Miles Starforth's match analysis: Newcastle United 1 Fulham 3
Newcastle United were running on empty against Fulham.
Maybe that was no surprise after three tough away games, but it was worrying all the same.
The players, of course, didn’t drive the 1,500 long miles to Brighton and Hove Albion, Huddersfield Town and Reading themselves.
They flew to two of those matches.
But the hard yards they covered on the field in those three games caught up with them at St James’s Park on Saturday, when Rafa Benitez had an unhappy anniversary at the club.
The Championship leaders looked tired and jaded.
They were beaten 3-1, but the scoreline could have been worse, much worse.
They lacked ideas and imagination and couldn’t match the visitors’ energy and enthusiasm.
Will Newcastle’s failure to strengthen in January’s transfer window come back to haunt them?
One player that the club looked at was Tom Cairney.
It wasn’t hard to see why Benitez had been interested in Cairney, who opened scored the first of Fulham’s three goals.
Scott Malone strolled inside and rolled the ball to the midfielder 15 minutes into a game which, up to then, had looked to be evenly-balanced.
Three touches later the ball was in the back of the net.
United’s players didn’t get close to Cairney, reportedly the subject of a £5million bid from the club in the transfer window.
Alan Shearer labelled Cairney and 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon – who scored twice in the second half – “brilliant” after the game.
Cairney was brilliant. So too were Fulham.
On this evidence, it wasn’t hard to see why they weren’t willing to part with the 26-year-old.
Jonjo Shelvey, by contrast, was awful.
We haven’t seen Shelvey and Dwight Gayle in the same team too often in the last few months because of injury and suspension.
Shelvey has been adept at finding Gayle with a telling pass this season, but the game looked a slog for him and the Championship’s most feared striker saw little of the ball.
And Shelvey, such an influence on the pitch in the first half of the season, was ill-disciplined in the second half.
The 25-year-old was lucky to get off with a warning from referee James Linington after following two reckless challenges with a kick out at an opponent.
The England international was booked late in the game.
Fortunately, Matt Ritchie and Jack Colback stayed out of Linington’s notebook and the pair have now had the threat of an automatic two-game ban lifted.
With Isaac Hayden recovering from ankle surgery, Benitez, short of options in central midfield, hasn’t been able to rest Shelvey or Colback in recent weeks.
The pair, clearly, need a rest.
United – who had come from behind to draw 2-2 with Bristol City on their last home appearance – were no better after the break.
Paul Dummett only cleared a left-wing cross as far as Sone Aluko, whose backheel found 16-year-old Sessegnon.
Sessegnon swept the ball home to give Fulham a commanding two-goal lead.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s side, unfortunately, weren’t finished with their hosts.
Aluko broke down the middle in the 59th minute and played the ball for Sessegnon, who beat goalkeeper Karl Darlow at his near post.
Substitute Daryl Murphy gave United some hope with a fine 74th-minute goal, but the team’s brief rally came to nothing, and the scoreline would have been even greater had Tim Ream not missed a late penalty conceded by Dummett.
Ream should have left Sessegnon, on a hat-trick, take the spot kick.
The half also saw defender Ciaran Clark, the club’s most consistent defender this season, limp off with a knee problem.
There were some boos at the final whistle when Linington called time on another disappointing afternoon at St James’s Park, which was again sold out.
Benitez touched upon his team’s shortcomings at both ends of the pitch after the game.
“We said before that if we want to stay at the top of the table, then we have to manage these games better,” said Benitez after the game.
“We have to be sure that we do not make mistakes.
“If you are playing against a good team, and you cannot create too much, then at least make sure that you are strong enough defensively, and then you will not allow them to create or play on the counter-attack.
“That was the key in the second half.”
Saturday’s game against Birmingham City at St Andrew’s is followed by a two-week break.
And the international break can’t come soon enough for Newcastle, who lead Brighton by goal difference and are just six points ahead of third-placed Huddersfield.
David Wagner’s side also have a game in hand over United.
Benitez pointed out after the previous weekend’s win over Huddersfield that “everything can change in a week”.
It can. We saw that at the weekend.
What we now need is a positive change over the coming week.