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Eddie Howe has one person to thank as Newcastle save their improbable season


Newcastle’s season could still be very special, Eddie Howe had said. Their performance was not but the hope of a first trophy since 1969, of some major silverware since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, was preserved courtesy of something special by Martin Dubravka.

Even as he has made a string of saves, the Slovakian’s spell deputising for the injured Nick Pope has been a traumatic one. He has conceded 30 goals in 16 games. That number could have risen considerably at Ewood Park. Instead, Dubravka capped a display of heroics over 120 minutes with twin stops in the penalty shootout, denying first Blackburn’s scorer Sammie Szmodics and then their captain Dom Hyam. When the defender’s spot kick was tipped on to the post, and Fabian Schar, Bruno Guimaraes, Elliot Anderson and Anthony Gordon had scored their own, to compensate for Harvey Barnes’s miss, Newcastle were FA Cup quarter-finalists.

They took the long route and did it the hard way in a match that finished some 70 minutes later than it might, first because kick-off was delayed, then because extra-time and penalties were required. Newcastle’s display was scarcely the required reaction to their evisceration at Arsenal; they could have had few complaints if they were eliminated by a bottom-half Championships side. Yet penalties, which proved their undoing in the Carabao Cup, resulted in salvation. They live to fight another day and the choruses were either of Dubravka’s name or of Wembley.

The goalkeeper kept Newcastle’s Wembley dream alive

(Reuters)

Dubravka missed the shellacking at Arsenal, ruled out by illness. Newcastle had added reasons to be glad he recovered as he passed a test of his reflexes and agility. Even Blackburn’s equaliser entailed an excellent stop: he did well to turn Dilan Markanday’s ferocious shot on to the bar. Szmodics latched on to the rebound to score his 24th goal of an extraordinary season.

Theirs was a duel that spanned the night: Dubravka made a fine first-half save from the Championship’s top scorer, a still better one in extra time. Perhaps his best stop came to claw Tyrhys Dolan’s angled shot past the post, but there were plenty to pick from.

And Szmodics had a sharpness that Newcastle lacked for too long, darting around with purpose. His goal encapsulated the spirit in Rovers’ ranks. With a lone win in their last 13 Championship games, having lost their midfield prodigy Adam Wharton and manager Jon Dahl Tomasson in swift succession, they could have been easy prey for Newcastle. But they made a common-sense appointment in John Eustace – just as Birmingham were wrong to sack him for the supposed glitz and glamour of Wayne Rooney – and they had the first half’s three brightest moments.

Szmodics forced extra time and Blackburn could have had more

(Action Images via Reuters)

Newcastle lived to fight another day but they must improve

(Reuters)

While kick-off was put back by 15 minutes, most of the action was delayed still further by a sedate start. When a cup tie broke out, it was because of Blackburn. Yet if it was a game of two hours, rather than two halves, too little happened in the first but plenty thereafter.

Until Jamaal Lascelles had a header cleared off the line by Kyle McFadzean, Newcastle fashioned nothing of note. Then Gordon, sent sprinting clear at goal by Sean Longstaff, was denied by Aynsley Pears. He struck when he sidefooted in a cutback from the substitute Miguel Almiron. But then Newcastle were muted again until, in extra time, Pears made a brilliant double save from Gordon and Longstaff. Each should have scored. So, perhaps, should Guimaraes when Scott Wharton made a brilliant goal-line clearance.

Howe had made five changes to his starting 11 and a triple substitution on the hour. Unlike earlier in the season, he at least had a bench to call upon. Almiron played his part in the goal and Anderson, brought on for the shootout, held his nerve.

Gordon had fired Newcastle in front

(Reuters)

Yet this was an uncertain performance, lacking in confidence, quality or ideas for too long. For much of the match, Blackburn showed more purpose when attacking than Newcastle. It was one indictment: there were others. Howe fielded a starting 11 that cost £200m; it is far from the most expensive Newcastle could field, but far more than the resources at Rovers’ disposal with a side featuring loanees, free transfers and academy products, assembled for around £10m.

They had the spirit to equalise, but they also received assistance, with a mistake from Lascelles, playing as Sven Botman was rested. It was another illustration of Newcastle’s sloppiness, of their capacity to make needless errors.

Yet they got away with it, aided by their goalkeeper. They were spared further embarrassment in a competition that has brought two of Howe’s worst results, the ignominious defeats to Cambridge and Sheffield Wednesday. The inquest into their season can be postponed. Or, if the FA Cup yields glory, abandoned altogether.



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