Analysis: Newcastle fight gives more hope of survival
Same old, same old?
Another Newcastle United away game ended in another defeat.
But this 1-0 loss was different. At least it felt different.
There was some life in a side which has been lifeless for months.
Newcastle and the King Power Stadium have history.
There was last season’s abject FA Cup defeat.
And that was followed by a far more abject, and damaging, 3-0 Premier League defeat in May.
Before Rafa Benitez’s appointment, there were predictions of an even more embarrassing scoreline given that the team had lost its last six away league matches under sacked head coach Steve McClaren.
But United had more about them.
They were more organised, more disciplined. They ran harder, tackled harder.
And they worked for each other.
Had Newcastle been able to finish – a problem which has beset the team all season – then it might have been different.
They were also wasteful in possession at times, but United gave the Premier League leaders an uncomfortable 90 minutes.
For all the talk about Benitez’s first starting XI, there were just two changes, one of them enforced.
Midfielder Vurnon Anita replaced injured defender Paul Dummett, and Jack Colback slotted into the back four.
And striker Aleksandar Mitrovic replaced Emmanuel Riviere up front.
Benitez also kept faith with Moussa Sissoko, whose form, especially away from home, has been a factor in the team’s dismal campaign.
The midfielder had also been booed off the pitch when he was substituted in the club’s 3-1 defeat to Bournemouth earlier this month.
If a week’s a long time in politics, then nine days is an eternity in football.
Since that fateful afternoon at St James’s Park the mood on Tyneside had been lightened by the departure of McClaren and the arrival of Benitez.
The club’s 1,334 fans travelled down to the Midlands in hope and expectation on a warm afternoon, but there was a chill in the air by kick-off time at the King Power Stadium.
A suited Benitez, however, opted against wearing an overcoat.
And the 55-year-old went on to stand on the edge of his technical area for the entire 90 minutes.
United looked energised in the opening minutes.
Sissoko, so often lifeless under McClaren, was lively.
Benitez had felt his team could exploit Leicester’s defensive weaknesses, a feat few sides have managed this season given how difficult it can be to get the ball off Claudio Ranieri’s players.
And Newcastle got at their hosts, with Sissoko, unusually on the left side of midfield, and Ayoze Perez playing high up the pitch.
Benitez’s players, so lethargic at times under McClaren, snapped into challenges, won headers and covered the pitch.
Leicester, however, were dangerous themselves down the flanks.
United tried to sit deep and deny Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez space.
As it was, the home side’s 25th-minute winner came from a poorly-defended ball into the box from a half-cleared free-kick, which was eventually dispatched past Rob Elliot by Shinji Okazaki, who finished with an overhead kick.
Newcastle attempted to go again, and Georginio Wijnaldum dinked a lovely ball into the box for Mitrovic.
But Mitrovic, a substitute in McClaren’s last game in charge, was brought down by Sissoko.
Leicester’s defence looked to have a mistake or more in it when put under pressure, but United, like every other team in the division, struggled to stifle them at the other end of the pitch.
Ranieri’s team just ran and ran. They came back at United time and again, but they couldn’t add a second goal before the break.
An unchanged Newcastle kicked off the second half still in the game, but they were quickly put on the back foot.
Benitez made a first change in the 56th minute.
Midfielder Vurnon Anita – who had struggled with the pace of the game – was replaced by fit-again Andros Townsend.
Seconds after the substitution, Perez played in Sissoko, but he inexplicably opted to lay the ball off rather than shoot.
Leicester’s fans became edgy at the hour-mark, and Benitez made a second change in the 71st minute, with Siem de Jong replacing Perez, who had ran himself into the ground.
Benitez, presumably, felt de Jong could bring a bit of composure to an attack which had snatched at the few opportunities it had created.
Sissoko had a good volley blocked by Robert Huth before Benitez sent on Seydou Doumbia for a late run-out.
Doumbia didn’t get a chance on goal, and United suffered what was an eighth away defeat in all competitions.
But they went down fighting.
And if there’s one quality, above all else, that Newcastle will need between now and the end of the season, it’s fight.