Newcastle United will celebrate New Year back on top of the Championship but Rafael Benítez’s side arguably owed an ultimately restorative victory to Matt Mills’s contentious 60th minute sending off for a second bookable offence.
Goals from Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle (twice) lifted Newcastle a point above Brighton – whose home game against Cardiff was postponed due to fog – at the summit but until Nottingham Forest’s captain received his marching orders, Philippe Montanier’s players looked capable of forcing at least a draw against suddenly self doubting hosts.
“I had confidence before but the sending off was a big advantage for us,” acknowledged Benitez. “I’m pleased to be top because it’s not an easy league.”
If Newcastle had a point to prove in the wake of a 1-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday here on Boxing Day – their sixth reverse of the season – they were also rather keen to exert revenge on Forest.
Early in December, Montanier’s team beat them 2-1 at the City Ground, with that result heavily influenced by the refereeing controversies which led to Newcastle being reduced to nine men after Jonjo Shelvey and Paul Dummett saw red on a night when Forest’s Henri Lansbury played agent provocateur.
While those sendings off were subsequently rescinded, Benitez was once again without Shelvey on Friday night as he served the second game of his five match suspension for racially abusing Wolverhampton’s Romain Saiss. Lansbury, meanwhile, was also absent, hamstrung.
With Forest 18th, and apparently almost as unstable in defence as in the boardroom, the stage seemed ideally set for Newcastle to emphasise that they can cope without Shelvey’s playmaking skills after all and are far from a one man team.
Any starting XI featuring Ritchie generally stands a chance of troubling the opposition and so it proved in the fourth minute. Ben Osborn’s foul on Paul Dummett earned the Tynesiders a free-kick and Ritchie’s left-footed execution took a generous deflection off the wall, thoroughly wrong-footing Vladimir Stojkovic.
Benitez’s players were once again struggling to recapture their creativity and had lost control of the tempo. Slowly cottoning on to this, Forest grew in confidence and a familiar swagger returned to Nicklas Bendtner’s attacking game. When Eric Lichaj squared, Bendtner dummied audaciously and Nicolao Dumitru shot narrowly wide.
Undeterred, Hildeberto Pereira continued to ruffle Geordie composure to the point where Newcastle’s defence failed to clear a Lichaj cross, Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark allowing the loose ball to eventually fall to Dumitru whose left-foot half-volley was far too good for Karl Darlow.
With Jack Colback and Isaac Hayden ceding too many midfield duels, Forest continued advancing and Bendtner’s low shot tested Darlow.
With the influential Lichaj keeping Ritchie on a tight rein, a measure of desperation entered Newcastle’s play so they were delighted to seize a potential lifeline when Forest’s Matt Mills was controversially sent off.
Booked for a challenge on Ayoze Pérez, the dissenting defender swiftly proceeded to collect a second yellow card, for throwing the ball at Dwight Gayle after Keith Stroud, the referee, consulted with the fourth official.
With Montanier leading the technical area protests and an animated Pereira giving Stroud a stern on pitch talking to, matters briefly became mildly anarchic and Mills departed slowly.
“We were playing a decent game until then,” lamented Forest’s manager whose job security is reportedly fragile. “I prefer not to comment on the referee’s decision but it was the wrong decision. The first yellow card sure, the second was very tough, it changed the game.”
Once order was restored Gayle volleyed his 18th goal of the season in acrobatic, angled, fashion after Lichaj’s attempt to head Clark’s long ball over the top of Montanier’s defence merely succeeded in highlighting the former Crystal Palace striker’s poacher’s instinct.
Gayle’s 19th goal of the campaign soon followed when two defenders missed Ritchie’s clever, deep, cross and the Championship’s leading scorer chested it down before bundling the ball over the line.
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