Friday 18 August 2017

Wasteful Newcastle look doomed after failing to take their chances

Aston Villa 0 Newcastle Utd 0

Villa's Scott Sinclair in action with Newcastle's Paul Dummett. Photo: Philip Brown/Reuters
Villa's Scott Sinclair in action with Newcastle's Paul Dummett. Photo: Philip Brown/Reuters
Newcastle's Aleksandar Mitrovic shows his dejection after missing a chance to score. Photo: Clint Hughes/PA
Newcastle fans look dejected as they leave Villa Park yesterday. Photo: Philip Brown/Reuters
Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
Newcastle's Chancel Mbemba in action against Villa's Jordan Ayew. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters

Paul Wilson

Newcastle United look like losing out to their north-east rivals in the battle to avoid relegation. Other results were going their way until Sunderland fought back against Chelsea and with only one more match to play, to Sam Allardyces's two, this tepid draw against powderpuff Aston Villa returns Rafa Benitez's team to the bottom three, with limited hope of climbing out.

Newcastle's away form has been abysmal all season, but this was supposed to be their get-out-of-jail card. A team fighting for survival could not ask for more accommodating opponents, but if Villa were predictably ordinary, Newcastle were surprisingly lacklustre. Even for them. Survival is now out of their hands and on the evidence of this performance, a massive missed opportunity, they cannot argue with the home crowd's verdict. They are going down with the Villa.

The first half was an uneventful and unhurried stroll in the sunshine, the lack of urgency and inspiration all too typical of an end-of-season game.

While that might have been par for the course for a home side whose relegation was confirmed weeks ago, it was distinctly worrying for Newcastle, who are still making a bid to escape. Apart from the cheers from the travelling fans when Chelsea took the lead at Sunderland, you would never have guessed Newcastle were involved in a life or death struggle.

Benitez probably spent the entire interval spelling out that if you cannot raise your game at a Villa Park with beachballs and balloons drifting all over the pitch, an aircraft circling the ground bearing the message that Randy Lerner is a Blue and Joleon Lescott being booed by his own fans every time he touched the ball, there could well be a few regrets when the season comes to a conclusion.

Apart from the Holte End making slightly more noise than usual, almost nothing of note took place before the interval. Papiss Cisse could not get on the end of an early cross from Vernon Anita and when he had a far-post chance half an hour later, he volleyed into the ground. Villa hardly bothered to attack at all until they realised that Newcastle were not exactly putting them under the cosh. When they did their efforts were insipid, summed up by an incident when Kevin Toner spent so long in space on the left waving for the ball that the crowd cheered when he received it, only for the teenager to put his cross straight out of play.

The second half promised better when Andros Townsend sent in a threatening cross from the right that might have produced a goal for Newcastle had Cisse managed a better connection or Jack Colback kept his follow-up shot lower. That turned out to be the misfiring Cisse's last contribution, Benitez replacing him with Aleksandar Mitrovic six minutes into the second half. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the effect was immediate, but without exactly laying siege to the Villa goal Newcastle did step up their attacking efforts after the break, as well as beginning to play with a little more intent.

Mitrovic missed a difficult chance when Cheick Tiote hooked the ball over Villa's back line and the striker's volley cleared the bar as well as the goalkeeper, at which the home crowd enthusiastically took up a chant of "You're going down with the Villa". That refrain was repeated as news filtered through of Sunderland's fightback against Chelsea, the altered scoreline making a Newcastle win imperative.

Play had to be held up 15 minutes from the end while the pitch was cleared of a fresh infestation of plastic inflatables. Benitez, who has seen enough of beachballs to last a lifetime, did not look impressed. He looked even less impressed after six minutes of stoppage-time ended with a free-kick chance for Townsend. Last week against Palace, a wonder strike won Newcastle the points. This week, the ball went straight to the goalkeeper.

Hi ho, as they say in these parts. The survival story seems to have moved elsewhere.

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