Newcastle United returned to the top of the Championship on Monday night following a hard-fought win against Preston North End. In a tight, scrappy game in central Lancashire it was a moment of pure Premier League quality from Kevin Nolan that was enough to separate the two teams. From a tight angle inside the penalty area Nolan was able to conjure up a precision finish to ensure a crucial three points. Preston have made their Deepdale home one of the hardest places to visit in the Championship, but Newcastle became one of the few teams to come away with a win. Given another impressive win from West Brom over the weekend there was plenty of pressure on the Magpies to reclaim the pole position for promotion.
In a way, the Preston game epitomised Newcastle’s season so far – a rock solid defensive display provided the foundations for the win and another goal from the free-scoring Nolan from midfield. The stats don’t lie as Newcastle hold the best defensive record in the division and have kept have nine clean sheets. Meanwhile, Nolan already has eight league goals to his name, making him far and away the club’s leading goalscorer. The match itself was not much of a spectacle with very little for the neutrals to get excited about. Both sides were guilty of giving the ball away too often and clear goalscoring chances were at a premium. Newcastle’s Steve Harper was the busier of the two goalkeepers but most of his saves could be described as routine. The central defensive partnership of Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini again showed why they are the best pairing in the division.
Newcastle were forced into a last minute change just before kick-off as Ryan Taylor limped out of the pre-match warm up. With on-loan striker Marlon Harewood coming in as his replacement, Newcastle were forced into a formation change. Traditionally Chris Hughton has favoured a 4-4-1-1 away from home with Nolan in an advanced role, but this time he went with a more attacking 4-4-2. This could explain why Newcastle struggled to find any fluidity to their play. Harewood again did little to catch the eye as both strikers were starved of any service in the penalty area. Winger Jonas Gutierrez provided the main attacking outlet down the left but as is often the case his end product let him down.
Hughton has wasted little time in tying down trialist Fabrice Pancrate, with the attacking midfielder signing a contract to the end of the season, with the option of a longer deal if he impresses. He was on the bench against Preston but did not come on as Newcastle looked to hold on to their lead. A bit of creative spark would not go amiss in the midfield which is very workmanlike, but can at times struggle to break down teams at home. Hughton said: “I hope he can excite the fans, he certainly possesses that kind of quality. He gives us an option high up on the right hand side – he’s a really attacking player and it gives us an option similar to what we have on the left with Jonas Gutierrez. He has pedigree and he looks to get into goal-scoring positions.” Meanwhile, highly-rated young ‘keeper Fraser Forster has extended his loan deal with League One team Norwich City until the end of the season.
Striker Shola Ameobi is close to returning to action following a lengthy lay-off with a foot injury. Ameobi will return to training this week, although it may be a while before he returns to the first team picture. The 28-year-old made an impressive start to the new season, including a hat-trick against Reading, before injury curtailed his progress. The Nigerian-born frontman could also be set for a club vs. country row as the African nation are keen for him to play for the country of his birth. Nigeria have qualified for the 2010 World Cup and Ameobi appears keen to play for them. However, he could also be involved in the African Cup of Nations which takes place at the start of next year. Ameobi said: “Playing at the World Cup is the pinnacle of any player’s career. It’s what you dream of, and if I can do that with Nigeria then that would be fantastic for me. They have been in touch before to see whether I was interested. In the past, I chose not to, so I could concentrate on helping Newcastle. But I have reached a stage in my career where I would love to play international football, and realistically it’s not going to happen with England.” Despite featuring for the England Under-21s Ameobi would still be eligible to represent the Super Eagles.