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Newcastle United, in a show of timidity, see their survival chances sink

Richard Jolly writes of the listless showing on Saturday from 'two of English football's great institutional clubs', Aston Villa now likely to be joined by Newcastle United in going down.
Newcastle United player Aleksander Mitrovic reacts after spurning a chance against Aston Villa in the Premier League on Saturday. Stu Forster / Getty Images / May 7, 2016
Newcastle United player Aleksander Mitrovic reacts after spurning a chance against Aston Villa in the Premier League on Saturday. Stu Forster / Getty Images / May 7, 2016

Aston Villa 0-0 Newcastle United

Taunts from opposing supporters are not always noted for their factual accuracy, but this seemed one of the safer predictions.

“Down with the Villa,” came the chorus as the final whistle went.

The Championship beckons for Aston Villa. So, probably, for Newcastle United. Two of English football’s great institutional clubs, winners of 11 league titles between them, ones who were presences in the top six for much of the Premier League’s first decade, ones who have spent £135 million (Dh715.5m) in the last 12 months, are headed for the second tier.

Villa’s fate was sealed long ago. Newcastle’s destiny is clearer now. It is certainly out of their hands. A stalemate, coupled with Sunderland’s win over Chelsea, may only leave them a point behind their neighbours, but Sam Allardyce’s team have a far superior goal difference, a game in hand and meetings with two sides, in Everton and Watford, who have little to play for.

Newcastle have to beat Tottenham Hotspur, but they had to beat Villa, one of the worst teams in the division’s history. They did not. After a joint club record 11 consecutive defeats, Villa had a point.

• For more: Andros Townsend and Newcastle United dig out of relegation zone – in pictures

• Also see: Sunderland, Norwich or Newcastle, who will survive? Vote in our poll

After a five-game unbeaten run, Newcastle are nonetheless on the brink: of demotion and, in all probability, of losing Rafa Benitez, who has a get-out clause in his contract.

This may prove his penultimate game in charge and the scale of their plight was evident to the Spaniard. “It is bad,” he said bluntly. “It was an opportunity to stay ahead of Sunderland and we couldn’t do it. We didn’t play well maybe because we had too much anxiety. The players were too tense.”

Nerves were frayed, oddly, by the lack of drama. A first half where virtually nothing happened followed a similar pattern to the opening 45 minutes against Crystal Palace last week. The difference was that, this time, there was no decisive improvement.

Newcastle created a little more, but not enough. Papiss Cisse swung and missed, Jack Colback skied a shot over the bar. Exit Cisse a few minutes later. Enter Aleksandar Mitrovic, who should have put Newcastle ahead. Instead, when Cheick Tiote lofted a pass over the defence, Mitrovic had only Mark Bunn to beat. His lob landed on the roof of the net.

Newcastle grew more urgent. When Georginio Wijnaldum fired a shot through a packed penalty box, Bunn was equal to it. Mitrovic headed wide when he perhaps should have scored. Andros Townsend was their match-winner with a free kick seven days earlier. He sent another set-piece straight at Bunn.

“We had the chances,” said Benitez, but not enough against a side who had conceded 72 times already.

Much of the amusement came from the stands. The Villa fans arrived armed with beach balls. The Villa faithful perhaps required inflatables to make their own entertainment. There was precious little of it on the pitch, a little more in the skies.

A plane carried a message about Villa’s absentee owner: “Randy Lerner is a Blue.”

So Birmingham fans may like to believe. The reality is that Lerner, while his interest has faded at times, has invested large amounts in Villa, but been undermined by bad decision-making, not least his own.

Villa have a beautiful pitch, lovely stadium and a terrible team.

This, at least, was one of their better performances as just a 17th point of the season was procured. They rarely threatened to score, but at least showed spirit and organisation.

“It is a small step,” said caretaker-manager Eric Black. “It is all about the players getting the supporters onside.”

They were playing for pride, Newcastle for a much bigger prize. And, with their timidity, their chance of securing survival seemed to disappear.

Man of the Match: Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa)

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Updated: May 7, 2016 04:00 AM

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