Newcastle United are where they wanted to be but are uncomfortable about where they are going.
Being 11th in the table in late March is normally synonymous with security and any newly promoted side would be satisfied with such a standing, especially as Alan Pardew has guided the club to one place higher than they occupied when the popular Chris Hughton was sacked in December. Yet there is a decidedly downward feel to Newcastle's progress.
This miserable defeat left them with just one win from their past 10 matches and confirmed they have a serious scrap for survival on their hands. "Never mind being dragged into the relegation fight, we were never out of it – simple as," said their captain, Kevin Nolan. "We were never getting carried away even when results were good." Complacency, then, cannot be blamed for their bad run.
Pardew tried a new formation for this game, recalling the 36-year-old Sol Campbell and deploying three centre-backs. It did not work, as the veteran looked off the pace, notably when Jon Walters headed Stoke City in front, and defensive blunders by others contributed to at least one of the home side's goals – Jermaine Pennant's early in the second half – and could have cost more.
There were other problems, too. Newcastle lost one of their best players through a hamstring injury – José Enrique could now miss their next game, and midfield linchpin Cheik Tioté definitely will, having received a booking that earns him an automatic ban, though he was lucky not to have seen red given the number of clumsy tackles that he perpetrated. Ironically the Tioté tackle that led to Danny Higginbotham scoring Stoke's third from a free-kick was probably not a foul.
Ricardo Fuller hit Stoke's fourth after coming off the bench, a fact that underlined a contrast with Newcastle's lack of depth in attack, where they looked toothless. They may have got £35m for Andy Carroll but the cost of his absence has yet to be fully appraised.
Aside from the goals the striker scored himself, he created many for Nolan, who has struck once in the past 10 matches. Leon Best, in fairness, has scored six goals in 10 games since replacing Carroll but he missed the trip to Stoke having suffered an injury in training last Thursday – that injury was not serious enough to prevent him being photographed revelling with the injured loanee Stephen Ireland in a nightclub on Friday, a revelation that Pardew described as "not ideal". The manager said he would ascertain exactly what the pair were doing before deciding whether any action is required.
The match that Tioté and possibly Enrique will miss is against Wolverhampton Wanderers, the team currently in the last of the relegation places, four points behind Newcastle. Lose and Newcastle's nerves will fray further. The fact that the international break means they have two weeks in which to mull over their misadventure at Stoke while waiting for the Wolves game, having also, because of their FA Cup elimination by Stevenage, had a fortnight to dwell on their defeat against Everton before the trip to the Britannia, is a source of frustration.
"I can only apologise for the performance at Stoke and hope to put it right against Wolves," said Nolan. "We would like to put it right straight away, but now we have a two-week break, which is the last thing we want. It's incredible considering we were playing four or five games over Christmas. It's a weird schedule and needs to be looked at. But we just have to make sure we keep a level head."
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