Defensive flaws undermine flying start

The Northern Echo: Newcastle United supporters hold a mock funeral before the match against Wolves to mourn the loss of St James' Park Newcastle United supporters hold a mock funeral before the match against Wolves to mourn the loss of St James' Park

PARADOXICALLY, perhaps the most positive thing about Newcastle United's Saturday afternoon is that it all felt so numbingly negative at the end.

Yes, Alan Pardew's side ceded a two-goal advantage to a team that had started the afternoon in the Premier League relegation zone and were still reeling from the chaotic search for a new manager that eventually ended in Terry Connor's appointment to the end of the season.

Yes, they defended sloppily throughout and, particularly in the second half, lacked much of the fluency and cohesion that had characterised their play in the early stages of the campaign.

But they remain unbeaten at home this calendar year and will go into Sunday's Tyne-Wear derby with Sunderland in sixth position in the table.

For all the progress they have undoubtedly made in the last six months, Newcastle are not yet good enough to regard a Premier League victory over anyone as a given. So if a draw with Wolves is the signal for mutterings of discontent, the Magpies' overall position must be healthy.

"Things like this sometimes happen," said Jonas Gutierrez, whose 18th-minute strike doubled Newcastle's lead after Papiss Cisse had claimed his second goal in consecutive home matches early on. "We're disappointed with the final result, but we didn't start the second half very well at all and when you make that type of mistake at this level, that is what happens. Sometimes you can pay a heavy price.

"I don't think we thought the game was won just because we were two goals ahead, I just think that for whatever reason we didn't start the second half like we started the first. We talked about being focused and concentrated for the last 45 minutes, but it didn't really turn out like that. At least it is a point for us though. That is something we can take away."

In fact, there were a number of positives to emerge from an opening quarter in which Newcastle looked like overwhelming their relegation-threatened opponents.

Cisse's opening goal, which came in the sixth minute, was a direct consequence of the hosts' bright start. Yohan Cabaye's pressing forced an error from Christophe Berra, and while Wayne Hennessey produced a fine save to keep out Demba Ba's improvised back-heel, the ball broke to Cheik Tiote.

The Ivory Coast international drilled goalwards, and Cisse displayed exemplary reflexes to deflect the ball into the roof of the net.

One goal became two 12 minutes later, with Gutierrez picking up a loose ball after a weak defensive header from Richard Stearman and hammering a ferocious rising drive past Hennessey. The Argentinian clearly relishes playing against Wolves, as three of his last four league goals have come against the West Midlands side.

Really, that should have been that, but while Ba's persistence continued to provide Newcastle with an attacking outlet, the hosts did not really trouble the Wolves goal again until substitute Hatem Ben Arfa flashed a couple of late long-range drives past the upright. And by that stage, their two-goal lead had disappeared.

Why? A combination of factors, including a recurrence of the defensive indiscipline that had characterised Newcastle's previous outing at Spurs. True, the errors were nowhere near as glaring as they had been at White Hart Lane, but once again there were times when the Magpies' defending left a lot to be desired.

In truth, there had been warning signs even when the hosts were in the ascendancy early on. Kevin Doyle might have scored in the first minute had he not scuffed his shot to Tim Krul, and Mike Williamson in particular failed to cope with the Irishman's movement and energy all afternoon.

With Steven Taylor injured, the lack of an alternative centre-half is probably the biggest handicap holding Newcastle back at the moment.

Williamson was culpable for Wolves' second goal, heading Jamie O'Hara's cross straight at Doyle, who swivelled to stab home the resultant loose ball in the six-yard box.

The visitors had already reduced their arrears in the fifth minute of the second half when Matt Jarvis cut in from the left flank and looped a shot beyond Krul with the aid of a hefty deflection off Danny Simpson's boot.

"The first goal was a bit unlucky because there was quite a big deflection and the second goal came from a set play," said Gutierrez. "They didn't really have to work very hard for their goals and that is disappointing."

A fair assessment, although one that overlooks the general dominance that Wolves were able to establish in the second half.

Much of that superiority was down to the weakness of the Newcastle midfield, a unit that has tended to be one of their core strengths this season.

Tiote and Cabaye were surprisingly ineffective, with Wolves' five-man midfield tending to swamp their opponents who increasingly became penned in their own half. Both Newcastle midfielders were returning after a lengthy absence - in Tiote's case because of the Africa Cup of Nations, in Cabaye's because of a three-match ban - and while they can be excused a degree of rustiness, their performance will have to improve if they are to dominate the cut-and-thrust of a derby encounter in six days time.

Ryan Taylor, the third of Pardew's players to return to the fray, was equally off-colour, repeatedly allowing the dangerous Jarvis to run at an exposed Simpson.

The result was an unsatisfactory outcome that felt like two points conceded, although again perspective is required.

This time last year, Newcastle were tenth, and even that felt like a notable achievement. This remains a season that could exceed all expectations. As ever though, the events of next weekend are likely to colour everything else that follows.

"This game is gone now," said Gutierrez. "We are already looking forward to the next game because we know it is the match that all the Geordies want to win. It's the game that all the players want to be involved in because it is always something fantastic.

"You have to enjoy these kind of experiences. I can't wait to get started because I have played in these games before and I know what is coming."

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