Newcastle’s biggest win in two decades was a draw. After a 20-year absence from the Champions League, they are back, perhaps headed to Madrid or Munich or Milan next season. A point was all they needed against Leicester and a point was what they got. It was a stalemate to savour for Eddie Howe, a largely uneventful game to demonstrate stunning progress in 18 months. Bottom after his first game in charge, Newcastle will now rub shoulders with the European elite. Perhaps a draw means they may face Leicester again next season, though their fate remains more uncertain.
They finished three places above Newcastle last year and are 15 below them now. The turnaround has been a triumph of smart recruitment, excellent coaching and, less palatably for many outside Tyneside, Newcastle’s Saudi owners. United have had an injection of funds but some £250 million has largely been spent remarkably well. But around half the starting line-up tends to consist of players Howe inherited and who were winless three months into last season. Some have developed beyond recognition. So has a team: Newcastle’s aim for the season was to qualify for continental competition. Even a Conference League spot would have been considered a success, but instead they have vaulted back into the Champions League.
It is a terrific feat by Howe, whose last full season of management culminated in Bournemouth’s relegation to the Championship. It may also be welcomed by one of the world’s more oppressive regimes, with Newcastle 80 percent owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Two of their powerbrokers, Jamie Reuben and Mehrdad Ghodoussi, were applauded as they found the net in a half-time shootout. The players found it altogether harder to apply the finishing touch as they struck the woodwork three times.
Which, ultimately, made more of a difference to Leicester, whose fate is out of their hands but who still have some hope; beat West Ham and, if Everton do not win, they will survive. Their plight concentrated their minds but Newcastle succeeded where they twice narrowly failed under Brendan Rodgers. He had twin fifth-place finishes from seasons when Leicester occupied top-four spots for the majority of the time. Newcastle have seen the job through.
Perhaps both the scoreline and the venue were fitting. Only Liverpool and Arsenal have won at St James’ Park this season and only four clubs have triumphed there in Howe’s reign.
They owe their top-four finish to consistency, particularly for a spell either side of the World Cup. A 17-game unbeaten run was, at one stage, the longest undefeated spell in any of Europe’s top five leagues. Only Manchester City have lost fewer Premier League matches this season and Newcastle, who have won as many games as Liverpool, can see the merit of the draw in the table. They have shown a toughness others lacked, a reliability and a resolve that meant they could grind their way to a point.
They had a host of clean sheets in the first half of the season; they have been rarer of late but Nick Pope’s fine injury-time save from Timothy Castagne prevented defeat and spared them an anxious final day at Chelsea. They have benefited from two inspired scoring bursts, from Miguel Almiron in autumn and Callum Wilson in recent weeks.
Perhaps it rendered it more of a surprise that Wilson endured an off night. Leicester kept a first clean sheet in six months, but they required assistance from the upright and relied on Newcastle’s radars malfunctioning. They had two double reprieves just before half-time. Wilson almost scored his eighth goal in six games, hooking a shot against the post and heading an effort Wilfred Ndidi cleared off the line. Then Almiron struck the post with a half-volley before Alexander Isak blazed over. Most glaringly. Bruno Guimaraes headed against the post from a yard out after Wout Faes had inadvertently flicked on Kieran Trippier’s corner. Leicester were entitled to argue – as John Terry seemed to – that the Brazilian should have been dispatched to the dressing room long before then but he escaped with a yellow card for planting his studs into Boubakary Soumare’s knee; had VAR intervened the punishment may have been greater.
But Leicester got what they came for. Dean Smith adopted a policy of safety in numbers to bolster his porous rearguard, bringing in Harry Souttar as an extra centre-back and playing 5-3-2. Most contentiously – and arguably unsuccessfully given the lack of the threat the impotent strike duo of Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho possessed – he benched his two top scorers. James Maddison came on at half-time, Harvey Barnes for the final half-hour. Neither altered proceedings even if, after his side camped behind the ball for much of the match, Smith urged them on at the end. So Leicester need favours from elsewhere on the last day of the season. Newcastle need none. Champions League, here they come.