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A tale of two number nines as Newcastle outclass Liverpool
IT was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Rarely can fortunes have varied so dramatically as St James' Park staged a tale of two number nines.
In the red corner, Andy Carroll, once of this parish but now languishing at Liverpool. Returning to his former home for the first time since his controversial £35m move to Merseyside 14 months earlier, the Gateshead-born forward was every bit as ineffective as he has been throughout his Anfield career.
He was booked for diving, spurned the only decent chance that came his way by missing the target with a close-range header and stormed straight down the tunnel when he was hauled off in the 79th minute. Not exactly the ideal return to Tyneside, although probably not as bizarre as Jose Enrique's day, but we'll come to that later.
In contrast to Carroll, Newcastle's current number nine, Papiss Cisse, could not have enjoyed a better afternoon. His two goals, one a deft header, the other a coolly-taken shot, secured a 2-0 victory that made it three wins in a row for the first time this season and lifted the Magpies back level on points with fifth-placed Chelsea.
The Senegal international is everything that Carroll is not at the moment – confident, ebullient and effective. His opening seven league games for Newcastle have now brought seven goals. In comparison, Carroll boasts five successes from 35 league appearances in a Liverpool shirt. The fact there is £26m difference between the price paid for the two players merely underlines the success of the Magpies' transfer policy under Alan Pardew.
That policy resulted in Cisse arriving from Freiburg in January, and for the second game in succession, the striker formed a potent attacking triumvirate with Demba Ba and Hatem Ben Arfa.
Newcastle were forced to weather a strong opening 15 minutes from Liverpool, but after that, they enjoyed almost complete dominance, with Chiek Tiote and Yohan Cabaye performing superbly at the heart of midfield.
They were a threat whenever they broke forward, but also defended resolutely despite the absence of skipper Fabricio Coloccini. James Perch is the latest unheralded fringe player to make a significant contribution this season, and in partnership with the equally unflappable Mike Williamson, the 26-year-old rendered both Carroll and Luis Suarez redundant.
Given the way in which his career has nose-dived since he left the North-East, it was surely fitting that Carroll's most notable act yesterday was a fall to the floor.
The striker had been booed in the opening 30 seconds of the game, but looked like gaining swift revenge nine minutes later when he flicked the ball beyond Williamson and galloped towards goal.
He rounded Tim Krul inside the area, but rather than getting a shot away, collapsed theatrically to the floor claiming a penalty. Perhaps he stubbed his foot and lost his balance, perhaps he simply dived. Given the yellow card that followed, referee Martin Atkinson clearly interpreted his actions as the latter.
When he was on his feet Carroll was no more effective, although the poor quality of Liverpool's service from the flanks hardly helped him.
His only other opportunity came in the 28th minute, but was spurned when he failed to find the target with a header. Williamson intercepted Craig Bellamy's right-wing centre, only for the ball to loop invitingly in the six-yard box. Carroll reacted quicker than Krul, but looped his header over the target.
That opportunity came during a difficult opening spell for the Magpies, and perhaps things would have been different had Atkinson awarded a penalty when Danny Simpson appeared to handle the ball on the line in the 16th minute.
Krul failed to collect Steven Gerrard's corner, the ball struck Williamson and Simpson prevented a goal with a combination of his chest and upper arm. Atkinson, unsighted behind a wall of players, waved play on, when a penalty would surely have meant Simpson's dismissal.
Three minutes later, and Newcastle claimed an advantage they never looked like ceding. Ben Arfa twisted and turned before delivering a deft chipped cross from the right, and after pulling away from Martin Skrtel, Cisse angled a precise header into the opposite corner via the base of the post.
He almost claimed a second four minutes before the break, glancing a header just wide after Danny Guthrie crossed from the right, but only had to wait 14 minutes after the interval to double both his and his side's tally.
Williamson had already glanced a second-half header against the base of the right-hand post when Ben Arfa, Cabaye and Ba combined to produce the move of the game. The latter delivered a slide-rule cross from the right, Ben Arfa nudged the ball into Cisse's path, and the striker coolly stepped inside Reina before rolling his shot home.
Perch deflected Suarez's shot wide shortly after, but that was a rare moment of concern amid a second half that saw Newcastle successfully shut their opponents out of the game.
Carroll's flounce down the tunnel looked like providing the pantomime farce, but from the perspective of the home supporters, there was even better to come with eight minutes left.
Incensed by a trip from Perch that prevented him making a quick clearance, Reina thrust his head towards the Magpies centre-half. Perch tumbled to the floor, and even though contact appeared to be minimal, Atkinson was left with no choice but to issue a straight red card that will keep Liverpool's first-choice goalkeeper out of this month's FA Cup semi-final with Everton.
Kenny Dalglish had already used his three substitutes, so Enrique was forced to wear the goalkeepers' jersey for the remainder of the game.
The full-back is every bit as unpopular as Carroll in these parts, largely as a result of the tweet he sent shortly after leaving Tyneside predicting that a chaotic Newcastle would “never challenge for the top six”.
He ended yesterday's game keeping goal in front of a Leazes End gleefully pointing out that Newcastle currently occupy sixth position. It is Liverpool, 11 points adrift of the Magpies in eighth, who are in a state of disarray.