Lee keeps up the pressure for Newcastle

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The Independent Online
Newcastle United 1 Southampton 0

Never mind the quality, savour the points. Newcastle's performance last night may have fallen below the Utopian standards to which Kevin Keegan aspires, yet Robert Lee's first goal since before Christmas satisfied the burgeoning band of pragmatists at St James' Park as well as diminishing Southampton's prospects of Premiership survival.

Newcastle's second successive single-goal success, allied to an identical scoreline at Old Trafford, brings closer the likelihood of an unprecedented play-off to settle the championship. The two title rivals have virtually identical records in terms of goal difference and goals scored, a situation that has prompted the FA Premier League to discuss dates with the clubs today.

Peter Beardsley wasted an opportunity from the penalty spot to halve Manchester United's advantage in goal difference. However, his aberration was almost forgotten amid the deafening outpouring of relief at the end.

Keegan, for one, was under no illusions as to where Newcastle's priorities now lie when it comes to choosing between principles and points.

"It would have been nice to play a bit better and score a few more goals, but to be honest we edged it again," the Newcastle manager said. "You can't call us the entertainers any more. We're grinding out results now, and that should help us in our last three matches."

Such a statement would normally go against the grain with Keegan. But Newcastle, with a game in hand, are so close to their first championship in 69 years that no one was left in any doubt that he meant every word.

Newcastle, of course, were indebted to Southampton for their unexpected conquest of United. But the Saints' status as "our friends in the south" was already forgotten by the time Lee struck after just nine minutes.

Les Ferdinand, twisting in the air to flick on a long pass, found Faustino Asprilla in the centre circle. The Colombian swept the ball wide for Lee, who was charging up the right flank. Simon Charlton imposed himself between the midfielder and goal, only for Lee to cut inside him and beat Dave Beasant with an angled left-footed strike.

Despite the timing of the setback, Southampton remembered they had won four of the previous five meetings and took the game to Newcastle. Matthew Le Tissier, who otherwise struggled to recreate his impact of last weekend and ended joining Beardsley in receiving a rare caution, sent a 19th-minute header against the post. The ball rebounded against Shaka Hislop's thigh and rolled to safety.

Newcastle's jittery defence was again embarrassed shortly after the half- hour. Ken Monkou headed on to give his fellow centre-back, Francis Benali, a free shot from barely six yards. Benali miskicked horribly, and his misfortunes continued a minute later when he crashed into Lee almost under Mr Gallagher's nose.

Beardsley, who had missed from the penalty spot in the FA Cup shoot-out defeat by Chelsea, took responsibility. His right-footed shot was firmly struck but too close to Beasant, who parried in the fashion that ensures his place in the latter competition's history.

With the tension almost tangible, and Southampton surviving two more penalty appeals, that was the end of the meaningful action. After the hiatus for international action, Newcastle, and indeed Le Tissier and company, now face a fateful final week.

Newcastle United (4 4 2): Hislop; Watson, Peacock, Albert, Elliott; Lee, Batty, Beardsley, Ginola; Asprilla (Clark, 72), Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Barton, Beresford.

Southampton (4 4 2): Beasant; Nielsen (Widdrington 70), Monkou, Benali, Charlton; Dodd, Magilton, Venison, Heaney (Robinson, 72); Shipperley, Le Tissier. Substitute not used: Grobbelaar (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Newcastle are to withdraw Les Ferdinand and Robert Lee from the England squad for next Wednesday's match against Croatia. Kevin Keegan revealed after last night's game that Ferdinand has played the last three matches with a broken toe, while Lee has an Achilles injury.

Photograph, page 27