Newcastle back in Champions League as Leicester cling to hope with draw
Newcastle players celebrate reaching the Champions League. Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters
Shortly before kick-off Newcastle fans unfurled an enormous banner emblazoned with the message: “Bad times don’t last but legends do.”
Those words were superimposed on giant images of Eddie Howe and his players in recognition of their completion of one of football’s more remarkable transformations. When Howe took charge here 19 months ago, Newcastle were 19th in the Premier League; courtesy of the point collected on Monday night they are now guaranteed a top-four finish, reports The Guardian.
No matter that a very tired looking home side rather stumbled across the line. No matter that they needed to be grateful to the otherwise unemployed Nick Pope for saving Timothy Castagne’s high velocity stoppage time volley, the glittering prize of participation in next season’s Champions League is theirs.
If many Tynesiders, mentally at least, appear already in the airport departure lounge, passports at the ready as, after a 20-year absence, they prepare for a series of European adventures, Leicester are contemplating the real possibility of slogging their way round England’s second tier outposts.
The 2016 Premier League champions may not quite be relegated, not yet anyway, but their slender survival hopes are dependent on Everton failing to beat Bournemouth at Goodison Park on Sunday, while they also win, at home to West Ham.
At least it will make a change for Leicester not to be playing on a Monday night. This was their fourth successive such fixture and Dean Smith, the interim manager, attempted to liven it up by beginning with his two brightest creative sparks on the substitutes’ bench.
It meant James Maddison – a midfielder right at the top of Howe’s summer shopping list – and Harvey Barnes sat back and watched as Smith attempted to stave off relegation courtesy of a new-look, unexpectedly mean, back five featuring Jonny Evans at its heart. With Evans and Harry Souttar impressing that quintet deserves credit for maintaining a rare clean sheet.
It possibly helped their cause that Leicester’s midfield did not have to contend with Joelinton after Howe’s Brazilian midfielder sustained an injury in the warm up, prefacing the way for Elliot Anderson to deputise.
Meanwhile, Joelinton’s compatriot and midfield partner, Bruno Guimarães was perhaps a little fortunate to remain on the pitch after planting his studs in Boubakary Soumaré’s thigh in the 10th minute.
That incident triggered a VAR review but, ultimately and contentiously, it was decided that the yellow card produced by Andre Marriner would suffice.
The only trouble was that his players could not seem to loosen up sufficiently to faze Smith’s suddenly assured looking rearguard. With Newcastle missing their customary pressers in chief, the injured Joe Willock and Joelinton, they could not quite force their usually intense high tempo and Evans, Souttar and co duly second guessed repeated attacking manoeuvres.
Whenever Howe’s players enter their trademark pre match huddles, England’s Kieran Trippier reminds his teammates that “pressure is a privilege” but it looked like the stress of having one foot on the European mainland was suddenly burdening a team starting to seem fatigued.
Nonetheless, Leicester’s Wilfried Ndidi was required to clear Callum Wilson’s header off the line with Daniel Iversen beaten after the England striker’s original shot rebounded off the inside of a post as Newcastle forced repeated corners.
Smith’s side lived dangerously once more when Miguel Almirón met Fabian Schär’s headed flick on the half volley before hitting a post but Alexander Isak could not quite direct the rebound on target.
Leicester’s manager responded by pressing the tactical button marked “Maddison” at half-time, sending the attacking playmaker on for the second period in place of Kelechi Iheanacho. Along with several teammates Jamie Vardy’s supposed partner in crime had barely touched the ball during his time on the pitch but now Maddison was playing just behind Leicester’s No 9 and Schär and Sven Botman needed to be on their guard.
Leicester’s problem was they rarely retained possession for long enough to stretch Howe’s centre halves. Instead they largely continued in backs-to-the-wall mode, surviving a VAR check for handball when Youri Tielemans blocked a shot from the increasingly influential Almirón.
Iversen, who had earlier seemed a little shaky, came to the visiting rescue courtesy of a fabulous save to somehow tip Isak’s imperiously rising shot over the bar one handed. Significantly that chance was conjured by Almirón, a forward reborn under Howe’s tutelage.
By now Smith had no real option bar indulging in a bit of risk-taking and, sure enough, he replaced Evans and Vardy with Harvey Barnes and Patson Daka as his side switched to a back four.
With Guimarães heading against a post from a yard out that tactical rejig made little discernible difference until Pope’s sublime last-gasp save from Castagne left Smith emitting anguished expletives and Newcastle in wonderland.