GRAEME Souness must wonder what on earth can go wrong next. On paper, a 1-0 defeat at Arsenal does not represent too much of a disaster but, in the weird and wonderful world of Newcastle United, what happens on the pitch is merely a sideshow to the circus that is going on off it.

Less than ten minutes after the final whistle blew on as comprehensive a one-goal defeat as you could ever wish to see, Craig Bellamy was appearing live on television to ignite yet another war of words with his manager.

Instead of worrying about the multiple inadequacies exposed by an Arsenal side desperate to keep the title race alive, Souness was forced to don his metaphorical tin hat to protect himself against the multiple problems which threaten to deepen the crisis rapidly engulfing St James' Park.

The Scot's weekend started badly when Bellamy talked himself out of the team on Friday but, if he thought that was a low point, worse was to follow at Highbury.

With Celestine Babayaro already nursing a groin strain, Jean-Alain Boumsong made it £9m of transfer talent on the treatment table when he limped off clutching his hamstring midway through the second half.

And, amidst all the chaos, Newcastle racked up their 1,000th league defeat with a display of utter ineffectiveness that leaves them stranded in the bottom half of the Premiership.

It would have been much worse had it not been for the inspirational performance of Shay Given - the Irishman made three world-class saves as Newcastle were cut to shreds in the second half - but Souness will take little pleasure from the form of his goalkeeper.

The rest of his side are at sixes and sevens and, on another day, Arsenal's total dominance would have resulted in a far more emphatic scoreline.

At least when Newcastle take on Coventry next weekend, they are likely to do so with a Senegal-born midfielder sitting in front of their back four.

Sadly, though, that midfielder will be Portsmouth's Amdy Faye, who will undergo a medical on Tyneside today, and not Patrick Vieira.

Newcastle's desperate need of an imposing midfield presence was laid bare time and time again as an Arsenal side marshalled so impressively by their skipper attacked at will after claiming a 19th-minute lead courtesy of Dennis Bergkamp.

The Gunners, desperately in need of a positive start after last weekend's costly reverse at Bolton, should have been ahead inside the opening 30 seconds.

With United still trying to assemble their five-man midfield, Ashley Cole was given time and space to deliver a pinpoint cross from the left flank.

Olivier Bernard should have been covering at the back post but, instead, the ever-alert Robert Pires rose unchallenged to nod a cushioned header across the face of goal.

That wasn't the end of the predictably poor defending. Kieron Dyer somehow managed to deflect Pires' knockdown into the path of Mathieu Flamini but, from inside the six-yard box, the young Frenchman proceeded to stab his shot straight at Given.

Sources on the south coast yesterday suggested that Harry Redknapp is set to offer £1.5m for Bernard's services this week. If the Southampton boss was watching yesterday's game on television, it is safe to assume that he will already be looking elsewhere.

Flamini impressed against United while playing for Marseille in last season's UEFA Cup and, again, the midfielder's movement and off-the-ball running proved too much for his opponents to handle.

It didn't help that Bernard granted him the freedom of the right wing in the 19th minute as he latched onto Kolo Toure's ball out of defence.

Flamini's flick infield beat both Newcastle centre-halves and Bergkamp, the scorer of a wonderful solo goal against the Magpies three seasons ago, held off Steven Taylor before prodding a delicate finish beyond Given.

The fluidity of Arsenal's first-half attacking contrasted with the nervousness of much of Newcastle's early play. Too many passes went astray - Dyer was particularly culpable on that score - and, after falling behind, the visitors rarely thratened to get back on level terms.

United's best moments, for what they were worth, came down the flanks, with Shola Ameobi toiling manfully in an unorthodox right-wing role and Laurent Robert producing his usual mix of occasional finesse and more regular frustration on the opposite side of the field.

Bowyer shot wastefully over the top shortly before the half-hour mark, while Ameobi headed Robert's cross well wide soon after, but half-time arrived with Newcastle having failed to test the under-pressure Manuel Almunia.

Newcastle's backline, on the other hand, was stretched to the limit as Pires drilled a rasping 25-yard drive inches wide of Given's left-hand upright before the break and Thierry Henry tested the Irishman's reflexes with a typically astute free-kick after it.

Aaron Hughes had replaced Taylor by that stage, but United's lack of defensive cover continued to leave the visitors' back four dreadfully exposed.

The contrast with Arsenal was marked, with Vieira providing an insurmountable obstacle to Newcastle's attacking midfielders and still finding time to embark on forward forays of his own.

The Arsenal skipper surged through the middle on the hour mark but, after Henry caressed his through ball towards goal, Given produced a magnificent full-stretch save to turn the ball against the post.

That save marked the start of a five-minute purple patch for the Irish international as the home side's slick interplay carved United open repeatedly.

Only the sharpness of Given's reflexes prevented Pires extending Arsenal's lead after Henry's impudent step-over had bamboozled Bramble, before Henry was thwarted himself by yet another breathtaking display of agility from Newcastle's number one.

It took 81 minutes for the visitors to record their first shot on target - Lee Bowyer shooting straight at Almunia after Ameobi had made the most of Shearer's flick-on - but, with Arsenal failing to add to their lead, there was still some relief at the final whistle.

For Souness, though, the trouble had just begun.

Result: Arsenal 1 Newcastle United 0.

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