Wednesday night ended Newcastle United 0 Manchester United 2.
Newcastle more or less holding their own in the first half and getting in a few decent positions but not quite able to exploit a fragile visiting defence.
Then ironically the most reliable of the home players, Martin Dubravka ended up gifting the vital first goal.
The Editor asked me beforehand to write about 3 positives and 3 negatives from the game, so here goes…
Despite his rash tackle on Paul Pogba showing that his petulant streak unfortunately remains undiminished, there’s no denying that Jonjo Shelvey’s introduction brought about a vast improvement in Newcastle’s forward play.
Tepid and unimaginative in attack for the first half, Newcastle were a different animal with Shelvey on the field. Happy to get on the ball, look for a pass and at least try to make things happen, the former Swansea man’s vision and speed of thought gave us a new dimension in attack.
While some of his more ambitious passes went astray and we ultimately couldn’t make the breakthrough, Shelvey’s cameo was a timely reminder of what he’s capable of and, while his temperament remains suspect, there can be no doubt that we look a more threatening and creative team when he’s playing.
With Ki now away on international duty, Pérez continuing to flounder and Kenedy looking badly out of sorts, flair and creativity are in worryingly short supply and we’ve never needed an in-form Shelvey as badly as we do now. Here’s hoping he can step up to the plate.
Never a first team regular since joining the club, Christian Atsu has recently found himself thrust into the limelight, starting 6 of our last 7 games and he was probably our best player last night.
Always a willing runner, the Ghanaian winger found himself in the thick of the action over and over again as he broke from deep and looked to link up with Rondón in attack – managing a team high of five shots himself as well as attempting numerous crosses into the danger area. He was also unlucky not to be awarded a penalty on the hour mark when he was bundled over in the area at the Gallowgate End.
Often seen by fans as a bit of a passenger and not good enough to be relied on as a regular starter, it is to his credit that he hasn’t let his head drop and continues to give his all when Rafa picks him.
In a team just waiting for someone to take them by the scruff of the neck, it’s heartening to see that Atsu isn’t shirking his responsibilities and is at least trying to make things happen for us in attack – which is more than can be said for others in the side.
Hope Springs Eternal
While disputes and discussions about boycotts rage on amongst the fanbase, that Newcastle sold out a televised game just after Christmas shows that, rightly or wrongly, the devotion of the fans remains undiminished.
Attendances are slightly down on past seasons but still hover around the 49K mark and the full 52K crammed into St James’ Park last night despite Newcastle having as much chance of winning, as a teetotaller has of going to Magaluf on holidays.
Football really and truly is a religion, a way of life and an all-encompassing passion on Tyneside and, while things are currently looking bleak and in danger of getting a whole lot worse, the silver lining of the Mike Ashley cloud is that, try as he might, he still hasn’t killed our spirits. Not fully. Not yet.
Time may be rapidly running out but with a new year comes new hope and optimism. As Kevin Keegan said: “One day you will get your club back and it will be everything you wanted it to be.”
Coming soon on Netflix…
Newcastle rarely looked like scoring, never looked like winning and slipped to yet another inevitable defeat to leave themselves perilously close to the drop zone. The fans are depressed and despondent, filling St James’ Park in blind hope rather than expectation. Rafa looks a beaten man, unwilling to talk about transfers or takeovers. God only knows what the players themselves are thinking, having been told that it will take a ‘miracle’ for them to stave off relegation once again.
The only genuinely surprising thing about the club is that there hasn’t yet been a catastrophic implosion and that there is still, somehow, some semblance of unity and stability despite being at war with itself. With Rafa’s contract up in the summer and much-needed investment extremely unlikely to be forthcoming in this transfer window, things are sure to come to a head sooner rather than later.
If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour and watch ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ on Netflix, then cross your fingers and hope that the same fate doesn’t befall us.
Lack of finishing prowess
On a night when Man Utd were able to introduce Alexis Sánchez, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard from the bench, Newcastle needed to be at the top of their game if they harboured any hopes of coming away with a point or three.
As usual, the team shape looked good and they worked hard at keeping Man Utd at bay – only an unfortunate mistake from Dubravka presenting Lukaku with an easy tap-in. More worryingly, it was in attack where the team continued to show their toothlessness and poverty of resources.
Christian Atsu was lively all night and offered our biggest threat in attack but, while he found himself in good positions on numerous occasions, he fluffed his lines and his lack of finishing prowess ended up costing us dearly.
Similarly, while Salomón Rondón put in his usual shift up front, he was slow to react and failed to make the most of a couple of half-chances that fell his way. Then there was Ayoze Pérez. Words fail me. Another half-hearted, half-assed performance from the Spaniard who continues to regress yet somehow still finds himself in the starting XI each week.
The flurry of fixtures during the festive season always takes its toll but it has hit Newcastle particularly hard this season.
Already weakened by Ki Sung-yeung’s untimely call-up for South Korea and injuries to Ciaran Clark and Federico Fernández, Newcastle suffered further misfortune when Mo Diame limped off just after half-time having suffered a recurrence of an old hip injury and then ostensibly finished the game with 10 men – a heavily-limping DeAndre Yedlin only staying on the field to make up numbers with all three substitutes having been used up. Indeed, only lenient refereeing prevented total catastrophe as either Lascelles and Shelvey could easily have been sent off too.
Yoshinori Muto now leaves to join up with Japan for the Asian Cup, leaving Rafa Benítez with a seriously depleted playing pool to choose from.
Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Blackburn offers fringe players a chance to stake a claim for a starting berth in the upcoming league games but for every first teamer that’s rested, the likelihood of us making our nearly-customary Third Round cup exit increases dramatically.
Benítez is sure to err on the side of caution but, regardless of the result or who takes to the field, the Spaniard will be hoping that they at least manage to come through the tie unscathed.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle United 0 Manchester United 2
Goals: Lukaku 64, Rashford 80
Possession was Man Utd 65% Newcastle 35%
Total shots were Man Utd 16 Newcastle 14
Shots on target were Man Utd 7 Newcastle 3
Corners were Man Utd 2 Newcastle United 1
Referee: Andre Marriner
Dubravka, Yedlin, Schar (Muto 81), Lascelles, Dummett, Ritchie, Hayden, Diame (Shelvey 53), Perez (Kenedy 69), Atsu, Rondon
Woodman, Joselu, Manquillo, Lejeune
Crowd: 52,217 (3,000 Man Utd)
(Instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to Newcastle United 0 Man Utd 2 – Read HERE)
(Alan Shearer talks about Rafa Benitez’ ‘Unbelievable Budget’ now we are in January transfer window – Read HERE)
(An impressive Jake Burns rant at Mike Ashley in aftermath of Man Utd defeat – Read HERE)
(Rafa Benitez ‘update’: “I don’t talk about the transfer window and I don’t talk about the takeover” – Read HERE)