United came away from St Andrews with a hard fought point on a weekend when both of our automatic promotion rivals were beaten. There’s been plenty of talk this week about Huddersfield’s run-in, Brighton’s know how and United’s dodgy home form. The week has finished with United extending their lead over third place to seven points (effectively eight with goal difference) with eight games to go. We head into this international break top of the league. The next international break is the end of the season and United are still odds on to be top then. Promoted and Champions.
Birmingham is an awful city. Grey and dull. We parked about 15 minutes from St Andrews and we’re greeted with the news Murphy was preferred to Gayle and Shelvey was ill and could only make the bench. With Clark injured and Hanley his replacement, we were without the spine of our side that had served us so well this season. The squad being utilised. Anita kept his place at full back after a lesson from a 16 year old last week but in his defence everyone was awful. Shelvey’s omission lead to Mo Diame playing further back in midfield and Goufrann replaced Atsu. Perez slotted in behind Murphy. Lots of changes.
The game started in a pattern that would continue throughout. United dominated possession and control. It was like a home game (for Reading) and we got to work trying to break Birmingham down. Birmingham were terrible but are clearly playing for the manager, on today’s evidence anyway. They set up playing three centre backs and two wing backs and provided very little room for United to play through the middle. Bizarrely they allowed our left side to receive the ball under no pressure throughout the first half and after some initial wasted possession Dummet and Goufrann began to link well, with Perez looking dangerous. Murphy won everything. He always does. Blokes never lost a header in his life. His link up play was superb as we started to turn possession into chances as the half wore on. First Murphy flashed a header wide from a corner and then Ritchie got to a clever ball from Hanley ahead of the keeper, but a defender was there to clear as our winger was about to sweep home into an empty net.
The end of the first half brought about the controversial moment of the game. Perez drew a great save from their keeper at close range and Ritchie, clearly level with the defenders, swept home he rebound. My first reaction was to look at the linesman, whose flag was by his side, and the celebrations began. One of the worst feelings, celebrating a goal that isn’t. Happened twice and Blackburn as well. Hate it. The linesman put his flag up (eventually) and the goal was disallowed. Bollocks. The referee went to talk to the linesman but it made no difference. No goal and United robbed.
The referee today was classically ‘Championship’. Rubbish. Birmingham commited a massive 18 fouls today and got one booking. Most of the time the Birmingham players had absolutely no intention of playing the ball. Just constant pulling, tripping and generally stopping us getting away from them. Sheff Wed at home was the last time I can remember a referee so incompetent where the opposition were just allowed to stop the game whenever beaten to the ball without any fear of a booking. It kills the game. Eighteen fouls man. One booking.
Birmingham offered almost nothing going forward. A long throw drew a save from Darlow and a shot hit the side netting. The second half continued with United dominating and Daryl Murphy again causing all sorts of problems. He carried the ball into the area and had a shot blocked and then had a great header saved. The man was a steal at £3m. United had countless set piece opportunities but Birmingham are a massive side and Murphy aside, we didn’t threaten from crosses into the box. Ritchie had two great free kick opportunities as did Perez in the first half – all poor.
Rafa made the changes that the away end were desperate for and introduced Gayle and Shelvey with time to influence the game. Frustratingly we looked less likely to score with their introduction. Understandably Rafa mostly likely presumed Shelvey and Gayle would thrive as the home side eventually came out of their shell in the latter stages of the game to snatch an unlikely win. It didn’t happen as Birmingham settled for the point they came for. Ritchie drew one more fantastic save from the Birmingham keeper, who also saved smartly when Gayle was poised to head in from close range. He was rightly named Man of the Match by the home side. The game finished a draw and it was a frustrating feeling not to take all three points.
I thought Perez had one of his most effective games for a while. Diame did OK in central midfield proving he’s an option there. Colback moved the ball more quickly and Murphy was magnificent. We didn’t miss Clark as Hanley was very good. The only player I thought struggled was Anita. Gamez would get a start next game in that position if I was picking the side. Yedlin is a massive miss.
Two consecutive nil nil draws on the road that could have easily been six points. I’m happy with United dominating games – we’ll get what we deserve. The Fulham game was so poor as we deserved nothing from it. If we continue to deserve to win games, we’ll win games. We’ve moved a point clear this weekend. Not many saw that coming. Our big players now have two weeks to recharge the batteries and prepare for the final push to promotion. Home games against two of the divisions worst side must be capitalised on as and we shahid head to Sheffield on a handsome looking 84 points. We’ve started (finally) to draw games and points have been thrown away against Villa, QPR, Bristol, Reading and now today. For all the talk of other sides it’s United who are top despite dominating games and not talking three points (add Blackburn away to that list). To still be top of the league (and comfortably clear of third place) despite not taking advantage of our performances, is positive. No wins in three but top of the league. There are worse positions to be in. Twenty three of them.
We are where we deserve to be but Rafa will know the next 8 games are the biggest of the season. A massive push from everyone connected with Newcastle United is required to get the job done.
MOTM: Murphy (becoming undroppable)
Their fans: 5 – stuck with their team but it will have been grim for them
Our fans: 8 – loud. 99% stuck with the team and didn’t whinge. Much better than the cup game down here.
ALEX HURST – Follow Alex on @tfalex1892
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