Toon gatecrash top three as Ba treble sees off Stoke
Hat-trick or treat? Demba Ba enjoyed both on a visit to Stoke City, whose fans wrongly believed he rejected them last season.
The Senegalese striker silenced the Britannia with a header, a close-range strike and a penalty, sending Newcastle ahead of Chelsea into third and within a point of Manchester United.
Ba may have been wearing gloves but his fingerprints were all over this game; not only did he plunder three goals, he worked hard defensively. Such was his over-eagerness to help out in his own box that he conceded a penalty, pushing Peter Crouch, and presenting Jonathan Walters with a chance from 12 yards that he took emphatically.
It was always going to take something different to breach Newcastle's superb defence. If Ba took the Halloween headlines, Fabricio Coloccini deserves huge credit for a near faultless performance at centre-half. In truth, all of Alan Pardew's players fought hard for the cause.
Newcastle know they face a testing period: Everton visit St James' Park on Saturday, followed by trips to Manchester City and United before Chelsea come calling. That run of games will provide a truer test of their ambition but this was impressive, resilient fare.
Newcastle's ambitions of a Champions League place had been questioned by many, but they certainly looked real contenders, their counter-attacking and Ba's finishing proving the feature of the first half.
The visitors seized the lead after 11 minutes. It came via a swift, direct attack, the ball hurtling upfield from 'keeper Tim Krul before being flicked on by Ireland striker Leon Best. Gabriel Obertan was off and running, leaving Marc Wilson trailing in his wake, before clipping a cross towards Ba, who nodded home adroitly.
After the goal, the goading. As the back of the net billowed, Ba charged towards the Stoke fans, cupping an ear as they booed him mercilessly. Hell hath little fury like a support spurned.
Ba was deemed by Stoke fans to have turned them down last season when the club actually decided against a player with injury problems.
As Stoke's defence creaked, it was impossible not to be impressed by the resilience of Newcastle's. The least porous back-line in the goal-drenched Premier League were placed under pressure in the first half as Crouch and Walters hoved into view, looking to reach long throws from Rory Delap or crosses from Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington.
Coloccini and Steven Taylor stood firm, echoing the determination that characterises all of Pardew's players this season. Newcastle's immense work ethic kept Stoke at bay; even the creative types, like Jonas Gutierrez, tracked back and assisted the defence.
Gutierrez was superb in helping Ryan Taylor deal with Pennant, throwing himself in the path of one cross. Such defiance was seen across the pitch.
Soaking up the pressure, Newcastle simply responded like a skilful heavyweight, hitting on the counter. Again, Newcastle raced forward quickly, Coloccini angling a ball into the box which Upson headed out but only to Best.
The frontman redirected it low and hard into the six-yard box for Ba to play the poacher, although 'keeper Asmir Begovic reacted too hesitantly. Only Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have scored more Premier League goals in 2011 than Ba's 14.
Absent strikers had occupied the day's bulletins: Shola Ameobi was cleared by Fifa to represent Nigeria, while Nile Ranger was charged with being drunk and disorderly in Newcastle's city centre.
As the second half unfolded, Newcastle continued to look to Ba, who also dropped left to form a five-man midfield when Stoke had possession. Pulis had clearly stirred his players in the interval, and they attempted to force a way through the redoubtable Newcastle defence. Robert Huth went close. Crouch threatened.
Still Newcastle resisted. Still Pardew's wingers impressed with their willingness to defend. Gutierrez dropped back to cut out a ball from Walters.
Obertan then nicked the ball off Andy Wilkinson. Pulis played his last card, sending on Kenwynne Jones, predictably booed by Newcastle fans for his Sunderland connections. With Newcastle's goal under siege, Ba pushed Crouch, who tumbled to the floor, limbs all over the place.
Walters rammed the penalty home, giving Stoke hope, but Newcastle soon had a spot kick of their own.
Huth nudged Best, gifting Ba his chance of a third. He made no mistake.
"There's only one Alan Pardew,'' chanted the visitors, walking in their Pardew wonderland.
Just as there had been brief disturbances in the crowd, swiftly dealt with by stewards, tempers flared on the pitch when Huth went flying in on Krul.
Newcastle still withstood the bombardment. Coloccini was superb, racing across to see off Pennant. (© Daily Telegraph, London)