Newcastle United gave their fans an early Christmas present with a 2-0 victory over fellow north east side Middlesbrough. A goal apiece from Marlon Harewood and Shola Ameobi were enough to ensure the Magpies home record maintained its unbeaten record this season. A crowd of 49,644 set a new record for the highest attendance in the Championship’s history, beating the previous best set by local rival – Sunderland. The record crowd may not have been treated to the most entertaining of games – but three points are key at this stage of the season.
With a gap of 10 points over both the second and third placed sides, complacency could now be the biggest problem for Newcastle this season. That is an issue manager Chris Hughton will ensure is addressed over the coming months. Speaking after the game he said “I think guarding against complacency is one of the biggest challenges we will face. We are where we are. We are the team to beat and be shot down. We’re the ones that everyone has to catch, so we have to make sure that as a squad and a group of staff, we continue to do the things that have got us here in the first place. Not doing that is what we have to guard against because the games will not get any easier than they have been in the first half of the season. But if we go about our business in the same way, then of course we’ll have a chance.”
The televised encounter summed up Newcastle’s form this season. Aesthetically they may not be one of the most pleasing teams to watch with a large number of long balls pumped forward for target men Shola Ameobi and Marlon Harewood to work with but grafting out the points is essential in such a demanding league. It is hardly the type of football fans have come to expect under the likes of Sir Bobby Robson and Kevin Keegan but the physical prevail in a league where priority lies in out-muscling opponents -an effective tactic for Newcastle one which co-insides well with the Magpies’ underlying superiority.
In midfield Alan Smith, Kevin Nolan and Danny Guthrie have worked their socks-off to win the key battles in the centre of the park. In defence they were as strong as ever with the back-four and keeper Steve Harper adding to their growing collection of clean sheets. Another slight factor in Newcastle’s resurgence has been luck, a factor that has often been lacking over the past few seasons. Sunday’s game was a perfect example as replays indicated a foul was committed moments before the first goal was converted. Boro also had a good penalty appeal turned down at only 1-0, but luck tends to favour the superior in important clashes.
Hughton turned to Ameobi and Harewood to play up front against Middlesbrough and his tactical decision was duly rewarded. The forceful duo was helped with excellent delivery from wide positions with Newcastle’s most impressive player on the day – Danny Guthrie. Despite both players scoring they never really hit it off as there was little link-up play between them. As both players are built from the same powerful mould it is perhaps unsurprising this relationship has failed to flourish. Harewood’s good form of late is likely to be rewarded with an extension on his current loan deal at Tyneside -especially considering his future at Aston Villa has somewhat come to an end. Harewood’s loan finishes after Boxing Day and so will be unavailable to face Derby County on the 28th December as the transfer window does not open again until the start of January.
Despite playing two games over just three days the fixture list has been kind for Newcastle with two games against sides struggling for form. Boxing Day sees Newcastle make a short trip to manager-less Sheffield Wednesday, who have been on an awful run of late. They then welcome Derby County to St James’ Park on the Monday. No matter what happens in those games Newcastle will go into 2010 sitting comfortably on top of the table.