Miles Starforth’s match analysis: Burton Albion 1 Newcastle United 2

Mohamed Diame, centre
Mohamed Diame, centre

Burton Albion away.

This was the one.

This was supposed to be the fixture that defined Newcastle United’s return to the Championship – for all the wrong reasons.

Rafa Benitez was going from the Bernabeu with Real Madrid to Burton with Newcastle.

The unlikely fixture – labelled “the biggest mismatch in a league game in the country” by Nigel Clough – even made headlines in Benitez’s native Spain.

It was meant to be a humiliating for Benitez – and United.

Christian Atsu, left

Christian Atsu, left

It was the fixture that was used elsewhere to mock the club in the wake of its relegation from the Premier League.

The only surprise was that United’s visit to the Pirelli Stadium wasn’t chosen for live broadcast so the rest of the country could enjoy the club’s discomfort at the tight, 6,912-capacity stadium.

Yet this wasn’t a humiliation for a proud club.

And for the 1,600 or so travelling fans, it’ll go down as one of the more memorable away trips of an already-memorable season in English football’s second tier.

It was the fixture that was used elsewhere to mock the club in the wake of its relegation from the Premier League. Yet this wasn’t a humiliation for a proud club.

For one, they had a rare chance to stand on a terrace and watch their team. That was a treat in itself.

On the pitch, it was tough. Very tough.

Newcastle – who won 2-1 thanks to goals from Dwight Gayle and Mohamed Diame – had to fight for everything against Burton, a physical, committed and spirited team.

United were far from their best, but they competed physically and, like so many times away from home this season, their quality in the final third saw them claim the three points.

For long spells, Burton were the better team.

As against Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium three days earlier, Newcastle creaked and groaned under pressure.

But they didn’t give.

United, under Benitez’s instruction, played a direct and counter-attacking game on a pitch not suited to passing football.

Jonjo Shelvey, playing his last game before a Football Association hearing into a misconduct charge, released Christian Atsu with one early ball forward.

Burton goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin was able to get off his line quick enough to gather the ball.

Atsu, recalled to the starting XI, should have done better with the opportunity.

Shelvey sent Matt Ritchie away down the left flank in the 15th minute.

Ritchie accelerated and superbly beat his man and found Gayle at the near post.

Gayle’s flicked finish was audacious and accurate. It was his 17th goal of the season.

There could be 17 more to come in the second half of the campaign.

Ritchie revealed after the game that the goal had come from the training ground, where they had been working on getting Gayle chances at the near post.

Burton, however, were soon level.

Newcastle didn’t deal with a low, right-wing cross and the unmarked Lloyd Dyer was able to beat the exposed Karl Darlow in the visiting goal.

United hit back shortly after an important clearance from Paul Dummett.

Diame – who had netted against his former club in midweek – rolled Damien McCrory and tucked the ball past McLaughlin in the 34th minute.

Chances came and went for Burton after the break.

Newcastle scrapped, chased and harried, but Nigel Clough’s side had more of the ball.

But like so many of United’s opponents, they couldn’t do the hardest part and put it in the back of the net.

Benitez’s side survived an edgy final period, and an edgier four minutes of injury time, to record a third successive Championship victory.

In a nice touch from Burton, the club’s exhausted players left the field to “Going Home”, the Mark Knopfler song played which is played at St James’s Park when the teams leave the tunnel.

Later in the day, second-placed Brighton and Hove Albion came from behind to beat Birmingham City 2-1 at St Andrew’s thanks to an injury-time goal from Glenn Murray.

The victory narrowed the gap to one point.

Speaking in the Pirelli Stadium’s cramped media room after the game, Clough said his team had “deserved at least a point”.

He was right, but the hardest thing in football is scoring goals, and Benitez has players, like Gayle and Diame, who make that job look easy and effortless at times.

Clough labelled Newcastle and Chris Hughton’s Brighton as the division’s “two outstanding teams”.

It’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Other teams have come and gone this season – like Huddersfield Town and Norwich City – but only the top two have had any consistency in the first half of the campaign.

Benitez disputed Clough’s assessment and talked of the threat from Huddersfield, Leeds United, Derby County and third-placed Reading as well as April’s seven games.

The Championship race could well be decided in April.

Certainly, United, or Brighton for that matter, are not going to secure promotion any time soon.

But, right now, the league table doesn’t lie.