Newcastle fall short to let in Liverpool

Southampton 3 Newcastle United 3
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The Independent Online

There were grim tidings for Continental publicans from St Mary's last night. The Toon Army's annual tour of Europe is in severe jeopardy. An unknown goalkeeper, and their own rather more familiar defensive frailty, combined to end Newcastle United's hopes of qualifying for next season Champions League. A Uefa Cup place remains possible but the Magpies are no longer masters of their own destiny.

There were grim tidings for Continental publicans from St Mary's last night. The Toon Army's annual tour of Europe is in severe jeopardy. An unknown goalkeeper, and their own rather more familiar defensive frailty, combined to end Newcastle United's hopes of qualifying for next season Champions League. A Uefa Cup place remains possible but the Magpies are no longer masters of their own destiny.

Shaking off their exhaustion Newcastle's attack gave everything but foundered on the rock of debutant Alan Blayney, a Northern Ireland under-21 international and Saints' third-choice 'keeper. Despite his excellence they twice led, through Shola Ameobi and Lee Bowyer, but poor defending allowed Saints to level through James Beattie and a Titus Bramble own goal, then take the lead through Leandre Griffit. Darren Ambrose's last-minute equaliser was the least Newcastle deserved but it was not enough.

Liverpool now go into the Champions' League while Newcastle's chances of reaching the Uefa Cup depend on their gaining a better result at Liverpool on Saturday than Aston Villa, the other contenders, achieve at home to Manchester United the same day.

Given Newcastle have not won away in the League since October, and only won once anywhere in eight games, the portents are not good. Failure to reach Europe will increase the pressure on Sir Bobby Robson, pressure which comes as much from the boardroom as from supporters and media.

"It will be a disaster if we finish sixth but we were unlucky," Robson said. "We dominated play but it just wouldn't go in for us. I'm hurting very much. We've given away silly goals, we've not played well enough at home and we've had injuries at the wromg time. But we're still in the last four in the Uefa Cup and sixth in league. We've come a long way from four years ago."

Last night Robson dropped Laurent Robert, who had been booed after another anaemic performance on Sunday, replacing him with Kieron Dyer. He had been rushed back after a hamstring tear but, encouragingly for England, looked lively.

Dyer had scored twice, and Robert once, in Newcastle's 3-0 FA Cup win here in January ­ their only win at Southampton since 1972. Their chances of repeating this success seemed bright when the teamsheets were released. Newcastle have injury problems but they pale beside Southampton's: Antii Niemi became the ninth absent senior player when laid low by a virus. With his understudy Paul Smith having gashed an arm Blayney made a debut. When, half-an-hour in, Claus Lundekvam limped off his protection was reduced to a reserve back four including the 17-year-old Martin Crainey who was making only his second appearance.

A contest between one team lacking experience and another short of confidence did not augur well but the game was thrilling. This was often due to errors beginning with the Newcastle defence's inexplicable failure to mark Anders Svensson at Paul Telfer's fourth-minute free-kick.

Shay Given saved but the tone was set for both sides. Three minutes later Lundekvam allowed Ameobi to head on Olivier Bernard's long ball, control it himself, and shoot past Blayney.

It was the perfect start but Newcastle lacked the belief to build on it. Southampton pressed and Titus Bramble had to head clear from Brett Ormerod with Given out of position, then Bernard cleared a deflected Yoann Folly shot off the line after Given had saved. There was no one on hand to clear, though, when Given similarly failed to hold Svensson's 18th-minute shot and Beattie tapped in.

Play ricocheted from end-to-end Dyer, Folly and Bowyer having chances before, with Southampton attempting to substitute Lundekvam, Newcastle took a quick throw-in. The ball was worked to Ameobi on the left and his cross was driven in by Bowyer.

A furious Southampton tore into Newcastle whose nervous central defence quickly cracked. Bramble, misreading the bounce of Telfer's cross, turned it past Given off his thigh.

Newcastle began the second period on the offensive going close three times in as many minutes. Steven Caldwell headed an Ambrose cross on to the bar and Ambrose curled a chip on to the same woodwork. Then Alan Shearer met Bowyer's cross with a powerful downward header only to see Blayney make an incredible save turning the ball over the bar. Five minutes from time he matched this with a stunning parry from Bowyer's point-blank volley.

"I only knew I was playing 20 minutes before the warm-up," Blayney said. "I thought 'nightmare'. I was very nervous and when they scored after six minutes I thought 'here we go'."

There was still time for two more goals. With Southampton down to 10 men, Phillips having limped off, and United committed to attack, Griffit ran on to Beattie's flick-on, eluded Bernard, and rolled the ball through Given's legs. It seemed all over but Ambrose, from 30 yards, drove in a deflected shot to give Newcastle a glimmer of hope. "We're still fighting," Robson said.

Southampton (4-4-2): Blayney 8; Telfer 7, Lundekvam 4 (Kenton 5, 35), Hall 5, Crainey 5; Fernandes 5 (Griffit, 80), Prutton 5, Folly 6, A Svensson 8; Beattie 4, Ormerod 4 (Phillips 5, 74) Substitutes not used: Poke (gk), Blackstock.

Newcastle United (4-4-2) Given 5; Hughes 4, Bramble 3 (Bridges, 89), Caldwell 4, Bernard 4; Ambrose 8, Bowyer 6, Speed 5, Dyer 6 (Robert 6, 74): Shearer 4, Ameobi 6. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Griffin, Viana.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire) 5.

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