Newcastle suffered a double blow at the London Stadium

A game too far? It looked that way, though Rafa Benitez was having none it.

Monday, 4th March 2019, 11:35 am
Updated Monday, 4th March 2019, 11:38 am
Florian Lejeune, left, and Manuel Lanzini battle for the ball.

No excuses, insisted Benitez after watching his Newcastle United’s 2-0 defeat at the London Stadium.

West Ham United were the better team for much of Saturday’s game. They were quicker, sharper – and first to everything.

Benitez’s side, pedestrian compared to their hosts, were second-best for 45 minutes.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Yes, Newcastle, better after the break, rallied – Salomon Rondon led a late charge – but the game was all but gone by then. The damage had been done.

Newcastle lost Sean Longstaff as well as three points. The midfielder, wearing a knee brace, left the stadium on crutches after suffering an injury.

That was a blow to Benitez. And the bad news kept on coming for fans, who learnt hours later that owner Mike Ashley was “no longer looking to sell” the club, though, it seems, nothing much has changed.

Ashley will still listen to offers, but football club, like a house, is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. And none of the would-be buyers that have emerged over the past 17 months have come close to meeting Ashley’s fluctuating valuations of the club he bought more than 11 years ago.

Where does it all leave Newcastle? And Benitez?

Benitez, out of contract in the summer, said he was in no hurry to discuss his future ahead of the West Ham game.

Instead, he insisted he was in a hurry to collect the points he feels the club needs to secure Premier League football. Newcastle, however, left the London Stadium without any points.

Steve Holland, Gareth Southgate’s assistant at England, was at the London Stadium to watch Longstaff and Declan Rice among others.

The pair have been getting headlines in recent weeks, but this wasn’t going to be Longstaff’s day.

It was to be a memorable evening for Rice, who opened the scoring with a header and won praise for his performance in midfield.

Longstaff has come a long way in a short space of time – and his chance at international level will undoubtedly come.

Rice broke and play and got West Ham moving forward. Manuel Lanzini buzzed around the pitch, and Newcastle just couldn’t keep up with them. They looked leggy and lethargic.

Defenders Fabian Schar and Florian Lejeune have been superb in recent weeks, but errors from the pair gifted the home side their two first-half goals. Schar lost Rice for a Robert Snodgrass corner in the seventh minute, and the 20-year-old headed past Martin Dubravka.

Lejeune dived in and brought Javier Hernandez down late in the half. Mark Noble West Ham’s captain, converted the resulting, penalty.

Benitez replaced the injured Longstaff with Mohamed Diame, once a West Ham player, at the break, and Newcastle were better in the second half.

Benitez also switched to a back four later in the half after bringing on Paul Dummett.

Newcastle, however, couldn’t convert their late chances, and that was that.

For once, the home form of the club, which has won its last four games at St James’s Park, is better than that away from Tyneside, and Benitez wants Newcastle to be harder to beat in their remaining five away games.

“I think we will be strong again in our games away, but we have to start with more focus and more concentration,” said Benitez.

“So I think we have to do what we did in a lot games away earlier in the season when it was very difficult for teams to break us down.”

Newcastle now have a full week to prepare for Everton’s visit to St James’s Park – and there really will be no excuses on Saturday.