Newcastle United 0 Blackburn Rovers 1: Newcastle face up to reality of relegation battle

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The Independent Online

The question can now be asked without flippancy: can Newcastle United go down? Can a club of such scale, one that contains a £17m striker in Michael Owen, a once £17m winger in Damien Duff, a £10m substitute in Obafemi Martins and various other top-flight millionaires, including World Cup players like Mark Viduka and Nicky Butt, can it really be relegated in 10 weeks' time? The answer is yes.

Beginning on Saturday at Anfield, Newcastle have 10 games in 64 days to preserve their 15-year Premier League status. Saturday's defeat to Blackburn Rovers left them three points above relegation and few on Tyneside consider their team too good to go down.

This was a better performance than of late and had Owen been in top form, Newcastle would have won. The tenor of debate would have been markedly different. But spirited as they were, Newcastle lost and that is a third defeat in a row under Kevin Keegan, a fourth in six League games since Keegan returned. Four of those fixtures have been at St James' Park, which leaves six of the remaining 10 away. In 13 away games so far this season, Newcastle have won two and lost nine. Last season they won four of 19. This is a team and a club on the slide.

The statistics keep on coming. Newcastle have not won in the League at Liverpool since April 1994. They have not dug out a point there in four seasons. Most worrying of all, Newcastle's 28 points is a lower tally at this stage than in any of their previous 14 Premier League seasons.

Hence the "unthinkable" which was put to Owen. "I am much more positive after this game than after the last couple of matches," he said, "because we were conceding left, right and centre, and not creating. But today we created a load of chances and I missed the majority of them.

"I was probably more worried about the situation after the Manchester United [5-1] match. That might sound stupid because we are three points nearer the relegation zone. But today was a day where we looked strong at the back and were creating chances. So there is optimism."

That was a word Keegan used after Manchester United and Newcastle's intent against Blackburn justified its use. Yet afterwards he still bore the flummoxed look of a man who had backed Devon Loch. "We have the players and know-how to get out of it," Keegan said. "It is a test but the Premier League is a test from fixture one to 38 – or 39 in the future. It is a test every time you go out."

For himself and Owen Anfield is, of course, a special test. Keegan dedicated his autobiography to his family "and to the memory of Bill Shankly". One problem, though, is that if Liverpool win, Newcastle have nine days to their next game, a fortnight today at Birmingham City, by which time the clubs around them will have played again and, perhaps, won.

That may seem unduly negative yet if Newcastle play as vigorously as they did here and lose, what happens when they fall below that level? There is still, as Mark Hughes said, visible "apprehension".

Hughes was a magnanimous victor. His side does him credit. He needed Brad Friedel to make two fine second-half saves from Owen to keep Rovers afloat, but Steve Harper made three important blocks as well, while Roque Santa Cruz blazed over from 10 yards in the 50th minute when gifted the ball by Steven Taylor.

It was a game of 21 corners and it was from one in the 90th minute that Matt Derbyshire scored. Sadly for Newcastle, it was their corner. Steven Warnock, the sort of solid full-back Newcastle do not buy, cleared the ball up the left to David Bentley. The England player was impressive in central midfield but here he was on the left, about to jink away from Jose Enrique. Bentley then rolled the ball to Derbyshire, whose composed finish half-emptied the stadium.

It was not inappropriate. Half-empty is how Newcastle's glass feels this morning.

Goal: Derbyshire 90 (0-1).

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Harper; Beye, Taylor, Faye, Enrique; Milner, Butt (Martins, 67), Barton, Duff (N'Zogbia, 78); Owen, Smith. Substitutes not used: Forster (gk), Cacapa, Carroll

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Ooijer, Samba, Khizanishvili, Warnock; Emerton (Derbyshire, 60), Bentley, Reid, Pedersen; Santa Cruz, McCarthy (Roberts, 60). Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Mokoena, Tugay

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Booked: Newcastle Beye; Blackburn Bentley, Pedersen.

Man of the match: Friedel.

Attendance: 50,796.

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