SO near, yet so far.
Newcastle United might be within touching distance of the Premier League finish line.
But it could be some time before they gather three more points to cross it, such is the havoc that has been wreaked on Alan Pardew’s side by injuries and suspensions.
Pardew, already without his midfield mainstays Kevin Nolan and Cheik Tiote through bans, was deprived of Shola Ameobi on the eve of yesterday’s game against Aston Villa.
And a glance at his bench at Villa Park told you all you needed to know about the depth of his squad.
Four teenagers – Shane Ferguson, Michael Richardson, Ryan Donaldson and James Tavernier – made up the numbers.
But they’re more about the future than the present.
Pardew could have done with Ameobi, whose absence opened the door for Nile Ranger’s first top-flight start.
Up to now, Pardew, like Chris Hughton before him, has seen the 19-year-old as an “impact” player to bring off the bench in the belief he’s not ready to be start games.
On this evidence, Pardew’s assessment is right.
Ranger rarely troubled Villa, and for all his strike partner Peter Lovenkrands’s running, he couldn’t get a sight of goal until the dying minutes, which Gerard Houllier’s side spent camped in their own half.
Up to then, the two teams had all but cancelled each other out.
Newcastle, strangely given their more comfortable league position, looked the edgier side after kick off, and spent the early stages pegged back, and seemingly unable to find any rhythm going forward.
Once they got going, chances came and went for Newcastle captain Joey Barton and Ranger.
However, no sooner had United got going, they ground to a halt.
Ashley Young all too easily went down on the left flank under a soft challenge from Barton, and the winger’s deep free-kick met the head of James Collins.
And referee Stuart Attwell’s decision to penalise Barton effectively decided the outcome of the game.
A largely scrappy half could have got worse, much worse, for Newcastle before the break, but former Sunderland striker Darren Bent – who had missed an earlier chance – was adjudged to have been offside when Jean Makoun found him inside the United box.
In the end, it didn’t matter.
The game was Villa’s, with Pardew unable to change the game from the bench.
Ryan Taylor replaced namesake Steven, with Fabricio Coloccini dropping back into defence, while Shefki Kuqi made it on to the pitch late in the match, and at least put himself about and gave Richard Dunne and James Collins an uncomfortable few minutes.
Friedel, however, was equal to two Lovenkrands efforts.
Up to then, Friedel’s team-mates had spent much of the second half attacking the Holte End, where there were flags, but not bedsheets of the kind that had been seen on Newcastle’s last fateful visit to Villa Park, draped from the second tier.
Five minutes or injury time came and went before Attwell called time on a desperately disappointing afternoon for United.
Newcastle’s travelling fans had basked in the sun for much of the game, but there was a chill in the stand, by now largely in the shade, at the final whistle.
Ameobi’s absence, clearly, was one too many.
And somehow Pardew must coax his decimated squad through to the end of the season, which is easier said than done.
The United boss said: “There were not a lot of options on the bench for us, and that’s a worry for us.
“When games are not really flowing, and there’s nothing happening, you want to try to change it.
“We had three young boys on the bench – we didn’t have the options we should have for a club our size.
“That’s a little note for next year. We don’t want to get in that situation again, Villa bought on the likes of (Nigel) Reo-Coker, (Emile) Heskey and (Robert) Pires.”
Ameobi will have his swollen knee scanned today, and Pardew is hopeful the striker will be available for Newcastle’s next game, the home fixture against Premier League leaders Manchester United on April 19.
“He will have a scan on Monday,” said Pardew. “There’s been some swelling on his knee, and there was no way we were going to risk him.
“We will wait and see what the scan says. We’re hoping it’s good news, and we will rest him until Man United.”
Pardew will have Cheik Tiote back from suspension for Man United.
“Now we have a little period again to get to the Man United game,” he went on. “Cheik will be back, and that’s important for us.
“We missed him so it’ll be a benefit for us.”
be back, and they can make a difference to us.”