JUST where would Newcastle United be this season without Demba Ba?
In the relegation zone, that’s where.
Ba’s form – the striker took his tally for the season to six goals in Saturday’s 2-2 draw against Reading – has at least ensured Alan Pardew’s out-of-sorts side are in the top half of the Premier League.
But Ba’s goals – and the team spirit in Pardew’s dressing room – will only take United so far this season, and Pardew’s acutely aware of this ahead of a tough run of fixtures, including the home game against Manchester United and the Wear-Tyne derby.
Pardew can draw comfort from one of football’s oldest adages. If a team’s not playing well, but still picking up points, there isn’t too much wrong.
And one thing Pardew’s players are is spirited, as was underlined at the Madjeski Stadium on a bright autumn afternoon in Berkshire.
Twice Newcastle came from behind, just as they had done in their previous away league game at Everton.
And as at Goodison Park, the scorer both times was Ba.
At the break, few would have foreseen what was to come, as neither team – bar one 30th-minute Pavel Pogrebnyak effort which was tipped over by Steve Harper – could hit the target.
Pogrebnyak had earlier summed up the half when a wayward shot of his went out for a corner.
However, Pogrebnyak almost got Reading in front before the break after Noel Hunt crossed for him from the right. The striker chested the ball past Mike Williamson, but James Perch was able to make a timely challenge.
Things unravelled when Perch’s defensive colleague Steven Taylor left the field injured with almost an hour played.
In captain Fabricio Coloccini’s absence, Taylor is Pardew’s leader at the back, and United weren’t the same defensively after his departure, and Jimmy Kebe rolled the ball past Harper to open the scoring after Jobi McAnuff found him in space.
Newcastle, stung by the goal, levelled from the restart. Cheik Tiote played the ball over the top from deep, and Ba volleyed it past Alex McCarthy with his first touch.
The lead was shortlived, with Hunt heading another cross from McAnuff past Harper in the 62nd minute. Pardew, as he had done at Old Trafford three days earlier, turned to substitute Shane Ferguson. As he had done against Manchester United, he delivered.
Ferguson broke down the left and put the ball on Ba’s head, the striker also handling it before it beat McCarthy.
At the other end, Harper stopped a late shot from substitute Jason Roberts, and the point was safe.
The game was watched from the side of the pitch by former United midfielder Danny Guthrie, who, ironically, would have probably been in the visiting team had he stayed at St James’s Park given that Yohan Cabaye was injured.
As it is, Guthrie – who left for first-team football in the summer – looks to have swapped one bench for another.
One positive for Pardew was the full Premier League debut of the man who did partner Tiote in central midfield, Gael Bigirimana.
Only 18, Bigirimana’s quickly becoming an important player for Pardew, and there’s more to come from him in the coming weeks and months.
The question is how much more is going to come from the team, as Ba’s goals aren’t going to get the club out of trouble every week.
NEWCASTLE UNITED: Harper 8; Perch 6, Williamson 6, S Taylor 7 (Tavernier, 56, 6), Santon 6; Ben Arfa 5, Tiote 6, Bigirimana 6 (Ferguson, 69, 7), Gutierrez 6; Cisse 5 (Shola Ameobi, 69, 6), Ba 8. Subs not used: Elliot, Anita, Obertan, Sammy Ameobi.
READING: McCarthy; Cummings, Mariappa, Gorkss, Shorey; McAnuff, Karacan, Leigertwood, Kebe (McCleary, 70); Hunt (Le Fondre, 85), Pogrebnyak (Roberts, 78). Subs not used: Pearce, Robson-Kanu, Guthrie, Taylor.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Steve Harper – the point owed everything to his late save.
HIGHLIGHT: Demba Ba’s first goal.
LOWLIGHT: The injury suffered by Steven Taylor underlined the folly of failing to sign a defender in the summer.
Goals: Kebe 58, Ba 58, 83, Hunt 62
Bookings: Perch 44, Williamson 52, Gutierrez 72
Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)
Attendance: 24,057 (2,076 Newcastle)