NEWCASTLE - Newcastle United moved into pole position in the race for a Champions League place by thrashing hapless Stoke 3-0 in a one-sided encounter at St James’ Park.
Alan Pardew’s side were rank outsiders for a top four slot at the start of the spring but in-form and scoring freely, they now look like the team to beat in the scramble for a place among Europe’s elite.
The identity of their goalscorers in this three-goal battering of the Potters carried a familiar ring to it.
After Yohan Cabaye opened the scoring by nipping in front of a dawdling Stoke defence to nod home from close range it was Papiss Demba Cisse who doubled the advantage with his eleventh goal since a January switch from Freiburg.
Cabaye added a third in the second half with a crisp drive from the edge of the penalty area to put the result beyond doubt and accurately reflect Newcastle’s total dominance of the game.
In this sort of form, their capital rivals for the Champions League should be very worried of Newcastle’s challenge for the top four.
Stoke are no pushovers but Newcastle never allowed them time to settle, and in Hatem Ben Arfa they possessed the game’s most potent attacking threat.
He punctured a cagey opening by waltzing past Marc Wilson with a delightful shimmy before chipping into the box for Cisse.
The Senegal striker uncharacteristically clipped the bar with his looping header but Cabaye was on hand to give the home side a 14th minute lead.
The advantage was doubled just four minutes later and Cabaye was again in the thick of things, dissecting the Potters defence with a wonderful pass to tee up Cisse - who struck with a first time shot past Asmir Begovic.
Stoke looked shell-shocked, and their resistance was limited to a Peter Crouch pot shot that Tim Krul watched glide harmlessly over the bar.
Newcastle, by contrast, were enjoying themselves and thanks to the excellent Ben Arfa they were enjoying the best of the possession and chances.
Left-back Davide Santon took on three red and white shirts before seeing Begovic stoop low to prevent him from a memorable first Premier League goal.
If an animated Tony Pulis had hoped for a reaction from his side in the second half, he was to be disappointed.
Newcastle began the second period on the front foot and Demba Ba was denied in the first minute of the half by a brave Begovic save.
It was merely a case of delaying the inevitable, though. Ba combined brilliantly with Cisse but when the ball bobbled out towards Cabaye, the France midfielder reacted superbly to sweep a majestic dipping shot over Begovic.
Stoke couldn’t muster much of a response. Crouch attempted to angle a volley in from close range but substitute James Perch blocked his effort with an excellent flying block to frustrate the England striker.
United ended the game in the ascendancy. Ba failed to grab the goal his fine work deserved but Cheick Tiote nearly added number four with a fizzing 30-yard effort that Begovic tipped over brilliantly.
The Israeli had to react smartly minutes later when Tiote again tried his luck from his distance - this time Begovic parried wide.