Miles Starforth’s analysis: Not enough character or quality as it looks all over for Newcastle

Newcastle stand-in captain Jonjo Shelvey, who refused to speak to the media, hides his face at the end of the game
Newcastle stand-in captain Jonjo Shelvey, who refused to speak to the media, hides his face at the end of the game
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It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

But it looks all but over for Newcastle United after Saturday’s 3-2 defeat to Norwich City.

If Rafa Benitez can somehow keep the club in the Premier League, the achievement would surely better anything that he has previously achieved in his career.

Benitez’s side are six points adrift of safety with seven games left to play.

Four or five wins might do it.

But the club has won just six league matches all season and has lost its last nine away matches in all competitions.

Martin Olsson celebrates his winner

Martin Olsson celebrates his winner

It’s hard to find anyone on Tyneside who thinks United can do it.

Do the players still have any belief?

Whatever anyone else thinks, if Benitez’s team still believe, then maybe Newcastle have a chance, albeit a very slim one, of staying in the Premier League.

There was a weariness about Benitez when he spoke to the media at Carrow Road. The club’s predicament is worse, much worse, than when he walked through the doors at St James’s Park last month.

That’s no fault of his

The match had been labelled a “must-win game”, but in reality it was a must-not-lose fixture.

Yet they did. Worse still, Martin Olsson’s winner game in the third minute of added time.

All the team had to do was see the game out.

The Premier League is an unforgiving division, and the defending for Olsson’s late, late goal was unforgivable.

Moments earlier, John Ruddy had kept out a header from Papiss Cisse at the other end of the pitch. Had that gone in, then things would look very different today.

Both teams would have been level on points.

But six points, for a team which has won just six games all season, looks an unbridgeable gap at this stage of the campaign.

It was again a game of two halves at Carrow Road.

As against Sunderland, Newcastle were second-best before the break.

Steven Naismith was given too much space between United’s lines, and time and again striker Dieumerci Mbokani got into dangerous positions.

Makeshift left-back Vurnon Anita, given no protection by Moussa Sissoko in front of him, was targeted by Norwich, who scored in first-half added time from a needless free-kick.

Timm Klose met Robbie Brady’s delivery with his head to put them in the lead.

At the other end of the pitch, Georginio Wijnaldum, playing behind Cisse, had been an anonymous figure.

United were better after the break.

Ayoze Perez, on for Cheick Tiote, energised Newcastle.

And Benitez’s second substitution led to a comeback.

Aleksandar Mitrovic had furiously warmed up for long spells in the first half. The striker was clearly desperate to get on to the field, and he finally made it on to the pitch in the 62nd minute.

On for Anita, he made a quick impact.

Minutes after Cisse had somehow shot wide after Ruddy parried an shot into his path, he looped a header an Andros Townsend cross beyond Ruddy.

Norwich, however, were back in front a couple of minutes later.

Mbokani took the ball in space on the left and ran into more space before driving a fierce right-footed shot past Darlow.

United were given a lifeline four minutes from time.

Gary O’Neil handled the ball in the box and Mitrovic scored the resulting penalty.

Cisse almost won it for Newcastle – who pressed for an unlikely winner – before Olsson’s late intervention, his strike rolling through Steven Taylor’s legs and into the far corner.

The goal was cruel, but football is cruel.

And United’s fans know that more than most.

Norwich supporters certainly think its all over. And so too do most Newcastle fans.

There was some gallows humour on the trains back to Tyneside that night.

Supporters sang “we’re going down with the Villa”, and the only question now in many fans’ minds is whether Sunderland or Norwich will be joining them in the Championship.

United have spent the best part of £100million in the past two transfer windows, but even that huge sum was too little, too late.

And the mismanagement of the past few years has left the club on the brink of a second relegation inside seven years.

This time, should Newcastle go down, it will be even costlier given that the club will miss out on the Premier League’s huge new TV deal.

After the game, it was left to Benitez, Townsend and Karl Darlow to attempt to explain what had happened.

Stand-in captain Jonjo Shelvey, yet again, refused to speak to journalists after the game.

Those that wear the skipper’s armband are expected to say what needs to be said on AND off the pitch.

Alan Shearer always did. So too Kevin Nolan.

At least Darlow and Townsend, two of the club’s better performers at Carrow Road, had the character to front up.

United will need character in the final seven games of the season if the club is to have any chance of staying up.

While the dressing room has ability, does it have enough of that quality? Not on this evidence.

If it’s not over for Newcastle now, it could well be soon.