastle are to continue to push forward in the next nine months.
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