City give us El
It's fast becoming a mystery of similar proportions to that of Lord Lucan's disappearance: what, exactly, is the point of Alan Smith? Throughout yesterday's game at Man City, he once again offered scant protection to the back four, passed poorly, created nothing and couldn't be bothered to bust a gut and get on the end of an Obafemi Martins cross to take the one very presentable chance that came his way.
Meanwhile, our hosts could boast, in the same position, the Brazilian Elano, who was quite simply a class apart all afternoon. Needless to say, I take no satisfaction whatsoever from being vindicated in that aspect of my match preview.
With Owen and Cacapa injured during last weekend's win over West Ham, Martins and Steven Taylor came into the side, while Allardyce made the significant decision to retain Shay Given in goal for his first league start of the season at Steve Harper's expense.
Given it was who nearly gifted Man City an early lead, the Irishman fortunate that his hurried clearance after a heavy touch from a backpass didn't ricochet into the net off Emile Mpenza. We broke swiftly down the other end, the move culminating in Smith not deeming stretching out a leg to divert Martins' low cross into the net to be worth the effort.
It wasn't long before Given got the opportunity to underline why he's been our first choice 'keeper for so long, a quick interchange of passes ending in Elano's 25-yard volley, which was spectacularly tipped behind for a corner. In contrast to Man City's fluid attack, Mark Viduka was having one of his lumbering days, though he did at least force Joe Hart, himself preferred to recent regular custodian Kaspar Schmeichel, into a sprawling save.
The real thrust of our attack was being provided by James Milner, marauding down the right wing to good effect. On one occasion he burst past two defenders before delivering a dangerous pull-back from the by-line, and on another he and we were baffled by referee Chris Foy's decision not to point to the spot following Micah Richards' clumsy tackle from behind.
The skilful and clever Elano, though, was prompting and probing our defence, which looked rickety with Taylor in particular making a series of Bramble-esque cock-ups. It wasn't all his fault, though, with Nicky Butt once again guilty of a dereliction of duties. What will it take for him to be dropped?
Our goal, when it came, was out of nothing - a precise curled ball from deep by Geremi, exquisite control from Martins and a neat lobbed finish with his right foot. The lead was nearly doubled shortly afterwards when Hart, who'd already looked decidedly uncomfortable, failed to control a routine backpass, only just managing to hack it away before it dribbled over the goalline.
It was an incident we were soon to look back on ruefully, as Elano's pass fed Stephen Ireland, who, having escaped the attentions of Charles N'Zogbia, fed the ball across the six yard box for Martin Petrov to apply the finish at the back post. It could then very easily have been worse, Given pulling off a vital save after Elano had once again slipped Ireland in on goal.
At half time, we'd seen enough going forwards to feel some optimism, but our defence was finding Elano and co harder to handle than a hot bar of soap, so I would have gladly taken a point. I would have even more gladly taken one two minutes into the second period, when a litany of errors - "defensive suicide", in Fat Sam's terms - handed Man City the advantage. A poor header in midfield was seized upon by Petrov, who easily outpaced Taylor down the left before delivering a cross which David Rozehnal misjudged, Mpenza reacting well to guide his diving header back across Given and into the bottom corner.
From then on, we never looked capable of mounting a recovery of our own. Martins was lively and had a couple more efforts on goal, but Sven-Goran Eriksson's side assumed almost complete control. Milner and Viduka were now anonymous, and though Elano was orchestrating things more subtly, Michael Johnson had become increasingly influential and Petrov, rampaging down the left, was giving Habib Beye an afternoon to forget. Allardyce hardly helped matters, again hauling Geremi off and allowing Butt to continue blithering around doing absolutely nothing of merit.
Mpenza squandered a handful of half-chances to put the game beyond us, though the two best opportunities fell, somewhat fortunately, to Richards, who was unable to cap his lung-bursting length-of-the-pitch runs with the required finish. When the third goal did eventually come, three minutes from time, it was one even the staunchest Newcastle fan would have found difficult not to admire. Butt gave away a stupid free kick 30 yards out, Elano arrowing the ball with incredible power right into the top corner. Game over.
Other results have seen us slide alarmingly down the table - as I type Everton are beating the Smoggies, and a Villa victory at White Hart Lane tomorrow night would mean we will have dropped from fifth to tenth. Everton are our next opponents, and the chances of them being a soft touch for us to regain our form and confidence are as good as of solving the Alan Smith mystery any time soon.
Other reports: BBC, Observer
A Man City fan's perspective: Bitter And Blue