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Newcastle reminded of the size of the challenge ahead
ON the opening day of the season, Newcastle United beat Tottenham to raise hopes that the current campaign could be even more successful than the last. Seven days later, however, they received a jolting reminder of just how difficult that task will be.
In May, the Magpies finished one point clear of Chelsea in the Premier League table. Since then, Roberto Di Matteo has spent more than £80m on six different players including Eden Hazard, one of the most coveted prospects in the whole of world football. Newcastle have invested £6.2m in Vurnon Anita and paid peanuts for youngsters Romain Amalfitano and Gael Bigirimana.
Money does not determine everything, and it can be argued that Newcastle's recent success has been achieved partly as a result of Mike Ashley's policy to eschew big-money 'glamour signings' and seek value and talent elsewhere.
At some stage though, economic reality will have an effect, and if Chelsea are effectively disappearing over the horizon to challenge the two Manchester clubs for the title, the likelihood of Newcastle improving on last season's fifth-placed finish will inevitably be diminished.
They couldn't live with Chelsea on Saturday, with first-half goals from Hazard and Fernando Torres paving the way for a home win that was arguably even more comfortable than the scoreline suggests.
Can they live with the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and potentially even Everton as the season progresses? Time will tell, but the first two of those clubs have invested heavily and unless Alan Pardew is granted leeway to add to his squad before the transfer window closes on Friday evening, the lack of transfer activity on Tyneside must be a source of concern.
“We are realistic about what we can do,” said Pardew. “We are in the group along with Tottenham, Everton and a few others. We are at a level that makes it very, very tough to challenge the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea when you see where they are.
“But you have got to believe that you can do that. We excelled last season and our aim is to continue to excel and get a top-eight finish. If we can get into fourth or fifth again, then that would be great.”
One of the added complications this season is, of course, the increased demands that stem from Newcastle's involvement in the Europa League.
It would be wrong to attribute Saturday's defeat to the energy-sapping effects of Thursday's game in Athens as only two players – Anita and Papiss Cisse – started both matches.
However, just as Stoke struggled to cope on the weekends after their European away games last season, so Newcastle's record now reads played one, lost one.
If nothing else, the constant chopping and changing of the team is disruptive and moving forward, Pardew will have to strike the correct balance between resting players and ensuring a degree of continuity between his side's midweek and weekend line-ups.
“It was a little bit unfair on us,” said the Magpies boss. “We couldn't move the game to the Sunday because of the Notting Hill Carnival. It would have been good to have had that extra day's rest.
“We know from our own stats and information that professional players, no matter who they are, can't play at that level for two games over two days, so we were a bit unlucky with the fixture. The two players who played on Thursday were our quietest if I'm honest.”
Yet fatigue was not the main reason why Newcastle were unable to secure a repeat of May's thrilling 2-0 win in West London. Too few of their big-game players were at the top of their form and that was ultimately the decisive factor.
Cisse in particular was a pale shadow of his usual self, repeatedly losing possession and coming off second best in a succession of physical tussles.
He was equally out of sorts against Tottenham and Atromitos, and his lack of form is an increasing source of concern. Is he simply short of fitness, or with the transfer deadline looming, is there something more sinister behind his lack of early-season sparkle? Either way, Newcastle could certainly do with a marked improvement in his form.
With Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye similarly subdued at the weekend, it was left to Hatem Ben Arfa to carry the attacking fight for the second league game running.
The Frenchman was at the heart of all of Newcastle's best moves, flashing a fierce second-half shot past the post that was as close as the visitors came to a breakthrough, and it is already apparent that he is likely to be key to his side's attacking hopes.
“Hatem has always been confident,” said Pardew. “But I would say that from our first two league games, and from what we've seen in training, he looks fitter and in much better condition than he did last year.
“He was really buoyant last season and this time he looks the one player out there who gives us a bit of magic and invention. He is a special player. You talk about the quality of Hazard, but I would say Hatem is at that level.”
Ben Arfa's probing helped Newcastle just about shade things after the break, but the damage was done before the interval as Chelsea opened up a two-goal lead.
Hazard was the chief architect of their advantage, dominating the midfield and unlocking the Magpies back four with a string of precise through balls and inspired dribbles.
Neither Anita nor Cabaye were able to get close enough to him, and with Cisse and Ba repeatedly short of support at the other end of the field, Chelsea enjoyed a surfeit of first-half possession.
They had already gone close through Hazard and Ryan Bertrand when they were handed an opportunity to claim the lead from the spot.
Anita charged recklessly into Torres, and while the contact between the two players was minimal, there was no need for Newcastle's Dutch midfielder to be as rash. Hazard made no mistake, drilling his first Chelsea goal past Tim Krul's right hand.
Chelsea then doubled their advantage in first-half stoppage time with a wonderfully-executed strike. Torres played the ball into Hazard, and received it back via an impudent back-heel. Without breaking stride, the Spaniard drilled a first-time finish past Krul with the outside of his right boot. If not quite on a par with Cisse's wonder strike from last season, it was not far off.