SHEFFIELD: Fighting on three fronts proved a step too far for Newcastle United as they were dumped out of the Emirates FA Cup by League One Sheffield Wednesday.
Prior to the Hillsborough cup upset, head coach Eddie Howe claimed he believed he had the strength of squad, without injuries, to ensure he kept fires burning in not only the Premier League, but also the two cup competitions.
However, calling on his reserves only proved the point that Newcastle do not have the strength in depth to maintain a charge across the board in English football.
“Bitterly disappointed to go out, I thought the performance was OK. We created enough chances to win the tie and their goalkeeper made a number of great saves but we weren’t clinical enough when those presentable opportunities were there,” said Howe.
“We have to accept the defeat and Sheffield Wednesday battled for everything, as we did, but it wasn’t to be.”
Protecting ‘very small squad’
“We have a very small squad and have to protect that squad for games ahead. We felt we were strong enough to win the game today and I stick by that based on the first-half performance where we had chances to score, we just weren’t clinical in front of goal.
“We haven’t experienced defeat a lot this season and it’s very painful, you don’t want to lose any game.
“We were determined to do well in this competition but it wasn’t to be and there’s always things to learn. We created chances tonight similar to the Leeds game that we didn’t win where we will kick ourselves when we look back at some of those moments and think how we didn’t score.”
The result now brings into sharp focus Tuesday’s return to action, where Howe will almost certainly call on the likes of Callum Wilson and Nick Pope to give the Magpies the best possible chance of progressing to the Carabao Cup semifinal. Leicester City stand in the way of their first League Cup last-four spot since 1976.
Change was the order of the day for Howe this time, though, much to the team’s detriment.
The head coach made eight adjustments to the side who battled to a 0-0 draw with Premier League leaders Arsenal on Tuesday night.
The big team selection news was interesting from both a positive and negative perspective, with one huge name missing out — and another returning to the starting lineup after nearly four months out of action.
Alexander Isak was named in the starting XI, with rarely-used Allan Saint-Maximin missing out on the squad altogether, despite being expected to play. The Frenchman’s absence was due to an illness, according to Howe.
As is so often the case in this famous old competition, chances were free-flowing and the pace frenetic from the off.
Elliot Anderson, back in the side for the first time since the third round of the Carabao Cup, had a header from close range from a Matt Ritchie cross sail over the top.
At the other end a Jamal Lewis throw was jumped on by Liam Palmer as Jacob Murphy switched off but the Wednesday man fired wide from 18 meters.
Isak, a surprise inclusion in many ways due to his numerous return false dawns, could have had two goals in the opening 45, missing two gilt-edged chances as his rustiness due to a lack of football showed.
A Javi Manquillo dinked cross found the Swede perfectly in the middle but he somehow headed straight at Cameron Dawson in the Wednesday goal. The same combination with Manquillo finding Isak, this time in space on the edge of the area, but his powerful shot was again denied by Dawson.
An Anderson error, one of many for United’s midfielders, saw the youngster play in Josh Windass but this time, he fired wide. It was a warning United did not heed.
The incredibly below-par Murphy had two chances before the break to edge the travelling Magpies in front. He was sent clean through on the break in one instance but delayed his decision-making and was caught in possession by the chasing pack. Then, again, sent through, Murphy meekly attempted a lob over the keeper only to see the ball barely reach the touchline in front of the 4,500 travelling United fans.
At the break, Chris Wood was brought on to replace Isak, in a prearranged move — and while United can normally rely on the New Zealander, this was not one of those games, with the striker missing what proved to be a game-defining chance in the dying embers of this one.
Prior to that, the hard work was done by the home side, and so easily undone by United.
A clever turn by Mark Byers away from the advancing Anderson and Sean Longstaff opened up the spaces for Wednesday to attack and a Dominic Iorfa cross was flicked home by Windass. The striker was obviously offside when he netted, but some poor officiating and a lack of VAR, saw the effort stand.
An uphill struggle got all the more steep just 14 minutes later as Windass added his second, this time in much more accomplished manner, curling past the helpless Dubravka after Newcastle’s usually reliable backline was again carved in half after Joelinton failed to deal with a high ball.
Anderson, far from his best on the day, then squandered a brilliant chance to score as Dawson threw out a sprawling leg to save his close-range strike.
Too little too late
United did, however, halve the deficit with the arrival of their cavalry, namely Kieran Trippier. The England fullback curled in a corner onto the head of Wood who drew the save from Dawson, only for fellow sub Bruno Guimaraes to turn home from inside the penalty box. There was more than a hint of offside about that one too.
While the substitutions and the goal sparked Newcastle into life, somewhat, their FA Cup hopes could not be revived, with man-of-the-match Windass striking the bar before Wood missed a sitter, blazing high into the Sheffield night sky when played through on goal by Joelinton.
In defense of his selections, Howe said: “The Leicester game was on the horizon for us and we picked a team based with this game in mind and another Premier League game at the weekend.
“If that game wasn’t there the team selection would have possibly been different today. We are trying to juggle everything and make sure we are strong enough to win and I thought we were there but obviously that didn’t materialize.”
While defeat hurts, it could yet prove a blessing in disguise for United.
As was proven, having the numbers and quality to compete is a luxury often confined to those in the so-called Premier League “Big Six.” And while plucky United are right in there bloodying the noses of those established clubs, they are still a long way off truly competing.
This Hillsborough embarrassment was a case in point.