Thursday 14 December 2017

Rodgers hails resilient Swans

When the digital clocks near the corner flags signalled that 11 minutes had passed a burst of spontaneous applause reverberated around the stands. It was an evocative, painfully poignant moment. Gary Speed once wore Newcastle United's No 11 shirt and, with his widow Louise and their two sons in attendance, this was the day Tyneside celebrated the late Wales manager's life.

Before kick-off, Louise Speed and her boys walked slowly to the centre circle where, supported by Gary's good friend Alan Shearer, they stood feet away from the Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes. As Hughes led the crowd in a beautiful rendition of Bread of Heaven, the family held hands tightly.

A shattered-looking Shearer, who seemed close to tears as he left the pitch, has probably never felt less animated about watching his beloved Newcastle but the game had to go on and Alan Pardew said his players were determined to win it for Speed. In the event they could not quite manage to overcome a well-organised Swansea side who, with increasing efficiency, managed to slow the game down and control the tempo. By the end they had kept their eighth clean sheet in 16 Premier League games since winning promotion.

Pardew, whose team have now gone five games without a win, knew it was not the day to display frustration. "This was a chance for Geordie folk to show their respect and love for Gary," said Newcastle's manager. "I thought they did that in a really magical way. I'm sure Gary's family are very pleased."

Brendan Rodgers, his Swansea counterpart, made a point of praising the thoughtfully tasteful tribute. "Gary's family will never forget it," he said. "It was done with a lovely touch. Congratulations to Newcastle."

Although Pardew's players subjected Swansea to a first-half attacking blitz, clear-cut opportunities were few and far between. While Fabricio Coloccini and Demba Ba hit posts and the same two players forced stellar saves from the Netherlands goalkeeper Michael Vorm, Newcastle had only a handful of shots on target during an afternoon in which second-half momentum ebbed away from the returning Cheik Tiote and company.

With Swansea's deep-lying defence protected by a five-man midfield Tim Krul, the Newcastle goalkeeper, was barely tested. But he nonetheless looked mightily relieved when, on a rare counter-attack, Scott Sinclair unleashed an angled left-foot shot which drifted fractionally wide of the far post.

Desperate to force a change of pace, Pardew used all three of his permitted substitutes but left Hatem Ben Arfa on the bench. Perhaps ominously, the infamously "high maintenance" France forward looked extremely unimpressed when his manager elected to send the Ameobi brothers, Shola and Sammy, and Haris Vuckic into action while overlooking his own game-changing talents.

Whether or not Ben Arfa could have done any better than his colleagues is highly debatable. "It was a fantastic performance," enthused Rodgers.

"With more than 50,000 fans here, Newcastle is always a difficult place to come but we showed tremendous resilience. In the first half we got too excited when we had the ball but in the second half we regained our composure and our positioning.

"Eight clean sheets in 16 games helps dispel the myth that we can't defend and are just a passing team. To restrict Newcastle to four shots on target shows the high level of our defensive work."

Pardew concurred. "They haven't got seven clean sheets for nothing," he said. "There is a good spirit in the Swansea team. Everything we tried to do today, they seemed to have an answer."


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