For Newcastle, the guarantee of at least six matches in the gilded and glitzy surrounds of the Champions League. And Leicester, the lingering threat of 46 amid the muck and nettles of the Championship.
Oh how different those eventualities are – executive airline travel versus a National Express motorway slog. But these are clubs heading – hurtling, even – in opposite directions. To think, when Leicester were winning the Premier League in 2016, Newcastle were being relegated.
Here, though, was a result that could yet suit both teams. Needing only a point to secure a top-four finish, Newcastle would have preferred to sign off with a victory at St James’ Park, especially with third position still up for grabs. But their supporters did not care for points dropped on full-time, as they chorused about trips to Italy and beyond. Leicester, by contrast, are still hoping to avoid weekends in Swansea.
To that end, a gutsy draw had some merit. It means, should they beat West Ham at home on Sunday, Everton must also win against Bournemouth to stay up at Leicester’s expense. The odds, then, remain against Dean Smith and his players, but they’re not nearly as long as they would have been had they lost this.
They would have been favourites to survive had Timothy Castagne scored with their first shot on target in the 92nd minute. In fact, it was their first shot of any description. It looked as if it was flying in, too, until Nick Pope extended an arm. He saved both a goal and 52,000 European dreams.
Newcastle officially secured Champions League football after drawing 0-0 with Leicester
The hosts hit the woodwork no less than three times on a raucous evening at St James’ Park
Callum Wilson cracked an effort against the post from close range as the Foxes scrambled
Newcastle will now travel to Chelsea knowing the job is done. It is an incredible achievement, given Eddie Howe inherited a team 19th in the Premier League only 18 months ago. And it was his name they were singing during a lap of honour in which the head coach abandoned his usual caution, throwing his arms in the direction of the sky in which they will be jetting off come next season.
A banner in the stands read – ‘Hard work pays off. Dreams come true. Bad times don’t last but legends do’. Howe has now elevated himself into the same conversation as the likes of Sir Bobby Robson, the manager who last took the club into the Champions League 20 years ago. And this, you feel, is only just the beginning, especially with a summer of Saudi-backed investment to follow.
But while the owners’ money – £250million over three transfer windows – has helped transform the club’s fortunes, it is Howe’s management that has accelerated their journey. This was not the plan at the outset of the season.
‘The target wasn’t the top four,’ said Howe. ‘You always hope, but we didn’t feel we were ready for that. It was more, “Could we not have that flirtation with relegation”.
‘So it’s a big relief and an amazing night, to see the supporters and the reaction to what we’ve achieved.’
Twenty minutes before kick-off, a supporter at the base of the steps leading into the Milburn Stand entrance, where thousands shuffle past en route to the turnstiles, played the Champions League theme on a speaker, loud enough for the masses to hum along. They will be playing that same music two minutes before the off come September.
They will no doubt have to play better than this then, but Leicester also deserve credit for emerging with a result that seemed unlikely on form.
Smith’s team-sheet read as much like a betting slip – to drop James Maddison and Harvey Barnes was certainly a gamble. There were two schools of thought as to why.
Match facts, ratings and league table
NEWCASTLE (4-3-3): Pope 6; Trippier 6.5, Schar 6, Botman 6, Burn 6; Longstaff 6, Guimaraes 6, Anderson 7; Almiron 6.5, Wilson 6 (Saint-Maximin 68, 6), Isak 6.5.
Subs not used: Dubravka, Dummett, Lewis, Targett, Miley, Ashby.
Bookings: Guimaraes, Isak.
Coach: Eddie Howe 6.
LEICESTER (3-5-2): Iversen 7.5; Castagne 6, Souttar 7, Evans 7 (Daka 62, 6), Faes 7, Thomas 6.5; Ndidi 6.5, Tielemans 6.5, Soumare 6.5; Iheanacho 5 (Maddison 46, 6), Vardy 6 (Barnes 62, 6).
Subs not used: Smithies, Kristiansen, Amartey, Praet, Tete.
Coach: Dean Smith 6.
Referee: Andre Marriner 5.
Venue: St James’ Park.
- Premier League
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Daniel Iversen impressed but blotted his copy book after dropping a hanging cross in the box
Another chance fell to Wilson after the goalkeeper flapped, but the striker only nodded over
Leicester almost snatched a surprise last-gasp win, Nick Pope saving from Timothy Castagne
One being that to throw his cards in the air was better than holding on to a losing hand. The other, more sinister, was that players such as Maddison and Barnes may have something to gain from relegation. That is not to question their professionalism, but an unavoidable truth of a transfer being made easier in the event of going down.
In purely tactical terms, it looked like Smith was playing for a point, loading his defence with five men. The outcome was a first clean sheet in 22 league matches. They might have had a victory to go with that had Bruno Guimaraes been sent off in the ninth minute.
Newcastle would argue, with some justification, that VAR has not been kind to them this season. Well, here was a belated apology from the team at Stockley Park. Guimaraes had landed his studs on the knee of Boubakary Soumare. ‘That’s a f***ing bad challenge, by the way’ moaned Smith to the fourth official. He had understated it. But so, too, had the VAR officials, who failed to advise, at the very least, a pitchside review. There was a collective exhale inside St James’ when play restarted – they knew the Brazilian had got away with one. But Leicester also rode their luck at times.
Miguel Almiron and Callum Wilson hit the post before half-time and Guimaraes, in the second half, somehow headed against the upright from a yard out – one of 23 efforts on goals.
Not that it mattered. It is the airline tickets that are now in the post.
Alexander Isak scycthed into a challenge in the first-half and worryingly remained on the turf
Bruno Guimaraes looked to dictate the game from midfield but faced a stubborn low block
Jonny Evans stood firm for the Foxes but appeared to suffer a hamstring strain after sliding in
Kelechi Iheanacho cut an isolated figure up front and was unable to slot Jamie Vardy through
Eddie Howe capped off a remarkable campaign by ensuring his side sealed a top four finish