Newcastle Utd 0 Blackburn Rovers 1: Derbyshire's late strike plunges Keegan into fight for survival

Misfiring Owen leaves Newcastle's messiah contemplating the unthinkable
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The Independent Online

Oh-Oh. Kevin Keegan and Newcastle United are said to have magnetic appeal but both are feeling a very different sort of pull: it's called gravity, aka relegation. Newcastle are just three points off it now after Keegan's seventh game in charge, which just like the previous six, yet again failed to yield a breakthrough victory.

Nil-nil would have been underwhelming but Tyneside would have taken a measure of encouragement from a point and the knowledge that Blackburn Rovers' goalkeeper Brad Friedel was the most significant man on the pitch. But for Friedel Michael Owen might have had a hat-trick.

Friedel made two excellent second-half saves from the Newcastle captain that kept Rovers in the contest. That meant that when Rovers' substitute Matt Derbyshire was played in by David Bentley in the 90th minute and scampered away from the toiling Jose Enrique to place a cool shot beyond Steve Harper, Blackburn had a sixth away win and Newcastle a third straight defeat.

St James' Park gasped at the enormity of it all. No one is underestimating the state of the Geordie nation and there is a trip to Anfield next Saturday. That is followed by one to Birmingham City, who are now just two points shy of Newcastle. This could get a whole lot worse before it gets better. If it gets better.

"We're not safe, by no means," said Keegan afterwards. "Football can be cruel. I thought we played some really good stuff and we should've come in at half-time two goals to the good. Then we could've scored four or five in the second half.

"That was bad enough but for them to pinch it at the end was a body blow. The players don't deserve that."

Keegan said that Owen's first words on entering the dressing room were of apology and he had praise for his striker's "sharpness". Buried deep beneath the disappointment was also some consolation that Keegan "can genuinely say to the players that if they play like that for the rest of the season we will be OK".

It seems amazing to be speculating about Newcastle relinquishing their top-flight status but forthcoming home games against Fulham, Reading and Sunderland are now assuming vital importance.

Keegan's analysis of the game was not that of a one-eyed losing manager. Mark Hughes shared it. "It was a little bit hard on Newcastle," Hughes said, "I think they had 16 corners or something. Brad made a couple of crucial saves at good times for us. I think they'll get out of trouble."

But it says something of the turmoil at Newcastle that Hughes said Blackburn "targeted" this game as a place to get three points to maintain their European quest. Blackburn are five points off a Champions' League place and while that may prove beyond them, Hughes has assembled a tight team that combines tenacity with style.

It is embodied by Bentley, who was influential in central midfield and who supplied the killer pass to Derbyshire.

"We always felt we had the weapons in the team to break quickly," said Hughes.

That it came from a Newcastle corner merely added to the angst Keegan felt. "We weren't set up right and we got caught." Chris Hughton's impact is yet tobe made.

Yet in a different era this would have been all about Owen. With Newcastle beginning brightly Damien Duff missed a third-minute chance and then another in the 21st minute. Ten minutes before half-time Owen then ran on to Joey Barton's cute pass and rounded Friedel. The goal gaped briefly but Owen, on his weaker foot, miscued.

Keegan might have guessed there and then that Newcastle would not score. They were also indebted to Harper for saves from Andre Ooijer and Morten Gamst Pedersen.

It was tense. Had Owen's header beaten Friedel in the 56th minute that would have vanished. But Friedel tipped the four-yard effort over and six minutes later denied his former Liverpool colleague again this time with an outstretched boot.

Newcastle continued to press; Rovers continued to break. Harper blocked from Roque Santa Cruz in the 88th minute but two minutes later Harper and Newcastle were beaten. Again.

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