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Ritchie strikes to force replay for weakened Newcastle

Newcastle United 1 Blackburn Rovers 1

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Newcastle United's Matt Ritchie scores from the penalty spot. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters

Newcastle United's Matt Ritchie scores from the penalty spot. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters

Action Images via Reuters

Newcastle United's Matt Ritchie scores from the penalty spot. Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters

It is no secret that Rafael Benítez is infinitely more concerned with avoiding relegation from the Premier League than winning the FA Cup but the Newcastle manager's decision to field a weakened team arguably ended up backfiring.

The resultant draw leaves Benítez contemplating a draining midweek replay at Ewood Park, where Tony Mowbray's intelligent Championship players will be anxious to finish off a tie they very nearly won here.

Only a late penalty from Matt Ritchie rescued Newcastle, who have not progressed beyond the fourth round since 2006, after the excellent Bradley Dack had given Blackburn a deserved lead.

Mowbray made his professional playing debut as an 18-year-old Middlesbrough centre-half at St James' Park in 1982. Considering he was marking Kevin Keegan and the game finished 1-1, it went pretty well. The best part of four decades later, Blackburn's manager sent a strong side to the north-east to take on a heavily refreshed Newcastle side, and they pined their hosts back inside their own half for much of the game.

Where the home side did look decent was using the space created by Blackburn's pressing tactics when breaking fast on the counter-attack. The best of these forays saw Fabian Schär direct a long ball forward for Ritchie to control before stretching David Raya with a low shot. The goalkeeper could only parry it into the path of Joselu, whose close-range follow-up was deflected to safety by Elliot Bennett.

From the corner, centre-back Florian Lejeune - making his comeback following a quick recovery from a ruptured cruciate ligament suffered last July - headed wide and Blackburn breathed again.

They might have celebrated when, on the stroke of half-time, Charlie Mulgrew's in-swinging corner deceived the Newcastle defence but Dack could not quite make the necessary contact to force it over the line. It represented a reprieve for the home side, who needed to be mindful of Mulgrew's impressive dead-ball execution.

A crowd of 36,440 - low for a ground where 52,000 sell-outs are commonplace - confirmed that Newcastle's recently woeful record in the competition has succeeded in lowering any FA Cup fever lingering on Gallowgate.

If the mood of indifference felt almost as cold as the January evening chill, it had not permeated Dack's or Mowbray's mentality. Given that Dack had been the most creative player on view it seemed appropriate he headed Blackburn into the lead, meeting Bennett's superb cross.

Benítez may have more pressing priorities than reaching the fourth round but he is acutely aware his side have won only twice at home all season and, anxious to avoid another reverse, he immediately liberated Jonjo Shelvey from the bench.

Before Shelvey had time to find his passing range, though, Newcastle's manager had Javier Manquillo to thank for somehow clearing Mulgrew's acrobatic strike off the line.

With potentially key individuals, most notably Kenedy and Jacob Murphy, struggling Newcastle were up against it. Although 21-year-old Freddie Woodman, making a rare appearance in goal, did well to palm a capriciously swerving Mulgrew free-kick round a post, Mowbray had his captain and set-piece specialist to thank for clearing a shot off the line at the conclusion of desperate goalmouth scramble.

They seemed to be heading for their seventh third-round exit of the Mike Ashley era but then Ritchie sent Raya the wrong way from 12 yards after Corry Evans had brought substitute Ayoze Perez down in the area.

Observer

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