Newcastle United strolled to a victory over 10 man Town to put daylight between themselves and the increasingly adrift Fulham, setting up a scrap for the final relegation spot they look likely to avoid.
With injuries to Mbenza and Diakhaby stripping Siewert’s squad of pace, his selection was, nevertheless, curious to say the least. Seeing Kongolo on the bench was almost as depressing as the inclusion of the leaden Depoitre. In need of a drastic change in fortune, especially in front of goal, the limited opportunities given to Grant remains baffling – while it would be unfair to burden a lad with scoring the goals which could provide the season with a semblance of respectability, there is little left to lose.
For 20 minutes, Town dominated possession but the familiar strategy of trying to thread rope through the eye of a needle failed to trouble the Geordie defence in any meaningful way. Other than a potentially dangerous cross from Smith, which was cut out comfortably, Town’s laborious approach play was tragically easy to defend against and the home side simply waited for their opportunity to strike.
On 12 minutes, Newcastle beat the high press and produced a move of pace and quality which should have been rewarded with the opening goal. Carving the visitors apart in the space of seconds, impressive debutant Almiron chipped his effort over Lössl but on to the post. Following up, Rondón also hit the post, though a corner was awarded.
The move illustrated the gulf between the sides which was to widen as the game progressed. Pace, movement and understanding stripped the visitors bare and hope was already fading when Tommy Smith decided to perform a reckless, high challenge on Almiron which wiped out the Paraguayan and earned a deserved red card.
Relying on swathes of luck, poor finishing by United and some excellent goalkeeping by Lössl, Town survived a torrid test for the rest of the half but any thoughts of unlikely victory were effectively abandoned following Smith’s aberration. Replacing Puncheon with Hadergjonaj rather signalled Town’s intention to preserve a point – introducing Kongolo to play in a back 3 would have been less conventional and rather more brave but the already flawed selection would have required drastic surgery to change the course of events.
If the first half had, at least, seen Town display a level of resilience, the second was a pitiful capitulation which should have seen the visitors swept away. Again, the form of Lössl prevented a deserved towelling. The Dane could do little about the weak defending which saw Newcastle score twice in the first 7 minutes after the interval which removed any lingering doubts about the final outcome.
With Perez and Ritchie hanging out wide to exploit Town’s numerical disadvantage, Newcastle stretched their opponents effectively and often but it was indecision and passivity in the box which undid them.
First, Rondón pounced on a ball which deflected off Almiron’s knee before Mooy could put in a challenge, then Perez took advantage of defensive hesitancy to sweep home the second.
The contest was over and the only question now was how many the Geordies would rack up against their beleaguered and doomed opponents. Incredibly, the answer was none. Great saves by Lössl and some wayward finishing meant that Town entered the final 15 minutes with a flicker of a hope that if they could somehow contrive to score they may apply some pressure on to the hosts who should have been out of sight.
No chances came as Town played mostly sideways and backwards with the home team content to allow possession in the full knowledge that it carried virtually no threat whatsoever. Turgid progress was easily halted and replacing Depoitre with Mounié changed nothing, just as swapping Bacuna with Billing had little discernible affect.
In the end, a two goal defeat was highly flattering and monumentally depressing. All of the promise shown in the narrow defeat to Arsenal drifted away in to the north eastern air; while the loss of Smith was mitigating, the absence of anything like innovation to try to overcome the disadvantage was inexcusable.
A special mention here for yet another Hadergjonaj dive and die abomination. His embarrassing play acting is becoming seriously annoying and nearly lead to Newcastle taking the lead in the first half. On a more positive note, Bacuna, at least, tried to make things happen before being withdrawn following a knock, but there was little else, bar Lössl’s great saves, to commend a performance so feeble and benighted.
The scale of the challenge facing Jan Siewert is undeniably daunting and he needs to be given time but his selection and tactics yesterday failed to provide any vestige of hope. While the reputation of Pritchard, for example, is growing purely through absence, the new manager has to introduce new faces to a team still incapable of scoring or gaining the points necessary to overhaul Derby’s ignominious record.
Sadly, we won’t be visiting Newcastle again next season – a great city with great people and an exceptional away day. Apart from the 90 minutes we came for.