Rafael Benítez may have navigated an impressively diplomatic path when he was questioned about the future of Gibraltar on Tuesday but, a day later, Newcastle United’s Spanish manager threatened to spontaneously combust following a mysteriously disallowed goal.
While the muddle following Matt Ritchie’s chalked-off penalty conversion subsequently prompted an extraordinary public post-match apology from Keith Stroud, the referee, Benítez’s angst emphasised the extreme tensions of this season’s Championship promotion race.
By the end he was smiling: Ritchie had registered a superlative second-half winner, Newcastle were back on top of the table, a point ahead of Brighton, and, crucially, 10 in front of third-placed Huddersfield. Typically, however, this was far from an easy night for the leaders.
Visiting teams tend to arrive at St James’ Park in packed-defence mode and sure enough, Burton came complete with a back five, excellent organisation and the sort of steely resolve which soon had Benítez ordering his wingers, Matt Ritchie and Christian Atsu, to swap flanks.
The title favourites have a nasty habit of coming undone when teams counter-attack in these sorts of matches here, and they nearly did it again when, at the end of one such break, a header in the box dropped conveniently for Jackson Irvine to volley fractionally over the bar.
It served as the prelude to a descent into utter chaos and confusion. Stirred by that reprieve, Newcastle upped the tempo and Dwight Gayle tumbled, theatrically, in the box.
There was a strong suspicion that a striker who had earlier been denied a possible penalty following John Brayford’s foul had dived in the face of the pursuing Tom Flangan’s attempted interception, but Stroud awarded the penalty, which Ritchie stepped up to convert.
But then Stroud realised that Gayle, waiting to pounce on a potential rebound, had been encroaching in the box as Ritchie took the kick, and disallowed the goal, but instead of ordering the penalty to be retaken, he wrongly awarded a free-kick to Burton.
Shortly after the final whistle PGMOL, the referee’s ruling body, took the highly unusual step of releasing a statement saying the laws of the game state the penalty should have been retaken following Gayle’s encroachment but that Stroud had misapplied the law, was understandably upset, and that he and his fellow officials apologised for the mistake.
At the time Benítez spiralled from intensely agitated to absolutely ballistic, the boos reached ear-splitting proportions and players and coaches congregated in groups, circling and challenging officials.
When play finally resumed the mood music was righteous indignation underscored by absolute bewilderment. “I don’t know what happened,” said Nigel Clough, Burton’s manager. “But I do know it wasn’t a penalty in the first place. I’m not particularly interested in the decision but my players were magnificent. We merited a goal.” Certainly, on this evidence they deserve to win their own battle to remain in this division.
Benítez did receive “an explanation” from Stroud, but, sparing the official’s feelings, said he “preferred not to talk about it”. Anxious and indignant, the stadium’s second-half hostility grew as Stroud accidentally blocked Jonjo Shelvey, thwarting a possibly defence-splitting pass from the midfielder. The home players’ anger became self-destructive and was reflected by increasingly edgy snatched final balls and poor decision-making as Ayoze Pérez sidefooted wide, Shelvey shot over and Jamaal Lascelles was booked for a silly foul.
Clough’s players, though, were dropping ever deeper. So deep that it was no surprise when they finally conceded. Perhaps appropriately the goal was scored by Ritchie, the winger collecting Shelvey’s pass and retaining his poise amid the sound and fury, curling an exquisite right-foot, 20-yard shot into the top corner.
“It was an important game, we needed three points and Burton were very difficult to break down,” said Benítez. He believes his side require 11 points from their final six games to ensure promotion, but cautioned “between now and the end there will be no easy games”.
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