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Poor run exposes Magpies' lack of depth after latest defeat at Chelsea
Full-time: Chelsea 3 Newcastle United 0
WHEN Newcastle United followed up a derby defeat to Sunderland by stunning Jose Mourinho's Chelsea in early November, it proved the catalyst for a charge up the Premier League table.
Just two defeats were suffered in their remaining ten games of 2013 and it was a run which has effectively guaranteed them a place in the top-flight again next season.
Yet it could have been about much more than that. Instead of dreaming about Europe, Newcastle are wondering where the next victory will come from after winning just one of their seven games since the turn of the year.
Unlike a few months ago, the pain from Sunderland's latest triumph over the Magpies was not eased by a confident and morale-boosting display against Chelsea. This time the sublime Eden Hazard's hat-trick ended any hopes of a shock.
And manager Alan Pardew did not even sound too confident that things will take a turn for the better at St James' Park on Wednesday either, when Tottenham will look to expose the weaknesses in the Newcastle team.
“Tottenham is a game where I really hope things go our way because with so many key players missing it's a big game for us in terms of hopefully getting a result,” said Pardew.
“After that we're going to have a lot of our senior players back and it's going to make a big difference to us. The difference between where we are and the teams above and below us is having a cleaner injury record than we have at the moment, for sure.”
Since giving Yohan Cabaye the go-ahead to head for France to finalise a £20m move to Paris St Germain, Newcastle have not even scored a goal in the three matches he has missed against Norwich, Sunderland and now Chelsea.
Hatem Ben Arfa, who would argue playing behind the striker is his best position, has struggled to make an impact there, while Moussa Sissoko never filled the role with any great success at Chelsea.
But Pardew does not really have too many alternatives. Papiss Cisse – who could still attract a bid from Russian club Rubin Kazan before the end of the month - is edging back to fitness, while Cheik Tiote and Fabricio Coloccini are a couple of weeks away from returning. Then there is Loic Remy, due to serve the last game of a three-match ban against Tottenham.
This run of injuries and the sale of Cabaye has highlighted the lack of depth in the Newcastle squad, which was an accusation thrown at Pardew and the Newcastle boardroom at the start of the season.
Fortunately, though, Newcastle have accumulated enough points – they are ten points clear of tenth spot – not to get dragged in to any trouble and a top half finish is still on the cards.
“Maybe having four or five big players missing had something to do with it,” said Pardew, when he was asked what is the difference between the Newcastle team now to that which overcame Chelsea in November.
“In some ways playing us right now was good for Chelsea, a bit like when they went to Manchester City on Monday with four key players missing.
“It's very, very important that your best players are available and up to form. When we played them and won 2-0 we had players playing with good confidence and available, and that makes a difference.”
The ongoing turbulence behind-the-scenes has hardly helped. Joe Kinnear was effectively forced to resign from his director of football post after fans turned, again, on the Mike Ashley regime.
There were also the customary derogatory chants directed Ashley's way at Stamford Bridge, where a bright start from the visitors came to nothing and Chelsea soon took control.
After a couple of half chances, Hazard turned in Branislav Ivanovic's pass from just inside the box with a delightful first time shot in the 27th minute.
Seven minutes later, and after Sissoko had been denied by Petr Cech, Chelsea added a second in style. From the counter-attack, Willian rolled to Hazard out wide.
The former Lille winger darted inside, got a clever return pass from Samuel Eto'o's flick and Hazard applied the tidy finish to leave Newcastle with a mountain to climb.
After the restart Newcastle, deploying Davide Santon in a midfield role which never proved effective, rarely got out of their own half.
And when Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa man-handled Eto'o at the back post as a corner was floated in, assistant referee Darren Cann awarded a penalty. Hazard, labelled the best young player in the world by Mourinho afterwards, slotted away the finish by sending Krul the wrong way.
Chelsea could have had more, while substitute Sylvain Marveaux should have pulled one back in stoppage time. Pardew, though, will be relieved to have this fixture out of the way against the Premier League's new leaders.
Whether things improve against Tottenham is a different matter, but Pardew is happy to be working for a crazy club rather than a small one.
“Jose's right when he says that,” said Pardew, whose side now have a free weekend before facing Aston Villa on February 23.
“I enjoy it. I know sometimes I don't look like I am – I'm ageing by the day but I love Newcastle and I love working there.
“It's always a rocky road but the good days are fantastic and no one will take them away. The fans are absolutely phenomenal and everything, it's such a great high. Hopefully we'll have another on Wednesday.”