So near, yet so far for Newcastle United – and Rafa Benitez
So near, yet seemingly so far.
Newcastle United need to get over the Premier League finishing line – and quickly.
The club, having done the hard part in recent months, might just need three more points to secure its top-flight status.
And, for 45 minutes at St James’s Park on Saturday, it looked like Rafa Benitez’s side would get those points from Crystal Palace.
However, chances came and went for Newcastle, who were looking for a sixth successive home league win.
There was Salomon Rondon with a misdirected header, and Matt Ritchie with a shot that was saved at the near post which was saved by Vicente Guaita.
The visiting goalkeeper also stopped another shot from Rondon on the line, while the striker also had a goal chalked off for offside, as did Palace’s James Tomkins.
“We were attacking, but we could have been more clinical, or made better decisions in the final third – but that’s something that we have seen during the whole season,” said Benitez.
Still, they were playing well enough, especially down the left, where Miguel Almiron combined well with Matt Ritchie.
At the break, the worry among fans was that United would come to rue those chances – and that’s exactly what happened.
They attempted to pick up where they left off after the interval, but the injury suffered by Florian Lejeune – who had been off-target with a header early in the half – interrupted them.
Lejeune – who only returned from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in January – went down after challenging Andros Townsend, who was booed on his return to St James’s Park.
The defender’s left leg just gave way, and he was eventually stretchered off to applause from supporters. Paul Dummett replaced him.
It could be a long time before Lejeune, so impressive on his return to the team, is seen again on the pitch. The 27-year-old later left the stadium wearing a knee brace and with the aid of crutches.
Newcastle, at least, have cover in Lejeune’s position, though he will be missed in the club’s remaining five games.
Benitez sent on Jonjo Shelvey, again left out of the starting XI despite the loss of Mohamed Diame to injury, with 14 minutes left on the clock. But Shelvey couldn’t unpick an organised and disciplined Palace team, and the afternoon soon unravelled further.
DeAndre Yedlin clumsily, and needlessly, clipped Wilfried Zaha in the box, and visiting captain Luka Milivojevic beat Martin Dubravka from the penalty spot.
That was to be the only shot Dubravka would face apart from Tomkins’ disallowed effort.
And the spot kick, which was, remarkably, Milivojevic’s 10th this season, gave Palace their first win on Tyneside in 21 years.
“We have to be better in the final third, the final decisions, and in managing the game,” said Benitez.
“We were attacking, but at the same time we have to be aware that they are very dangerous on the counter-attack.
“We were doing this for 80 minutes, but we were not capable of managing the last 15 minutes in the end.”
United remain seven points clear of the relegation zone, though 18th-placed Cardiff City have a game in hand.
Newcastle looked all but safe a month ago after coming from behind to beat Everton 3-2 at St James’s Park.
The club’s position is a little less comfortable now.
Three of the club’s remaining fixtures are away from home, and Premier League leaders Liverpool are yet to visit St James’s Park.
Benitez has long said that the club’s fate may not be decided on the final day of the season – and he could yet be proved right.