Newcastle and Norwich had a relegation six-pointer from which they could only take a point each, and it’s difficult to see how either of them avoid relegation.
In the end, it turned out to be a relegation two-pointer. The match between Newcastle United and Norwich City had been trailed as a ‘must-win’ match for both teams, but in the end both left with a draw that neither will be particularly happy with. But neither of them deserved a great deal better, and when we remind ourselves that three teams have to be relegated come the end of the season, it’s very difficult to envisage either of these two ending up above the dotted line.
Newcastle United and Norwich City were different types of bad. Newcastle’s Ciaran Clark completed a piece of performance art by belting an attempted clearance straight at Teemu Pukki and then yanking him back for a straight red card as he tore past him with the ball after just nine minutes had been played. Eddie Howe, at home for the first time for what was the final instalment of a Covid-delayed unveiling, was forced to reshuffle his defence 81 minutes earlier than he’d probably have liked.
So Newcastle hunkered down, and Norwich attacked them for much of the remainder of the match, albeit in much the same way that a cat ‘attacks’ the red dot from a laser pointer. Whole passages of play were free-formed, with passes going astray and bad decision after bad decision being made, but after an hour came a ray of unexpected sunlight when Billy Gilmour handled a downward header from Federico Fernandez to give Newcastle a penalty. Appropriately, it was a bad penalty from Callum Wilson, not particularly powerful and far too close to the goalkeeper, but Tim Krul could only push the ball onto the underside of the crossbar and in.
With just over ten minutes to play, Martin Dubravka feebly pawed at a deep cross and Pukki unleashed perhaps the only genuine moment of brilliance of the night, a volley into the top corner to salvage a point for Norwich. In the dying seconds, Fabian Schär added to Newcastle’s list of unforced errors, allowing Pierre Lees-Melou through only for Dubravka to block with his legs.
A smattering of boos rang out around St James’ Park at the final whistle. The best that could be said for Newcastle’s performance is that they reshuffled after a huge early set-back and dug in to snatch a point, but let’s not fool ourselves here. This was a must-win match. Newcastle now have seven points from 14 matches, a figure that sets them on course for a grand total of 19 over 38 matches. And they play Burnley in their next match – which is now a must-must-win match – but then have a run of difficult fixtures which makes the likelihood of seeing them win before Christmas as unlikely as not.
The caveat is the petrodollars. There remains a widespread feeling that Newcastle will spend vast amounts of money in the January transfer window, but it’s starting to feel like even this might be a waste of money. The January transfer window doesn’t usually have a vast array of stellar performers available, and Newcastle will be marching into it with a big neon sign over their heads spelling out the words ‘WE HAVE INFINITE MONEY’. Oil tax rates will likely be set high, and they still don’t have a Director of Football to coordinate it all, with less than a month to go before the window opens.
And who do they buy? Is it even possible to fix this level of deflation with football’s equivalent of a gold-plated bicycle puncture repair kit? The contradiction at the heart of the rest of Newcastle’s season is that those players who aren’t good enough will still be there until the end of the season. Unless Newcastle are thinking of bringing in 25 players in January, they’re going to be dependent on at least some of those who pratfalled their way to parity against Norwich if they are to survive this season, and they only have one Alain Saint-Maximin. Small wonder that some already believe that the game is up and that they should be preparing for life in the Championship.
As for Norwich, well, they failed to beat this Newcastle team, despite having a one-player advantage for 81 minutes. In previous matches – including a couple that they’d lost – they’d looked limited but capable. It was possible to see where survival might come from, and Dean Smith’s arrival at Carrow Road seemed to give the team a little of the edge that they might need to give themselves a chance of staying up this season.
But against Newcastle, they were strangely slovenly. Passes were mis-placed. Bad decision after bad decision was made. There were spaces behind Newcastle’s defence, but the ball wasn’t played into them. At times, even the most simple of passes were atrociously executed. They almost snatched a win, but only because of a familiar looking brain-melt from a Newcastle defender. Otherwise, they were perhaps best-defined by what was absent. Over the previous 91 minutes they’d created next to nothing, against this Newcastle team. It’s very difficult to take much positivity from their performance.
Come the end of this season, three clubs are going to be relegated, and the grim truth of the matter is that it’s difficult to see how either of these teams can improve to the extent they need. Perhaps Newcastle’s petrodollars and Eddie Howe’s reorganisation will result in a miraculous new year revival, and there’ll be dancing in ill-advised costumes outside St James’ Park come the end of the season. Perhaps Delia Smith will sprinkle some stardust on the Norwich players’ Christmas dinners and they’ll revert to being the team of Dean Smith’s first two games in charge. There’s still plenty of time, but time isn’t the cause of either of these teams’ problems. With one point each from a six-pointer, both of these teams face an insurmountable-looking challenge if they are to survive into next season as Premier League clubs.
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