Newcastle United 1 Norwich City 0
FORGET the late dramas of recent weeks, this was more about getting the job done.
And, courtesy of an early goal combined with a first clean sheet in six outings, Newcastle remain on course to finish in the Premier League’s top six.
Manager Alan Pardew had targeted “four or five” wins from the remaining ten matches and the Magpies picked up the first of those with this narrow, at times nervy, victory.
A third goal in English football for Papiss Cisse, an instinctive strike from 12 yards, inside 11 minutes looked to have laid the foundations for Newcastle to go on and claim the points comfortably.
However, despite increasing the gap to seventh-placed Liverpool to five points and moving to within two of Chelsea in fifth, it was never really like that.
Newcastle, bereft of their injured midfield general Cheik Tiote, never got going and at times struggled to retain possession, which did threaten to end with Norwich equalising.
Some wasteful finishing from the Canaries, who had been hoping for their first double over Newcastle since 1988, and some top quality shot-stopping from Tim Krul ensured Newcastle stayed ahead to end a run of four matches without a win.
Not only did Thomas Vermaelen’s 95th-minute strike a week ago cost Newcastle a valuable point at Arsenal, it was also a defeat which prevented Tiote from playing yesterday.
The Ivorian failed to overcome a thigh problem picked up that night, so Pardew had to have a rethink. The extent of his rethink, however, was more of a surprise.
Instead of staying faithful to his £5m Italian Davide Santon, Pardew asked left-winger Jonas Gutierrez to play a more defensive role. Having operated as a full-back, albeit on the right, for Argentina in the past, left-back was not completely new to him.
What was of more interest, though, was the identity of Gutierrez’s replacement down the flank: central playmaker Yohan Cabaye. That left the unusual pairing of Danny Guthrie and James Perch together in the middle.
The performance of Perch, effectively operating in the holding Tiote role, was a particularly pleasing point from an afternoon when Newcastle struggled to keep control.
That did not look like being the case in the early moments.
Cisse had already got behind the Norwich defence inside 70 seconds from Cabaye’s long pass, only to see his lob gathered out of the air by goalkeeper John Ruddy.
The African did not have to wait much longer for his latest Newcastle goal. Gutierrez, in the sort of position he would normally occupy as a winger, delivered an inviting cross for Cisse to power beyond Ruddy with a deadly first-time strike from 12 yards.
Instead of building on that early lead Newcastle allowed Norwich to enjoy far too much freedom. Krul was rarely tested, but the danger signs had been there to suggest the visitors could grab an equaliser.
Much of Norwich’s good work actually stemmed from Newcastle’s own mistakes. In one case Mike Williamson, who had watched Hatem Ben Arfa manage marginally better seconds earlier, turned and got dispossessed just outside his own penalty box instead of clearing.
Andrew Surman’s tackle and pass ended at the feet of Steve Morison, whose rolling pass created a chance for midfielder Jonny Howson to power a rightfoot drive from 22 yards narrowly over Krul’s crossbar.
Norwich’s ability to keep the ball for lengthy spells was matched by their inability to find the target and test the goalkeeper.
Newcastle did manage that when they went down the other end as Ruddy made two stunning saves before half-time.
The first was when he dived low to his left to turn away Demba Ba’s volley from Cabaye’s goalbound effort. The second was when he raced out to deny Cisse, who had been cleverly put through by Gutierrez’s delightful through pass.
Whatever Pardew said at half-time seemed to have had the desired effect immediately after the restart. Ben Arfa, having one of his quieter afternoons, burst into the area and shot wide, seconds before Cisse drove low into Ruddy’s arms from distance.
But then Norwich, who had struggled to test Krul, suddenly found they could find the target too and only Newcastle’s flying Dutchman prevented an equaliser.
He had already made a lastman stop to deny winger Anthony Pilkington, who had worked his way behind fullback Danny Simpson, then Krul made the save of the game from the run of corners which followed.
When Ba’s headed clearance fell to Elliott Bennett, the winger turned the ball back in and former Liverpool defender Zak Whitbread rose highest. He headed goalwards and Krul leaped off his line to tip over his bar. It was a save of the highest quality.
After that opportunities were few. Pardew, again losing patience with Ben Arfa, hauled off his French winger in favour of Santon, which allowed Gutierrez to move further forward.
It was a move, coupled with Shola Ameobi’s introduction at the expense of Cisse, which created more freedom for Cabaye to play more centrally, behind a two-man attack.
The changes still didn’t really have the desired effect. There were too many times when Newcastle lost the ball cheaply, which might have been punished had they been up against a team displaying more potency in front of goal.
Norwich were still wasteful in the dying seconds. Surman, who had missed a great chance in the first half, acrobatically fired over when he would have been better off leaving it for team-mate Grant Holt.
Then former Millwall man Morison somehow rolled a tame effort into Krul when the Norwich striker had got behind the usually reliable Fabricio Coloccini, with just the goalkeeper to beat.
Yet, however they was secured, the reality is Newcastle gained maximum points to increase the gap to those clubs beneath them. Pardew’s clinched fist, thrust high into the air at the final whistle, highlighted this result’s value.