Analysis: Birmingham draw reiterated Newcastle's resilience and strength '“ now they must finish the job
Gianfranco Zola wanted some divine intervention.
In the end, Birmingham City got a little bit of help from the officials at St Andrew’s.
Zola wrote in his programme notes that his team would play a “strong game” – and the rest would depend on the “football Gods”.
Newcastle United left St Andrew’s disappointed only to have taken a point.
They’d had what they felt was a perfectly good first half from Matt Ritchie disallowed.
And Birmingham were indebted to Tomasz Kuszczak for the second-half saves which denied Ritchie and Daryl Murphy.
“People are expecting that we can win every away game, and I thought we deserved to win but we couldn’t do it,” said Rafa Benitez.
“It’s one more point, though, and one less game.”
Defeats for Brighton and Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town ensured it was still a positive weekend for United, who lead the Championship by a point.
Benitez’s side are also seven points ahead of Huddersfield, though David Wagner’s side, beaten by Bristol City on Friday night, have a game in hand.
Points, however, mean prizes.
And Newcastle, with a superior goal difference, lead the way going into the international break.
Benitez had had to shuffle his pack for the Birmingham game.
Jonjo Shelvey – who had had a fever on the eve of the match – was left on the bench along with Dwight Gayle, who is still short of fitness and sharpness after his recent lay-off.
Benitez also recalled Grant Hanley with Ciaran Clark sidelined through injury.
United started brightly, but City created chances of their own, and Paul Dummett and Yoan Gouffran made quick-fire blocks to keep them at bay.
Then came the game’s moment of controversy.
Ritchie reacted first after Kuszczak stopped a shot from Ayoze Perez in the 40th minute, but the goal was ruled out by referee Simon Hooper for offside.
Hooper’s assistant, however, took his time raising his flag, and Ritchie was adamant that he had been level.
Benitez was equally convinced after reviewing replays after the match in the corridor outside the dressing room beneath the Railway End at St Andrew’s.
Newcastle went on to domainte the second half.
Kuszczak did well to stop a header from Murphy and a low shot from Ritchie, which he turned round his post.
Benitez also sent on reinforcements from what could well have been the Championship’s most expensive benches.
On came Gayle, Shelvey and Christian Atsu, but a goal wouldn’t come.
Kuszczak did well to stop Gayle getting his head on one chance. Shelvey, however, wasn’t able to play a telling through ball for Gayle against a retreating side.
The pitch didn’t help either.
But United aren’t going to get help from anyone or anything this season.
They’ve got to do it themselves, and they did more than enough to take what could prove to be an important point.
And they should be better for the two-week break.
Benitez has Isaac Hayden to come back from injury, while others, including Shelvey, Gayle and Jack Colback, will benefit from a fortnight without a game.
Newcastle are where they want to be with just eight games left to play.
They might be further ahead had officiating been better this season, but they can’t influence decisions.
What they can do is apply themselves on the field, and they did that on an awkward afternoon in the second city.
It wasn’t a good game of football, but this division isn’t for the purists.
The match did, however, underline United’s resilience and strength.
They matched Birmingham physically and created the game’s best chances.
And a questionable decision was the difference between what would have been a record 14th away win and a draw.
The players had followed Huddersfield’s game from the team hotel the night before.
There were cheers for the home side’s goals at Ashton Gate.
And Benitez’s players were cheered off the pitch at St Andrew’s, the scene of a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup in January, by the club’s 3,229-strong travelling support.
Those fans saw first-half the effort they had put in.
Ritchie, with his hoodie pulled up as wind gusted round an empty stadium, talked about the Championship being an “unforgiving” league before he boarded the team bus to the airport after the game.
It is as unforgiving as any league in world football.
And a point is a point.
Newcastle, on 78 points, need a few more to secure promotion.
Crucially, Brighton and Huddersfield need more than them.
But the recent home defeat to Fulham underlined that United, with five games left to play at St James’s Park, can take nothing for granted in this division.
Those home games are all-important for Newcastle, whose away form has put them where they are this season.
The double-header against Wigan Athletic and Burton Albion is a huge opportunity for Benitez and his players.