Ben Arfa stars as Newcastle win at West Brom
West Bromwich Albion 1 Newcastle United 3: Back at the scene of the defeat by West Bromwich Albion which astonishingly cost Chris Hughton the manager's job 16 months ago, Newcastle yesterday joined Chelsea on 50 points and moved to within five points of the fourth Champions League place with a victory that was made in Africa.
At the heart of all the best moments for Alan Pardew's team was the exotic talent of Hatem Ben Arfa, a France international of Tunisian descent. Weaving past several opponents at a time, in his orange shirt the midfielder looked for all the world like a Blackpool player from the Matthews era, creating two goals and scoring the second himself.
Ben Arfa, who was out with a broken leg when a 3-1 loss led to Hughton's dismissal, found strong support from Papiss Cisse, the Senegal striker scoring twice to take his tally for Newcastle to five goals in six matches. For once the leading scorer, the French-Senegalese attacker Demba Ba, was cast in a minor role, if only by comparison with his outstanding colleagues.
Pardew, the beneficiary of the boardroom panic that led to his predecessor's demise, hailed Ben Arfa's display as his best in a Newcastle shirt. "Some of his runs were mesmerising," purred the Newcastle manager. "If I was the France coach, I'd consider him. There's not many who can do what he can, and he'd be a nice wild card to have in the squad [at Euro 2012]."
Talking about Newcastle's prospects of at least a Europa League spot, Pardew added: "To have the same points as Chelsea is phenomenal. We have eight games left, starting with Liverpool next Sunday. It's a massive game and the whole city will look forward to it."
The Albion coach, Roy Hodgson, admitted Newcastle were superior. "The only solace I can take," he continued, "is that we did win the second half and reduced the damage." Untypically for Albion during their various sojourns in the Premier League, the spectre of relegation was effectively banished before winter turned to spring. There was a relaxed, almost festive atmosphere inside the ground. Hodgson's men, though, took the "relaxed" bit too literally during the initial sparring, and were 2-0 down before breaking sweat.
In the sixth minute their attempts to play Newcastle offside were exposed by the timing of Ben Arfa's run on the left as Jonas Gutierrez fed the ball through. A low cross was turned in by Cissé, Albion's defence again looking in vain for a flag to rescue them.
The roles were reversed in the 12th minute after a sweeping move which Ben Arfa launched on the edge of his own penalty area. After finding Cissé in the centre circle, he darted to the right flank for the return pass. Albion stood off him, with only Jonas Olsson making anything resembling a challenge. Ben Arfa punished their largesse by driving the ball past Ben Foster.
This was a return to the slapdash defending that was commonplace during Roberto Di Matteo's reign at Albion, and which Hodgson, after successive home wins with clean sheets, looked to have rectified. Newcastle's third goal arrived 11 minutes before half-time, and again Ben Arfa's perpetual motion turned Albion inside out. Having supplied Ba, he ran on to a return back-heeled pass before cutting the ball back for Cissé to fire home.
Albion doubtless drew on the memory of St James' Park last season, when they came from 3-0 behind to draw. Playing at a higher tempo they soon pulled a goal back after Newcastle proved the hosts had no monopoly on feeble defending.
Mike Williamson had the opportunity to head Youssouf Mulumbu's punt back to Tim Krul. Pressured by Peter Odemwingie, the centre-back waited until the goalkeeper was almost on top of him before putting his forehead on the ball. He succeeded only in glancing it into the path of Shane Long, who gleefully accepted the gift of his seventh goal of the season.
Any hopes Albion harboured of further reducing the deficit went down the tunnel with James Morrison, who was carried off with a knee injury.
WBA: FOSTER 7/10, JONES 5, McAULEY 5, OLSSON 6, RIDGEWELL 5, ANDREWS 6, MULUMBU 7, MORRISON 6, THOMAS 4, ODEMWINGIE 6, FORTUNE 5
Newcastle: KRUL 6, PERCH 5, COLOCCINI 7, WILLIAMSON 5, SIMPSON 6, BA 6, GUTIERREZ 7, CABAYE 7, GUTHRIE 6, BENARFA 8, CISSE 7
Substitutes: West Bromwich Albion Long 7 (Andrews, h-t), Brunt 5 (Thomas, h-t), Scharner (Mulumbu, 73). Newcastle United Santon 6 (Coloccini, h-t), Shola Ameobi (Ben Arfa, 75), Ferguson (Cissé, 79).
Booked: Newcastle Williamson.
Man of the match Ben Arfa. Match rating 8/10.
Possession: WBA 42% Newcastle 58%.
Attempts on target: WBA 6 Newcastle 7.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside). Attendance 25,049.