By Chief Sports Writer, Marley Anderson

Newcastle stretched their unwanted away record to 14 winless games after Fulham claimed all three points in an enjoyable clash at Craven Cottage. Steve Sidwell gave the home side an early lead but Newcastle hit back with a stunner from Hatem Ben Arfa. Hugo Rodallega’s header won it for Fulham though and Newcastle are now looking over their shoulders as the tough Christmas schedule kicks in.

Boosted by the return of Ben Arfa, the travelling Toon Army were hoping the Frenchman could inspire a victory on his return but despite his second half equaliser, it was too much for Alan Pardew’s men. Had he had the choice, Pardew would likely have brought Ben Arfa on from the bench but such as the lack of options in midfield, the former Marseille man had to start and was out of touch in the first period.

A frantic start to proceedings almost led to a goal for the home side when Alex Kaciniklic went through before tumbling under a challenge from Fabricio Coloccini, only for Lee Mason to wave away the Swede’s penalty appeals. Had he been adjudged to have been fouled, Mason would have awarded a free-kick for Fulham, as the initial contact was outside the area before the winger hit the floor inside the box.

Once the pace settled down it was Fulham who found their rhythm first. Possession was being dominated by the home side and forced Pardew to change his tactics as he threw Cisse up front to pressure the home defence.

However, Fulham were still able to dominate the midfield battle and they had the lead after 16 minutes – ending their run of over five hours without a goal. Sidwell was the scorer as he latched onto a Damien Duff pass to fire a deflected effort in off the crossbar.

With the burden of the much-awaited goal off their back, the Cottagers almost had another when Dimitar Berbatov burst clear after a mistake in the Newcastle defence. One on one against Tim Krul, it was the Dutch keeper who came out on top, blocking the former Manchester United man’s shot with his chest before his defenders helped out.

From then on though, Newcastle settled down and started to play. Ben Arfa regained some of his sharpness and looked threatening but the Geordies’ best chance came from a corner. Pardew’s side haven’t scored from a corner all season but when Ben Arfa’s clever delivery was met by a bullet header from Coloccini, but Sascha Reither was able to head off the line.

The Argentine defender was then involved in a scare at the other end; blocking Berbatov’s shot after it squeezed through Krul’s grasp.

After the break, Newcastle were the better side as they looked for an equaliser. Vurnon Anita fired an effort narrowly over the bar before Ben Arfa’s latest moment of magic.

Faced with two defenders, the playmaker opened up his body and whipped a left-foot shot that flew over Mark Schwarzer. The effort was aided by a slight deflection which created the top spin that beat the Aussie keeper but it took nothing away from the quality of the strike.

However, once again the Geordies failed to capitalise on their good work and conceded a sloppy goal. Duff – who was roundly booed by the visiting fans – was once again the provider as his inch perfect cross found the head of Rodallega, who thumped past Krul.

In response to going a goal down for the second time, Pardew replaced Ben Arfa with Shola Ameobi, while the hopelessly ineffective Papiss Cisse remained on for the full 90 minutes. The one shred of creativity Newcastle had with Ben Arfa on the pitch disappeared and numerous long balls up to the front three created no chances.

Newcastle did almost equalise though and it would have been an even better strike than Ben Arfa’s. Coloccini found himself in the box and curled a stunning strike towards Schwarzer’s far post, only for the bar to save Fulham.

The win leaves Newcastle still in 14th in the table, only two behind the three teams below them. With Manchester City the next task for Pardew’s side, an immediate improvement must be made if the Geordies are to escape from the lower half of the Premier League table.