Miles Starforth’s match analysis: Newcastle look unbreakable even if they lose players

Rafa Benitez congratulates Dwight Gayle

Rafa Benitez congratulates Dwight Gayle

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And then there were two?

Can any other Championship team keep up with Newcastle United and Brighton and Hove Albion this season?

It doesn’t look like anyone will keep pace with the division’s leading two sides.

Remember Norwich City? Remember when they were leading the Championship?

Not now. They are 13 points behind United.

And what about Huddersfield Town? They are 10 points adrift of Rafa Benitez’s league leaders.

Birmingham's Ryan Shotton battles for the ball with Jamaal Lascelles

Birmingham's Ryan Shotton battles for the ball with Jamaal Lascelles

Fifth-placed Leeds United were comprehensively defeated by Newcastle at Elland Road last month, so what about Birmingham City?

Well, they were convincingly, and I mean convincingly, beaten at St James’s Park, where Dwight Gayle left the field clutching the match ball after a memorable hat-trick.

Gary Rowett, Birmingham’s manager, conceded his team had been given a “footballing lesson” on Tyneside.

“I’ve got to be mindful that we’ve been out-played and out-ran against, I think, the best team that’s been in the Championship for some time,” reflected Rowett after Saturday’s 4-0 defeat.

At their best, United are unplayable in this division.

To a man, they were at their best against Birmingham, who had been fifth before a ball was kicked.

The gulf in class between the two sides was startling.

Rowett himself said he had watched a “Premier League team”.

After a couple of tentative visiting attacks, Jonjo Shelvey, controversially dismissed on his previous appearance, took control.

The midfielder – who had had his three-game suspension lifted before the game – demanded the ball, and he got it.

Shelvey, not usually the most mobile of midfield players, ran and ran and ran.

So too did Mohamed Diame, who scored the goal last season which took Hull City into the Premier League.

Diame, up to now, hasn’t been anywhere near his best in a black and white shirt.

But the 29-year-old drove Newcastle on at every opportunity. Birmingham simply couldn’t stop him. He was unstoppable at times.

And it was a powerful run from Diame which led to Gayle’s 18th-minute opening goal. Diame drove to the byline and cross for Gayle, who was waiting at the far post.

United didn’t look back.

For their second, Diame took the ball off a hesitating Che Adams.

Seconds later, Gayle put it in the back of the net. Again.

Birmingham’s 3,000-strong support, so noisy at kick-off time, were soon silent.

Newcastle played with power, pace and purpose, and Karl Darlow didn’t have a save to make until the second half.

Tomasz Kuszczak, by contrast, had a lot to do in the Birmingham goal, and Yoan Gouffran’s fifth goal of the season, scored early in the second half, ended the game as a contest.

And Gayle completed a memorable hat-trick 13 minutes from time after Shelvey pulled the ball back to him.

Gayle, Shelvey and Diame all caught the eye, but what about Isaac Hayden? Or Vurnon Anita? Or Ciaran Clark.

They were all strong and assured.

Birmingham gave United space, and Benitez’s players used that space. They played with intelligence and intensity.

The win ended a run of three successive league and cup defeats.

It had been a difficult six days. But Newcastle made it look easy against Birmingham.

There will be more downs as well as ups this season. That’s a given. This is a tough division.

It’s relentless, and United will be tested in different ways by Wigan Athletic and Burton Albion this week.

But can any team mount a sustained challenge to them and Brighton, who had beaten Leeds at the Amex Stadium on Friday night to briefly take top spot.

But the gap between Newcastle – who lead Chris Hughton’s side by a point ahead of Wednesday night’s visit to the DW Stadium – and the team in third place is arguably more significant.

Reading, beaten 4-1 at St James’s Park early this season, are six points behind United.

United, above all else, need to mind that gap.

Benitez is also mindful that he is likely to lose four players, including Diame, to the African Cup of Nations next month.

Shelvey, so influential this season, also has a Football Association charge hanging over him.

If found guilty of using racially-aggravated language towards a Wolverhampton Wanderers player in September, he could be banned for five or more games.

But if any team in the division can cope with losing Shelvey and others, it’s Newcastle, who have strength in depth.

There’s also money to spend next month if the right players become available.

United is a club that players will want to join.

Speaking ahead of the Birmingham game, Benitez said he had a clear idea of where he wants to strengthen in the January transfer window.

But where are the weak links? In defence? In midfield? Or up front?

Newcastle look well-equipped in all departments.

Every link in the chain was strong against Birmingham.

United look unbreakable this season.