Newcastle United suffered a serious setback in their battle for Premier League survival as they failed to find a breakthrough in a 0-0 draw with relegated Aston Villa on Saturday.
Rafa Benitez’s side dominated for long spells at Villa Park, but squandered several good chances as the hosts avoided a club record 12th successive league defeat with a rare resolute display.
And with Sunderland defeating Chelsea 3-2, Newcastle are back in the relegation zone and sit one point behind their hated local rivals, who can condemn the Magpies to the Championship with a victory over Everton in their game in hand on Wednesday.
Newcastle’s fate is out of their hands as they prepare to host Tottenham on what could prove to be a depressing final day of the season on Tyneside next weekend.
The game began in an almost carnival atmosphere inside Villa Park, with Villa fans tossing beach balls around as they continued to boo their own players.
Home fans had salt rubbed into their wounds in the opening stages when a plane circled Villa Park trailing a banner which was apparently arranged by fans of Birmingham City, their local rivals.
It claimed unpopular Villa owner Randy Lerner ‘is a blue’.
Meanwhile, Ashley Westwood had the first attempt at goal for Villa but his long-range shot flew well wide.
It was Newcastle, however, who made all of the running early on with the home side struggling to escape their own half.
They had their first chance on 23 minutes when Papiss Cisse raced onto a curling pass from Andros Townsend.
But the young striker failed to make a clean connection with his shot and Mark Bunn in the Villa goal made a comfortable save.
– Disappointing –
A promising Newcastle break-away brought the next chance in a disappointing game, but Moussa Sissoko sent a tame shot straight at Mark Bunn in the Villa goal after a useful cross by Vernon Anita.
Newcastle ought to have led just a minute into the second half after a powerful run and dangerous cross from Townsend.
The ball ricocheted off Ciaran Clark, Cisse failed to make contact with his shot and it ran for Jack Colback, who blasted over from 15 yards when he should have tested Bunn.
And the general standard of the game was encapsulated on 58 minutes after Paul Dummett won a corner for Newcastle.
It was taken by Georgino Wijnaldum from the left and misdirected so poorly it went for a throw-in on the opposite side of the field.
Then came the best chance of the game so far as Villa switched off having initially cleared a corner.
It was helped acrobatically back into the penalty area by Cheick Tiote for substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic, who lifted an attempted chip over the advancing Bunn but cleared the crossbar with his effort.
Karl Darlow in the Newcastle goal then made a smart save from a shot by Jordan Ayew, but the offside flag had already been raised.
As news of Sunderland going ahead against Chelsea filtered through to the Newcastle fans, their side missed another excellent chance to lead.
Colback’s cross from the left found the head of Mitrovic, who sent a header well wide when he should have hit the target.
The visitors had another opening from a cross by Sissoko but Mitrovic sent a difficult header over the bar.
In stoppage time a fierce drive by Wijnaldum struck Clark in the face and bounced to safety.
And then Wijnaldum’s free-kick was saved easily by Bunn as Newcastle’s frustration was compounded.