The grumble on the final whistle, with its undercurrent of anxiety, told its own story. This was a result which did little for either of these teams as they strive for survival in a division whose lower reaches are so congested that a win can thrust any of those currently labouring around the cut-off into the deceptive security of mid-table. Every missed opportunity is made to feel all the more excruciating in that context.
The locals gnashed the loudest at the inadequacy of a point. Crystal Palace have lost only against Arsenal their last 15 top-flight games but are cramped at present by the prospect of collisions with Tottenham, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool in five fixtures from the end of this month. That looming run made beating Newcastle all the more significant, and left them cursing Ciaran Clark’s goalline blocks to deny Christian Benteke, a player whose body language sometimes suggests he will never score again in these parts, and Yohan Cabaye as the hosts’ frenzied pressure threatened, tantalisingly, to yield another late success.
The visitors, in contrast, with their raucous support bellowing for the removal of Mike Ashley, would rightly point to their own dominance up to the moment Clark was penalised for a shirt tug on the Belgian early in the second period as evidence they merited reward. Had Kenedy, liberated by Ayoze Pérez’s pass, not been thwarted by Wayne Hennessey’s chest, the goalkeeper then springing up to turn aside the Spaniard’s curled follow-up, then they might have secured a fourth away win. “That would have made the difference,” offered Rafael Benítez. “But if you don’t score a second, you’ll find yourself under pressure against a good team.”
They were under the cosh through most of the second period with Wilfried Zaha, restored to the flank, focused and formidable. The Ivorian is the player who can make the difference at Palace, a talent who can set them apart from the others condemned to labouring against the drop. He tormented DeAndre Yedlin for long periods, teasing space on the flank and benefiting from Patrick van Aanholt’s revival at his back. It was Zaha’s cross which Benteke strained to meet early in the second half only for the assistant to spot Clark pulling down on the forward’s shirt. The Belgian had, in truth, been grappling with the defender, but the stretch of red and blue was more eye-catching.
Luka Milivojevic scored from the penalty spot via Karl Darlow’s glove – “I was unlucky against Manchester City, and lucky today,” he offered post-match through a grin – and, thereafter, every ball flung into the Newcastle area provoked panic. Darlow’s display rather withered, his composure suddenly drained. James McArthur and Zaha might have won the day, but it was Clark who would save it two minutes from time. Benteke’s header was powerful and goal-bound, and the floored Cabaye’s follow-up on target, but each was smothered and scrambled clear by the defender with Darlow out of position and exposed. Jonjo Shelvey’s pull on McArthur at the resultant corner went unnoticed, and Newcastle had their point.
Roy Hodgson admitted to “frustration” that the late pressure had not pilfered greater reward but Palace cannot rely upon late rallies as often as they do. In truth, he is a manager who must be perplexed as to his own side’s inconsistencies. His team start games at a snail’s pace too often, their squad stretched to breaking point by injuries to six senior players and Martin Kelly the latest to pull up with hamstring trouble. The signings of Alexander Sǿrloth, Jarolsaw Jach and Erdal Rakip have bolstered numbers, but none was used here. It says much about Hodgson’s resources that the last tactical substitution he felt able to instigate was at Southampton on 2 January.
Benítez should have the luxury of Islam Slimani against Manchester United on Sunday, and the Algerian’s bite and brawn in front of goal will be needed over this team’s own daunting run of games. His team had impressed early on, Darlow blocking well from Benteke and Yedlin from Zaha when Palace threatened, but Shelvey dominated when offered time to orchestrate the play and Kenedy, Dwight Gayle and Pérez were always pesky on the counter. It was the Spanish playmaker who gained a slight touch on Kenedy’s low corner midway through the first half as the ball fizzed across the six-yard box and Mohamed Diamé, having spun untracked out of the mass of bodies in the middle, poked in at the far post.
Then came Hennessey’s saves, Kenedy cutting inside James Tomkins to force the Welshman to block and Pérez then thwarted from distance, which pepped Palace’s belief that they might yet revive. “It may come down to our ability to recover,” Hodgson said. “That ability to come out and be a totally different team. I know we had 21 strikes at goal, but we put the ball into the penalty area a lot.” Zaha may be this side’s inspiration but, if Benteke found some form, they would surely scramble clear.