NEWCASTLE: A point after a wonderful performance full of verve in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United at St. James’ Park was arguably the high point of Eddie Howe’s reign so far.
But when all is said and done, at the end of the Premier League season, it is not Newcastle United’s points tally against the top six teams in England that will keep them in the division. It will be the results against those around them that will define 2021-22.
And so far, it is fair to say neither have really been good enough. No team has conceded more goals than Newcastle this season. No team has won less games. They have set a new Premier League record for the number of goals given away in the calendar year — 80 — and just one team has fewer points.
However, and this has caveats, there was enough in their performance against Ralph Rangnick’s Manchester United to suggest that when May rolls around, the fate of their season will be anything but a foregone conclusion. It really should be given the statistics.
It was a case of so near, yet so far for Newcastle at St. James’ Park on Monday night — and for 63 minutes it felt like lift-off for Newcastle United.
A jinking run and finish from Allan Saint-Maximin set Tyneside alight with hope and promise.
And for more than an hour a makeshift Newcastle backline held firm, with Cristiano Ronaldo cutting a clearly frustrated figure at the head of a blunted Red Devils attack.
But just as three points began to appear on the horizon — only the second of a troubled campaign — an Edinson Cavani hammer blow dented survival hopes and brought Howe’s Magpies and a capacity 52,000 crowd back down to earth with a bang.
“We are desperately disappointed not to win,” said head coach Howe in the aftermath of the 1-1 draw. “We defended really well. I thought we were tight in our lines. I thought that we were really diligent, tactically excellent.”
“And we were really good in transition, a counter attack threat throughout the game. We created so many chances to get that second goal, which would have proved crucial in the end.”
With Karl Darlow, Ciaran Clark, Matt Ritchie, Isaac Hayden and Joe Willock all absent from the matchday squad, Howe was forced to make six changes to the side beaten 4-0 by Manchester City last time out.
Howe was unable to even name a full bench with kids Elliot Anderson and Joe White again present, with two goalkeepers — Mark Gillespie and Freddie Woodman — also named.
The recalled Saint-Maximin took just seven minutes to light the touchpaper for the home team.
Cutting in from the left, the Frenchman jinked his way into a yard of space on the Man United area and, while falling to the ground, managed to dig out a shot that left David de Gea rooted to the spot. Cue wild celebrations.
One goal to the good, Newcastle dominated the midfield battle, with Fred and Scott McTominay second best to the very impressive duo of Joelinton and Sean Longstaff.
Top scorer Callum Wilson, who succumbed to injury just before half-time, had the ball in the net on 37 minutes, but his joy was cut short with the lifting of the linesman’s flag.
Having seen his side bettered in almost every department in the opening 45, Rangnick changed the emphasis at the break as he introduced Uruguayan Cavani.
The frontman popped up in spaces the passive and petulant Ronaldo refused to occupy.
That change, which strongly improved Manchester United as an attacking force, could not quite halt the flow at the other end, though, as Saint-Maximin somehow failed to turn home from just six yards as the Magpies pushed for a second.
As Newcastle’s counter-attacking became more sporadic, so Cavani began to influence.
On 70 minutes, the home side’s resolve crumbled as Cavani first saw a shot blocked, only to turn home the rebound with Martin Dubravka helpless.
Just five minutes later a chance fell his way again, but rather than claim the winner, his finishing failed him as he skewed wide with the goal at his mercy. A let-off for Howe’s men.
The visitors’ profligacy in front of goal galvanized Newcastle and the final stanza of this enthralling encounter belonged to the hosts.
And it is fair to say Newcastle were just a post’s width away from what would have proven a vital, relegation battle-reinvigorating victory. Substitute Jacob Murphy curled a right-footed effort from the left on to the inside of de Gea’s goal, only for the Spaniard to somehow get across and parry Miguel Almiron’s top corner-bound shot into the Gallowgate End.
With that, it ended all square. A point gained or two points dropped for Newcastle? Ultimately for Howe, that evaluation depends at what cost, as goalscorer Saint-Maximin and six-goal Wilson both look to have picked up medium-term injuries.
“Callum’s injury doesn’t look good. I don’t know what it is, or the extent of it. But looking at it, it didn’t look good. I felt the worst for him in that moment,” said Howe. “He thought he’d taken a kick and that’s why he got up and tried to run it off. That wasn’t to be.”
He added: “Maxi? I don’t know how bad that is. We will have to see how that one is. That’s the big disappointment from tonight.”
With numbers already short, what does that mean for Thursday’s scheduled trip to Everton?
Howe continued: “We need to count the cost and see where we are. We will count the bodies up and see whether we have enough to play the game.”
With injuries mounting, January just around the corner and United’s new majority shareholders, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, ready to spend big in the window, a COVID-19 call-off on Thursday might not be the worst thing for the Magpies, strategically speaking.