This has been a week for comebacks. It’s been a week for multiple goals scored in quick-fire fashion. And it’s been a week for not losing your head.
If there was a game to sum up the best and the worst qualities of this thrilling week of football it has to be one from the history of a fixture which will take place this weekend. To round off an intense ten days of football, Arsenal will travel to the North East on Sunday afternoon to take on a Newcastle side who are now playing free from the pressure of relegation.
Seven years ago Newcastle United were, just as they are now, a newly-promoted side trying to build a stable Premier League team. The rights and wrongs of sacking Chris Hughton in December 2010 notwithstanding, the Magpies were managed by Alan Pardew by the time early February came around. Despite initial unpopularity, the former Southampton manager was given a sporting chance by the sceptical St James’s Park faithful.
It would turn sour – very sour – eventually, but that untenable relationship between manager and fans may have been accelerated if it weren’t for a one day, and one memorable match at home to Arsenal.
Newcastle’s week started badly as Andy Carroll was sold to Liverpool and Shola Ameobi picked up an injury, leaving Pardew to field Leon Best in attack for the visit of second-placed Arsenal who were chasing Manchester United for the title.
It got even worse inside the first ten minutes, when Theo Walcott, Johan Djourou and Robin van Persie made it 3-0 to Arsenal within the first ten minutes, before the Dutchman bagged a second – and his team’s fourth – on 26 minutes.
It was a disaster which, perhaps in hindsight, gave a glimpse of what was to come: Newcastle, who had sacked a manager the fans were behind, had sold their best attacker on deadline day without adequately replacing him, and had one just three games since his dismissal, were now facing utter humiliation in front of their own fans.
A comeback wasn’t evident, either. Half time came and went without a sign of Newcastle life, and it wasn’t until Abou Diaby inexplicably lost his head that the game started to come away from the Gunners’ grip.
It was, naturally, Joey Barton who lit the touch paper. A loose ball in the midfield was pounced upon by both the Diaby and the Newcastle midfielder, when the Frenchman saw red: he grabbed Barton by the neck before shoving him to the floor and pushing Kevin Nolan, who had come in to intervene.
At 4-0 up, that’s far from a smart move. Not only did it make life more difficult for an Arsenal side who already lacked leaders in their team, but it rallied the Magpies who started to believe that there was some way back.
It would take nearly another 20 minutes for that to come to any sort of fruition: on 68 minutes Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny brought Leon Best down in the box, and Barton fired home to cut the deficit.
Their tails were up, and so was the spikiness. Arsenal’s soft underbelly was ruthlessly exploited by a midfield duo of Barton and Kevin Nolan, who caused the Gunners to lose their heads even more.
A man light, Arsenal succumbed again when Best stepped in front of his man to head the Magpies’ second goal of the game past Wojciech Szczesny in goal. With just seven minutes to hold out, the Gunners failed to hold their nerve as Koscielny again brought down a Newcastle player and referee Phil Dowd pointed to the spot once again.
It proved to be a second goal for Barton and the stage was set: not just for a Newcastle comeback, not just for an Arsenal meltdown, but for one of the Premier League’s memorable strikes.
As the Gunners dropped deep into their box to defend a lead which had narrowed dramatically, they failed to adequately deal with a free-kick from the left. Headed only as far as Cheick Tiote, the Ivorian lashed a stunning strike into the bottom corner to send a sparsely populated St James’s Park into raptures.
Those who had left their seats did so at half time or in the start of the second half and missed one of the most memorable comebacks of the Premier League era.
But it was to be a fleeting moment of joy in a decade characterised by false dawns for Newcastle. Unable to use that comeback as a springboard, Alan Pardew’s side would win only three more Premier League games all season before shocking the league with a fifth-placed finish the next year: it was to be yet another fleeting period of glory which lasted all too briefly.
In a week of comebacks, this game had all the elements: goals which came early others late, sendings-off, teams who believed and others who lost their heads. To round off an epic week of football, what better moment to have a repeat of a fixture that had it all?