Pardew hails defensive duo

Stoppers singled out as key performers by Toon boss

Davide Santon: Has made the left-back spot his own in recent games

Mike Williamson: Has helped keep two clean sheets in last four games for Newcastle

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Alan Pardew has paid tribute to two of Newcastle's unsung heroes, Davide Santon and Mike Williamson, following an upturn in the Magpies' form.

Some of the gloss had been taken off a fine start to the season for the St James' Park club when they went six Premier League games without a victory in November and December and collected only two points along the way.

However, a 2-0 Boxing Day victory at Bolton has sparked a run of three wins in four games in all competitions, including a 3-0 demolition of title hopefuls Manchester United, to cement the club in seventh place in the table.

The last of those successes, Saturday's 2-1 FA Cup third round fightback against Blackburn, was achieved without star men Demba Ba and Cheick Tiote, who will spend the next few weeks on African Nations Cup duty with Senegal and the Ivory Coast respectively.

But while both men will be sorely missed, Pardew has been able to console himself with the emergence of defenders Santon and Williamson in recent weeks.

Versatile Italian Santon has lined up at left-back in each of the last two games and has fully justified the faith invested in him during the summer.

Pardew said: "You have to remember he was up against outstanding players in the Manchester United game, and not only did he win that particular battle, but his use of the ball was excellent.

"He can play both sides and he gives us a massive weaponry. But at the moment, left-back, he looks like he has probably got the nod."

Return

Central defender Williamson missed the end of last season after breaking a bone in his arm in a freak gym accident, and his return was hampered by an ankle problem which sidelined him until the end of December.

In his absence, Steven Taylor's season-ending Achilles injury left the Magpies' defensive resources so stretched that Pardew was forced to field four full-backs - Ryan Taylor, Santon, Perch and Danny Simpson - at Norwich on December 10th.

Williamson's re-appearance could hardly have been more timely, and his presence in the team has coincided with that run of four games which has brought just one defeat, and that at in-form Liverpool.

Pardew said: "We have had two clean sheets from Mike in four games, and that's fantastic.

"It just goes to show how he has conditioned himself in that time off. He can be very proud of himself."