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FA CUP: SAINTS 0 - NEWCASTLE 3
2:23pm Tuesday 30th May 2006 in 03-04 Season
IT MAY BE time for the January sales but Saints are desperately short of one thing money can't buy - confidence.
It's an incredible turnaround. Just 13 days after the euphoria of beating Pompey 3-0 and going fourth in the Premiership, Saints' world feels like it's crashing down around them. Now out of all three cup competitions they started the season in, they are on a run of three successive defeats.
Gordon Strachan said in terms of performances this is the worst two weeks in his two and a half years as Saints boss.
He's definitely right.
He also says he thinks he knows the reasons behind this but can't air it publicly.
Whatever it is, it needs to be sorted out very soon.
In the grand scheme of things defeats away at Fulham, at home to Arsenal and at home to Newcastle isn't disastrous.
But what has been worrying is the performances in those games.
To be fair to Strachan, even when Saints were riding high he rightly said that they weren't actually playing all that well.
But now they have gone down another notch, they look pretty poor.
Against Newcastle it was a similar story to the Fulham and Arsenal matches.
The mystery reason for these displays is obviously a mental one.
The players look to have no confidence.
Even the usual committed running all over the field, the never-say-die attitude and people demanding the ball, that are such trademarks of Saints under Strachan, are lacking.
It's hard to pinpoint one weak area but the whole team looks drained.
Even the usually ultra-reliable Michael Svensson and Claus Lundekvam have been slightly suspect.
But on the pitch there is a major problem in midfield.
With the exception of David Prutton nobody else has been able to play well enough to demand a permanent place in the team.
So instead it seems a case of chopping and changing the personnel in the hope that somebody does exceptionally well.
Marian Pahars has done that but seemed well off the pace on this occasion.
Neil McCann and Rory Delap didn't even make the bench for this game - a sign they haven't made a huge impact either.
Anders Svensson got a run after a long spell out of the team but once again promised so much but delivered so little.
Fabrice Fernandes has not played all that well for a year and wasn't even brought on with Saints 2-0 down in a home FA Cup tie, which says something about his place in the pecking order.
Paul Telfer has had three bad games on the right of midfield. Playing him there isn't working.
Meanwhile, Chris Marsden is on the bench having done all right with his chances but not exceptionally well.
All of the midfield's shortcomings in terms of protecting the back four, providing service to the strikers, offering outlets for their teammates, scoring goals and retaining possession have spread across the entire side.
It's a difficult question to answer but you have to wonder what Strachan does now.
Does he look to offload a few players and bring in some fresh blood?
Or does he stick with what he's got in the hope that this is just a blip and it will all come good again?
It's certainly a test of not only his abilities as a coach but also his man management skills.
The players need a lift and he knows he'll have to help provide it. He'll have to instill confidence back into them.
They certainly didn't have much against Newcastle - the nearest they came to scoring was an easily saved Lundekvam header.
Again Saints struggled with a team that don't play two conventional strikers but have one target man and men running from deep - they seem to have major problems picking them up.
On this occasion Kieron Dyer and Laurent Robert were the main trouble makers and got the goals.
The first, on 24 minutes, saw Aaron Hughes cross from the right, Nolberto Solano beat Lundekvam in the air to flick-on and Dyer able to control and finish with Michael Svensson and Jason Dodd unable to block the shot.
Their lead was doubled six minutes before half-time when a goalmouth scramble saw the ball cleared to Robert. Telfer was slow to close him down and the Newcastle man drove the ball fierce and low past Antti Niemi who got a hand to it but couldn't keep it out.
For ten minutes at the start of the second half, as for the first ten minutes of the match, it seemed Saints could get something.
But they didn't and Dyer killed the game off on 67 minutes.
Alan Shearer turned the ball into Dyer's path just inside the Saints half and the England man sprinted with great pace past Lundekvam, wrong-footed Michael Svensson and finished low across Niemi.
Suddenly Wednesday night's game against Leicester is massive. Saints not only need a win but a good performance to get themselves right back on track again.
It's up to Saints now. They can make these three games just a blip or go into freefall.