Newcastle United moved seven points clear of the play-off places as they claimed their second 0-0 draw in the space of two away games with a shut-out at St Andrew’s.
Birmingham goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak produced three excellent saves to keep the scoresheet blank in a game in which Newcastle’s defence was rarely tested.
What were the main talking points from Newcastle’s draw?
GLASS HALF EMPTY OR HALF FULL
Newcastle have gone three games without a win for the first time all season, and have failed to score in their last two away matches.
It could be argued they are struggling for form at the worst possible stage of the season, but this was not a bad result.
With Huddersfield losing on Friday night, it has lifted the Magpies seven points clear of the play-off places. Even if the Terriers win their game in hand, that remains a healthy margin.
Significantly, it is also another away game ticked off. Newcastle only have three more away matches to play now, and with the end of the campaign approaching, every points represents another step towards the top-flight.
SHELVEY’S ABSENCE FELT
Jonjo Shelvey was unable to start after a midweek illness meant he barely had any time to prepare himself for the trip to St Andrew’s.
He came on for the final 12 minutes, and his absence before that proved a major hindrance as Newcastle missed his creative influence and passing ability.
Without Shelvey in the side, there was no one able to feed the forward line and turn defence into attack. Jack Colback and Mo Diame cannot match Shelvey’s range of passing, and as a result, much of Newcastle’s attacking was fairly pedestrian and predictable.
With no game for a fortnight because of the international break, Shelvey should be back in peak condition by the time Newcastle return to action at home to Wigan. However, today’s game provided further evidence of just how important he is – and how hard he is to replace.
HANLEY SLOTS IN
With Ciaran Clark unavailable because of a ligament injury, Grant Hanley was restored to the heart of the back four for the first time since the FA Cup defeat at Oxford.
The centre-half was all at sea on that day, but he produced a solid enough display this afternoon and should be capable of covering for Clark while the Irish international recovers from his injury.
Hanley handled Lukas Jutkiewicz’s physical threat adeptly, and was never troubled by Birmingham’s balls into the box from the flanks.
His major weakness is his lack of pace, and that could be an issue if Newcastle find themselves up against a side adept at breaking on the counter-attack. In a game like this, however, Hanley remains an effective centre-half.
STILL NO MITRO OR MBEMBA
Injuries are starting to bite for Newcastle, so the fact that Aleksandar Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba still cannot get a game just underlines how far they have slipped down the pecking order.
The pair were unused substitutes this afternoon, and it is increasingly hard to see them playing any kind of a meaningful role in the remaining eight games of the season.
Benitez has clearly decided that Daryl Murphy is his preferred alternative to Dwight Gayle, and unless one of the pair picks up an injury, Mitrovic might not kick another ball this term. His future beyond the end of the season has to be in doubt.
Mbemba fell out of favour in the first half of the season, and Hanley is clearly the preferred alternative to Clark. Even if anything was to happen to him, Benitez could still shuffle Paul Dummett infield rather than turn to Mbemba.
Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez said: “We are a little bit disappointed. I think that we did what we had to do with the problems that we had, but still we did well, we had control of the game and we had some chances.
“We had a goal, and I have seen the replay, disallowed when it should have been a goal. We were doing really well.
“When they are in a difficult position you can understand why it is hard for them to play in the way they want to play, but we did what we had to do. We controlled the game little by little, and created chances. But we weren’t able to take them because their keeper did well.
“If you put the last five games together, then you can’t say that it’s bad to have gone away four times and got the points that we’ve got.
“People are expecting that we can win every away game, and I thought we deserved to win, but we couldn’t do it. It’s one more point though, and one less game to play.”
Birmingham manager Gianfranco Zola said: “We showed a lot of heart. The commitment and the desire not to give anything away was top class. Considering the value of the team we were up against, we did well to create a few chances.
“We have played quite well against some of the big teams, we need consistency against some of the smaller ones - although with the smaller ones it is a completely different type of game. In those games you need more quality, not just to defend.
“Newcastle will go up. They have quality and a very good coach. They have everything you need. When I look at their team, I think they will go up 100 per cent, for sure. I hope that too because they are a good side.”
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.