NEWCASTLE UNITED moved another point closer to promotion, but were forced to endure a frustrating afternoon as they were held to a goalless draw by Birmingham City.
The Magpies were the more threatening side for the majority of the game at St Andrew’s, but Birmingham goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak made a string of impressive saves to ensure the scoresheet remained blank.
With Matt Ritchie’s first-half effort being disallowed, Newcastle have gone three games without a win for the first time all season.
However, today’s point means they move a point clear of Brighton, who face Leeds United in tonight’s evening kick-off, and seven points clear of third-placed Huddersfield, who crashed to a 4-0 defeat at Bristol City last night.
Rafael Benitez was without injured centre-half Ciaran Clark, and the Magpies manager also opted not to take a risk with Jonjo Shelvey, who was barely able to train last week as he struggled with an illness.
Shelvey was named on the substitutes’ bench alongside Dwight Gayle, with Benitez opting to start with Daryl Murphy, who had claimed Newcastle’s consolation in last weekend’s defeat to Fulham.
The Magpies have to play slightly different with Murphy in the side, and they initially struggled to work out how best to break down an unexpectedly well-drilled Birmingham defence.
It was the 18th minute before the visitors created their first opportunity, and that came from a set-piece with Murphy glancing Ritchie’s corner wide at the near post.
Birmingham had already gone close themselves by that stage, but while former Middlesbrough full-back Emilio Nsue took advantage of some slack defending from Yoan Gouffran to meet a left-wing cross from Lukas Jutkiewicz, another player with Boro connections, his first-time effort was blocked by Paul Dummett.
Ten minutes later, and it was Vurnon Anita caught ball-watching on the right of Newcastle’s back four, but again the hosts were unable to benefit. Jutkiewicz got a shot away, but could only direct the ball into the side-netting.
Newcastle were struggling to carve out chances, and while Ayoze Perez won a free-kick in a dangerous position after turning neatly close to the corner of the area, he could only curl his subsequent shot well over the crossbar.
Matt Ritchie touched the ball past goalkeeper Kuszczak after latching on to Grant Hanley’s long ball, only for the covering Ryan Shotton to hack the ball, and Newcastle’s best first-half opportunity came five minutes before the break.
Kuszczak produced a brilliant save to deny Perez after he swivelled to shoot in the area, and while Ritchie reacted quickly to bundle in the rebound, the Scotsman’s effort was ruled out for offside.
Kuszczak was involved again nine minutes after the interval, and again the former Manchester United goalkeeper produced a fine save to keep the scores level.
Murphy rose powerfully to head Ritchie’s corner towards the right-hand corner, but Kuszczak flung himself to his left to claw the ball to safety.
Birmingham posed a rare threat on the hour mark with Jutkiewicz controlling a long ball on his chest before flashing a dangerous shot across the face of goal, but Newcastle remained the dominant force for the majority of the second half.
Their attacking changed tack after the 63rd minute, with Gayle adding some pace and movement as he came off the bench to replace Murphy.
Newcastle’s leading scorer almost made an immediate impact, but while his cross set up Jack Colback for a deflected shot that was heading into the corner, Kuszczak was able to scramble the ball around the post.
Craig Gardner fired in a shot that deflected wide off Colback at the other end, and Benitez brought on Shelvey with 12 minutes remaining in an attempt to engineer a winner.
The ploy almost worked within the space of three minutes, but again Kuszczak came to Birmingham’s rescue. Shelvey teed up Ritchie for a fine low effort that the Blues keeper did well to tip around the post.
A rare Birmingham counter-attack ended with Jutkiewicz firing in a dangerous effort that Karl Darlow saved with five minutes left, but neither side was able to claim a dramatic late winner.
Birmingham (5-4-1): Kusczcak; Nsue, Bielik, Shotton, Robinson, Grounds; Tesche, Kieftenbeld, Gardner (Gleeson 90), Davis; Jutkiewicz (Donaldson 87).
Subs (not used): Legzdins (gk), Maghoma, Frei, Dacres-Cogley, Adams.
Newcastle (4-2-3-1): Darlow; Anita, Hanley, Lascelles, Dummett; Diame, Colback; Ritchie, Perez (Shelvey 78), Gouffran (Atsu 82); Murphy (Gayle 63).
Subs (not used): Elliot (gk), Mbemba, Gamez, Mitrovic.