Newcastle United 1, Swansea City 2: Michael Laudrup hails best performance
MICHAEL Laudrup is going to spend around five more weeks keeping his cards close to his chest.
His players are offering up some clues, because each Swansea City performance right now makes a little statement about what might lie ahead for them in this second Premier League campaign.
For the moment, though, Laudrup does not want to talk about it.
Until Christmas has passed, he will not show his hand.
"You look at West Brom beating Chelsea this weekend and Everton losing at Reading — it tells you everything is possible in this league," said the Swansea manager.
"During the competition it is possible for different things to happen, although we all know who will be up there at the end."
So where might Swansea be when the season draws to a close?
"I don't know," Laudrup added. "You are still asking me the same question but, as I told you the other week, and the one before that and the one before that, I cannot come out after every game and say the balance is like this or like that.
"I prefer to wait until we get halfway through the season.
"When we have played 19 league games we can see how many points we have and say what our realistic aims can be for the rest of the season.
"On Boxing Day, we can talk."
And so Laudrup will be pressed for his thoughts at the Madejski Stadium on December 26.
And if his team can stretch their current run of form until somewhere close to Christmas, his ambitions for the second half of the season should be lofty.
Saturday's sparkling victory at Newcastle United was only Swansea's second in ten league matches.
Looking at it another way, their only defeat in seven outings was at Manchester City — and even that was unfortunate.
Swansea have drawn with Chelsea during that period and won at Liverpool — albeit in the Capital One Cup — and now comes an eye-catching success at Newcastle.
If they can keep performing like this then Swansea, who Laudrup reckons will only get better as the season unfolds, can target a top-half finish.
And what an achievement that would be for a club who, yet again, were tipped for the worst at the start of 2012-13 having endured another turbulent summer.
To a certain extent, Laudrup was stepping into the unknown when he agreed to succeed Brendan Rodgers in the summer.
Some three months into his maiden season in British football, Laudrup has more points on the board than his predecessor has at Liverpool ahead of next weekend's Rodgers reunion at the Liberty.
He could hardly have hoped things would go so well.
Swansea's second away league of the campaign means they have 16 points after 12 games — three more than at the same stage last season.
After 19 games last term — the point which Laudrup sees as the first big milestone — Rodgers's Swansea had 20 points.
Laudrup must be confident of passing that mark given the way his team are performing right now.
And if he is right about Swansea growing stronger as the weeks go by — he feels his players are still getting to know one another now — then another extraordinary season beckons.
Swansea improved at the turn of the year in their maiden Premier League adventure, finishing up 11th with 47 points.
Should they surpass that this time around, Laudrup will be entitled to massive credit.
All that really matters, after all, is that the Dane keeps Swansea in the top division.
There is still a long distance to travel before the club can begin contemplating a third year among the elite, but the signs are good.
There have been teething problems, with a few moans and groans as Swansea's players came to terms with the change of manager.
But if Swansea keep producing performances like the one witnessed on Tyneside this weekend, there will be no long faces in the dressing room.
"Away games are always the most difficult — in this league every one of them is difficult," Laudrup said.
"We won at Queens Park Rangers in our first game, where the club had never won, but we won 5-0.
"We won at Anfield, and Anfield is Anfield. And now maybe this was our best performance, so it's difficult to choose between them."
Whichever success was the most impressive, Laudrup conceded, the memory of his first ever trip to St James' will stick with him for some time.
The joy of this triumph was Swansea's ability to mix attacking menace with defensive solidity, to blend style and steel, as the club's previous manager might say.
After what happened at Stoke City, at Aston Villa and at Southampton, there was a fear before kick-off that Swansea might be bullied by the big units in black and white.
The fact that Papiss Cisse did not play because of Newcastle's row with Senegal was a bonus, and Swansea coped well enough with Demba Ba and Shola Ameobi — at least until stoppage time — to get over the line.
The victory was deserved because while Newcastle carried a threat, Swansea played the more fluent football and might easily have been celebrating three points long before Phil Dowd's whistle started the party in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
Swansea had carved Newcastle open within six minutes, Nathan Dyer dragging his shot wide after Pablo Hernandez's delicious through ball.
Dyer might have done better, but the tone had been set.
Swansea were not going to be pushed around as they have been previously on this ground.
Laudrup's men looked capable of doing damage every time they went forward, with Hernandez and Michu finding all the time and space required to trouble the Toon.
The two Spaniards forced saves from Tim Krul, who also parried two efforts from Itay Shechter before half-time.
When Michu headed over just before the break, Swansea wondered why they were not ahead of a Newcastle side who had been less incisive.
There were first-half scares for Swansea — Ba flashed a header past the post and the outstanding Hatem Ben Arfa's drive was pushed away by Gerhard Tremmel.
Newcastle improved after the restart, Ba poking wide when nobody noticed he was offside and then shooting straight at Tremmel.
But Swansea came again, and they should have been in front when Hernandez picked out Shechter.
The Israeli drilled over, and Laudrup held head in hands.
No matter, for the breakthrough came three minutes later when Hernandez gathered Krul's clumsy clearance and crossed delightfully for Michu to head home. Swansea ought to have doubled the lead when the same duo combined again, but Michu scuffed wide.
Jonathan de Guzman showed him the way three minutes from time, the Dutchman netting his first Premier League goal after Danny Graham — who was picked out by another Hernandez special — saw his shot parried.
Ba's powerful header — which should have been disallowed for Steven Taylor's foul on Tremmel — gave Newcastle a sniff of a result at the death, but Swansea held on for one of their finest Premier League victories yet.
"The only negative was that we had to suffer until the end because we did not score more goals when we had the chance," Laudrup reflected.
"But I can live with that."