LEEDS: Newcastle United remain the guardians of their own Champions League destiny — but only just.
The Magpies played out an entertaining, if at times bruising and scrappy, 2-2 draw at Leeds United’s Elland Road, as they missed the opportunity to open up a six-point gap to fifth-placed Liverpool, who will surely smell blood now given the chance to close that to one by Monday night. Jurgen Klopp’s Reds take on relegation-threatened Leicester City that evening.
With three games to go, the next two of which are on home turf, Eddie Howe’s men still remain in the driving seat when it comes to a top four finish, with Manchester United also less than certain to get in. But they still, as things stand, need six points from nine to make sure it is Champions League football and not Thursday nights in the Europa League to look forward to next season.
Howe made a bold call from the off in Yorkshire as he kept with the two forward experiment, retaining Alexander Isak on the left with Callum Wilson through the middle. And while two goals from Wilson appears to have underlined that tactical move, it was clear to see, watching the game, that another readjustment is needed.
In the one alteration Howe did make it was Miguel Almiron for Jacob Murphy.
The Magpies started this one the better side, as they so often do, but again, as they did against Arsenal, they fell behind to some swift play on the break. From a Newcastle perspective both goals conceded felt very preventable — and a defense that had looked so resolute for so long this season, is finally showing some war-weary cracks.
A hopeful break down the right opened up for Patrick Bamford on seven minutes and his curled ball beat the passive Kieran Trippier before nestling right between Sven Botman and Dan Burn. Rodrigo took up the chance but his header was excellently clawed out by Nick Pope, only for Luke Ayling to smash home.
This moment was all the success-starved home following, and an exuberant Sam Allardyce, on his first outing in the home dugout, had craved.
Resilience is something this Newcastle outfit has become known for — and they had to dig to their very depths to summon yet more in the face of adversity in this one.
A penalty, the first of three given on the day, was one of the easiest decisions Simon Hooper will have to make, with Joelinton bundling Junior Firpo in the area.
Patrick Bamford stepped up and Pope bettered him, not once but twice, as he first palmed away the strike from 12 yards before scooping clear as the striker looked to hammer home the rebound.
This was the kick up the backside that Newcastle needed. Howe switched Isak from the left — where he had been wasted — into the middle and 30 seconds later the live-wire Swede had won a penalty of his own. Isak was chopped down by Firpo, who continued his more than eventful afternoon. Wilson made no mistake from the spot.
The move to a 4-2-3-1, from the previous 4-3-3, was instrumental in the fightback.
After the break, Newcastle continued to push and they were in front when that man Firpo was at the heart of the action again. His bizarrely out-stretched arm clipped a ball destined for the head of Isak and Hooper pointed to the spot again.
Where he had gone bottom right with the first, Wilson went straight down the middle for the second, giving Joel Robles no chance and taking his record to 17 for the season in the Premier League.
Allan Saint-Maximin came on and had the ball in the net minutes later as United looked to run away with this one, but VAR ruled provider Isak offside in the buildup. At that point it felt like Newcastle would run away with things, much like they did at Everton.
But it was not to be, as with 12 minutes remaining, Rasmus Kristensen smashed home via a Trippier deflection to claim a point for Allardyce and the Whites.
Firpo’s day ended a few minutes earlier than his teammates as he was shown a straight red for clipping Anthony Gordon’s ankles, although it all happened too late to impact the final result.
It is fair to say there is not quite the sense that the Magpies’ first opportunity in two decades to finish in the top flight’s Champions League places is slipping through their fingers. However, they have much less tight a grasp on things than they did just two games ago.
A win against either Arsenal or Leeds could have almost put the top four conversation to bed. But with just one point gained from the double-header, it is Newcastle who are finding themselves looking over their shoulders, somewhat.
Their task now is simple. Six points, no matter when, no matter how.