30 Dec Newcastle fail to impress as Brighton force St James’ Park stalemate
Rafael Benitez was left frustrated after a 0-0 draw as misfiring Newcastle failed to claim the three points they had targeted against Brighton.
The Spaniard controversially rested many of his bigger names for Manchester City’s visit to St James’ Park on Wednesday evening.
He later denied doing so with one eye on the Seagulls’ visit to Tyneside but had hoped they would return with all guns blazing for a must-win clash with last season’s promotion rivals.
However, although Brighton keeper Matt Ryan had to make good saves from Isaac Hayden and Dwight Gayle, the technically superior visitors enjoyed the better of the game and might have emerged with more than a point had Karl Darlow not managed to repel Lewis Dunk’s 68th-minute header.
Ultimately it was they who left the happier with the Magpies having now taken 19 points from their first 21 games and needing to improve significantly over what remains of the season if they are to stay up.
Having made seven changes to the side which started in midweek – opposite number Chris Hughton made five – Benitez opted for a much more attacking formation, but in the event found his efforts thwarted by Brighton’s organisation.
With Anthony Knockaert and Pascal Gross probing, the visitors were more cohesive going forward, although skipper Bruno had to get in an important header to prevent either Gayle or Joselu from getting to Hayden’s inviting 13th-minute cross.
For all the Seagulls were enjoying marginally the better of the early stages, Ryan had to claw away Gayle’s 21st-minute cross after he had run on to Mikel Merino’s long ball.
However, Darlow was relieved to pluck Knockaert’s rising strike out of the air five minutes later after he, Bruno and Gross had combined down the right to open up the hosts, and defender Shane Duffy blazed over after a Gross corner had been only half-cleared.
Newcastle belatedly established some momentum as half-time approached, with Merino dragging a left-foot shot wide after Gayle’s effort had been blocked by Duffy, and Joselu firing just past the far post.
But although Duffy narrowly missed the target with a header from Gross’ 42nd-minute corner, the sides remained locked together at the break.
The home side returned in determined fashion and it took a fine reaction save by Ryan to keep out Hayden’s deflected 49th-minute attempt.
Darlow saved Gross’ curling low free-kick as Brighton responded, before Ryan had to claw Gayle’s glancing header away after he rose to meet Christian Atsu’s 58th-minute cross.
Magpies keeper Darlow parried Dunk’s header after Duffy had returned Gross’ corner into the danger area 10 minutes later, with the Seagulls pressing once again.