Miles Starforth’s match analysis: Newcastle United 0 Sheffield Wednesday 1

Glenn Loovens scores Sheffield Wednesday's winning goal at St James's Park, Newcastle.
Glenn Loovens scores Sheffield Wednesday's winning goal at St James's Park, Newcastle.

Missing you already.

One down, four to go. This could be a long five games.

In the absence of Jonjo Shelvey last night, Newcastle United didn’t have a final ball or a telling pass.

They also lost, with a header from Glenn Loovens giving Sheffield Wednesday a 1-0 Boxing Day win at St James’s Park.

No wonder Rafa Benitez wants to strengthen his midfield options in next month’s transfer window.

The thing is, there aren’t too many players like Shelvey out there.

The build-up to the game had been dominated by the suspension of Shelvey, banned for five games for racially abusing an opponent in September.

And the match itself was all about how United would cope without Shelvey, such an influence on the field in the first half of the season.

Benitez readily admitted ahead of the fixture that he didn’t have another player remotely like Shelvey.

There was no like-for-like replacement available to Benitez.

Newcastle’s manager even talked about changing system and formation to compensate for the loss of Shelvey, but the team that took to the field had a familiar look about it.

Benitez opted to recall fit-again Jack Colback, who had been sidelined since the February 20 win over Leeds United with a vision problem.

Colback was outstanding at Elland Road that day, but few players possess the footballing vision, and range of passing, of Shelvey.

Benitez also chose not to wear a coat on a bitter Tyneside night.

Wednesday’s 3,100-strong may have travelled to St James’s Park more in hope than expectation, but they still loudly backed their club on its first visit to the stadium for a league game in more than seven years.

They were louder still at the final whistle, having seen their team deservedly take all three points.

The game, played under the lights for live broadcast, felt like a proper Boxing Day fixture.

It was also watched by a 52,179 crowd, the third-biggest of the day in English football.

United’s first chance, typically, fell to Dwight Gayle, who was played in by Mohamed Diame in the 12th minute.

Gayle’s shot was palmed on to the crossbar by Keiren Westwood.

Ciaran Clark should have done better minutes later from a Matt Ritchie corner.

The defender didn’t hit the target with his header, and Newcastle were indebted to Karl Darlow at the other end of the pitch midway through the half.

Darlow, outstanding since his recall to the starting XI in late September, tipped a fierce shot from former Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher over the bar and reacted well to clear a scramble from the resulting corner.

As the half wore on, Wednesday seemed to take an increasingly robust approach to stopping and unsettling United.

It was an approach which repeatedly had an incensed Benitez off his bench.

Barry Bannon was booked for a foul on Gayle, but referee Paul Tierney, booed off at the break, chose not to punish subsequent tackles from a number of players with more yellow cards.

Gayle also felt he should have had a penalty after being wrestled to the ground.

The first half didn’t just lack a couple more yellow cards, it also lacked a final pass from Newcastle in the absence of Shelvey.

Darlow made a superb save to deny Fletcher early in the second half, but he couldn’t keep out Loovens’ 52nd-minute header. Wednesday scored from a corner at the second attempt, with Fernando Forestieri having put the ball across the face of goal for Loovens.

Carlos Carvalhal’s side were dominant, though Yoan Gouffran, recalled to the starting XI in place of Christian Atsu, put one headed chance wide of Westwood’s goal.

Gouffran was replaced by Atsu just past the hour-mark as Benitez looked to re-energise a flagging team.

Ayoze Perez followed Atsu on to the pitch – he replaced the largely ineffective Diame in the 69th minute – as Benitez opted against throwing on Aleksandar Mitrovic up front.

Wednesday, a danger on the counter-attack, defended robustly, and Westwood was able to tip over a shot from Atsu, who had cut inside from the right.

Mitrovic – who had memorably helped Newcastle come from behind against Norwich City in September – finally made it on to the pitch in the 80th minute.

The striker replaced Colback, and soon after his introduction he was narrowly off target with a powerful header.

Wednesday slowed the game down in the final minutes and survived six minutes of added time.

And the result slowed United’s progress towards the Premier League.

Newcastle must learn to win without Shelvey. And quickly.