Dogged Savage leads taming of Magpies

Leicester City 0 Newcastle United 0
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The Independent Football

In a desert, any drop of water will provide comfort to a dying man. And as Dave Bassett surveys a barren landscape, with yesterday the first of a daunting quartet of Premiership games including Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, he will regard this as stumbling upon a veritable oasis of hope.

It was no mirage. This rock-bottom Leicester side matched the joint leaders before yesterday in all but class, and they compensated for their deficit in that department with as redoubtable a display as the manager could have wished. Newcastle gave "as poor a first 45 minutes as we've played all season", according to their manager.

Though Bobby Robson's men had their opportunities to keep pace with Manchester United at the summit of the Premiership in the second half, Alan Shearer spurned the kind of chance that he normally devours voraciously, and City defended as though their careers, if not their lives, depended upon it.

There will be many desperate days such as this for Leicester yet. As their new stadium rises ever more grandly in the sky, adjacent to Filbert Street, it is no time for the team that will occupy it to crumble. Defensively, they don't look too vulnerable under Bassett's stewardship, but at present goals will just not materialise. "Our lot couldn't score in a brothel, if I'm allowed to say that," declared Bassett with typical jovial indifference to political correctness.

With Brian Deane absent due to a calf injury sustained in training, it left the much-maligned Ade Akinbiyi and the impressive Muzzy Izzet, moved up from midfield, to provide the home goalscoring threat. In that respect, the contrast between these sides could not be more pronounced. Robson can summon the guile of Kieron Dyer, the instinctive trickery of Craig Bellamy and the subtle power of that line-leader extraordinaire Shearer, whose raw appetite for the game evokes the days of his pomp, as Newcastle enjoy their best season in the Premiership since the early Nineties.

Leicester, however, have failed to cast off the veil of despondency that accompanied Peter Taylor's departure. For all yesterday's endeavours, they have accumulated just two wins in the 13 Premiership games since Bassett took charge in October. Alan Birchenall, the "voice" of Leicester City on match days, tried to rally the faithful before the start and told them that their team had "17 games to get it right. It's time to stand up and be counted". Despite a volley of applause, you suspected that not too many shared his faith.

There were some prominent characters who could not be counted in the City line-up, notably Deane, who is out for six weeks, Dennis Wise, and Matt Elliott who is still suspended, although their defence has been bolstered by the Danish international Jacob Laursen, signed from FC Copenhagen, who was making his home debut. His task was primarily to mark Shearer, and he succeeded in the first half. Apart from heading over Nolberto Sol-ano's free-kick just after the half-hour, the former England captain was hardly a threat.

Unlike their visitors, at least Leicester have a pitch conducive to flowing football. And though they are prone to the long ball, there is sufficient quality within the likes of James Scowcroft to ensure that Bassett's side frequently threatened Newcastle on the floor in a generally untidy first half in which Andrew Impey, Frank Sinclair and Scowcroft all failed from half-chances.

Newcastle were aware that they would have to mix it physically with their hosts. Robbie Savage gave notice of intent with a foul on Laurent Robert and duly received his 11th caution of the season. The Welsh international was followed into the book by Newcastle's Solano and Sylvain Distin. Leicester's Impey became the fourth in the second half.

Before the interval, it was City who applied the pressure. Scowcroft's ball into area created confusion in Newcastle's area, and when it finally reached Izzet, his shot was deflected wide by Nikos Dabizas. Savage then blocked a clearance by Shay Given but the ball did not have sufficient pace to find the net.

Ian Walker, clearly in trouble with a back problem early on, had to be replaced by Tim Flowers. He, too, must have been surprised by the impotence of United's attack. They could hardly be so pallid after the break, and they weren't. Their blood was up as Dyer probed more effectively for that elusive opening and Bellamy ran his lowered socks off in his single-minded mission to lance the rearguard.

But City were in no mood to concede territory. Savage epitomised the collective Leicester psyche, at times scurrying like a large shaggy dog chasing a rubber ball thrown between two owners. Occasionally, he bit. But mainly he reduced United's time to dwell on the ball.

When Newcastle did breach City's back line, it proved unprofitable. On the hour, Robert's cross into space was the kind of invitation Shearer doesn't normally decline. He flung himself at it, but it was not the net that burst, merely the veins in the Frenchman's forehead as he gestured his displeasure when the ball flew wide. Dyer was equally unsuccessful as he just failed to convert Solano's ball in from the right. But Leicester had chances, too. From a Stefan Oakes corner, Izzet's header scorched the upright, then the Turkish international nearly broke through but was too elaborate and somehow ended up heading the ball across goal, Akinbiyi failing to cash in.

It was the story of the afternoon. Newcastle below their best, Leicester above it. With performances like this, neither championship nor relegation issues will be settled readily.

Leicester City 0 Newcastle United 0

Attendance: 21,354

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