Ben­itez is calm as Blues hold out

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP - By Gra­ham Hill

NEW­CAS­TLE United’s ti­tle bid stut­tered once more as un­der-pres­sure Gian­franco Zola frus­trated his pal Rafa Ben­itez.

A tow­er­ing dis­play by Blues keeper To­masz Kuszczak was all that stood in the way of a New­cas­tle vic­tory.

But this was a per­for­mance that will give Zola some hope that he can still turn things around at St An­drew’s – de­spite a record of just two wins in 19 games since tak­ing over.

It will be wor­ry­ing times for Ben­itez, though, who has seen his side take only two points from the last three games.

This was a match that the Spa­niard would have ex­pected to win with Birm­ing­ham on the ropes and ner­vously eye­ing the rel­e­ga­tion zone.

Ben­itez had his share of se­lec­tion prob­lems though with key de­fender Ciaran Clark out in­jured and key men Dwight Gayle and Jonjo Shelvey – who was re­cov­er­ing from ill­ness – com­ing off the bench.

But Zola’s men dug in su­perbly to stop New­cas­tle in their tracks, but they did not have enough to shock the Ge­ordies with a goal de­spite the tire­less ef­forts of striker Lukas Jutkiewicz, who twice went close to scor­ing the win­ner.

Kuszczak’s saves aside, New­cas­tle thought they had bro­ken the dead­lock five min­utes be­fore the break when Matt Ritchie forced the ball over the line from close-range.

Ay­oze Perez’s shot had been kept out by Kuszczak but when Ritchie fol­lowed up to net, he was ruled to be in an off­side po­si­tion.

It sim­ply was not New­cas­tle’s day in terms of get­ting back to win­ning ways but Ben­itez was thank­ful for small mer­cies as he took an­other point to­wards a re­turn to the Premier League.

He said: “It was dis­ap­point­ing, we con­trolled the game and had some chances.

“The goal shouldn’t have been dis­al­lowed but their keeper played well. “We didn’t take our chances. “We de­served to win and the ex­pec­ta­tion was that we can. But at least we have one more point and one less match, it’s im­por­tant to learn how to man­age th­ese games.

“We’re in a bet­ter a po­si­tion than we were. But we showed we could man­age the in­ten­sity of the game. But you can­not cre­ate 20 chances in ten min­utes.

“We have the feel­ing that ev­ery game is im­por­tant, there are still eight to play, but I’m still not very happy as we could have got three points.”

Birm­ing­ham boss Zola was happy to hold the pro­mo­tion favourites af­ter months of un­cer­tainty.

But he still thinks Ben­itez will be pro­moted in May.

Zola said: “Yes, 100 per cent, they have the qual­ity to go up.

“The heart and de­ter­mi­na­tion not to con­cede was first-class.

“That was what the mo­ment re­quired.

“We also cre­ated a lot of chances con­sid­er­ing the stan­dard of the op­po­si­tion. That was en­cour­ag­ing for me. It was good.

“This is what I ex­pect from my team, we need to be de­fen­sively or­gan­ised and difficult to beat.

“We need re­sults that will give us tran­quil­ity. I would like to have this con­sis­tency against the smaller teams, but then it’s a dif­fer­ent type of game.

“If I don’t get the re­sults I want then I’m un­der pres­sure, I’m used to that. This is one result, I’m look­ing for more than that, this is a very small plat­form. We need to make it big­ger.”

PIC­TURES: Ac­tion Im­ages

EYES ON THE BALL: Birm­ing­ham’s Krys­tian Bielik and New­cas­tle’s Yoan Gouf­fran com­pete for the ball

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