Story of Newcastle's season as Man City and Liverpool cut short Villa thrills (2024)

On reflection, the first two months of Newcastle United’s 2023-24 campaign were to be a microcosm of what was to come.

Some huge wins, memorable performances and scintillating football . . . but also some opportunities missed and results away from St James’ Park which hinted at a theme which would continue. It’s worth remembering that Eddie Howe’s side were handed a challenging start to their Premier League campaign, with Manchester City, Liverpool, Brighton and Aston Villa all on the horizon in the opening weeks.

All four had finished the previous season strongly, so while optimism was high when Unai Emery brought his Villa side to St James’ Park in August for the opening day of the season, it was tempered with the knowledge that this would be no easy win in the summer sun.

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How wrong we were. After a summer which saw Sandro Tonali, Harvey Barnes, Tino Livramento and Lewis Hall arrive on Tyneside, only Italian midfielder Tonali was handed his debut in the starting XI – and he didn’t take long to make an impression. After Bruno Guimaraes’ shot was saved, Joelinton and Anthony Gordon kept the chance alive, with the former Everton man crossing for Tonali to volley home after just six minutes.

What we didn’t know then was that it would be his only goal of the season, with his campaign cut short by a ban for illegal betting. One-time United target Moussa Diaby levelled for Villa, but with barely a quarter-of-an-hour on the clock Newcastle were back ahead. It would not be the last time Alexander Isak got his name on the scoresheet, with this finish one of the easier ones he would score following Sven Botman’s cutback.

His second was sublime. Taking advantage of Ezri Konsa’s lapse, the Swede took control in the box before lifting the ball over World Cup-winning goalkeeper Emi Martinez to put United in control. Howe then made changes, with Callum Wilson and a second debutant in Harvey Barnes coming on. They didn’t take long to have an impact, Barnes setting up Wilson for the fourth and then the former Leicester man rounding the scoring off with United’s fifth.

So much for a hard start. However, reality was to bite in the coming weeks.

Story of Newcastle's season as Man City and Liverpool cut short Villa thrills (1)

While there were some positives in the 1-0 defeat to European champions Manchester City the following week, Newcastle somehow allowed a one-goal lead against 10-man Liverpool to slip when a Darwin Nunez double rocked St James’ Park. Anthony Gordon had fired United ahead but they couldn’t make their supremacy count after Virgil van Dijk’s red card and Jurgen Klopp’s late changes cost them dearly.

Brighton was a different story altogether. Roberto de Zerbi’s side punished a lacklustre Newcastle in a 3-1 defeat which saw Evan Ferguson grab a hat-trick for the home side. In truth, United were never in the game and Wilson’s late goal was merely scant consolation.

On paper, four points from four tough opening fixtures wasn’t disastrous, but while we had seen the very best of Howe’s side against Villa, we had also seen them at their worst at Brighton. It was a trend we would see throughout the campaign until they found late consistency, although at this stage the injuries which would haunt their season had yet to surface.

However, Ferguson’s final goal at the Amex Stadium would be the last that Newcastle would concede in the opening two months as their defensive strength returned. They simply had to beat Brentford at St James’ Park to record just their second win of the season, and while their performance merited more than a 1-0 win, thanks to Wilson’s penalty, the points were all that mattered.

And then Europe took centre stage. Much had been made of how difficult Newcastle’s Champions League group draw had been, but there was a feeling that AC Milan weren’t the side they used to be.

That said, a trip to the San Siro is never easy and so thousands travelled to Northern Italy in hope rather than expectation. It must be said that the Serie A side had the better chances on the night – in fact pretty much all of the chances – but United held out. Sean Longstaff could even have won it for Newcastle late on, but the draw was more than creditable.

The next question was how would they cope with the demands of midweek European trips and the rigours of the Premier League.

Newly-promoted Sheffield United were waiting for Howe’s travellers at Bramall Lane and, while they may not have the quality in their squad, we all knew they had the players to exploit any weariness or lack of focus in the ranks should Newcastle’s European exertions prove too much.

A mere hour and a half later, we had our answer. Boy, did we have our answer!

OK, so the Blades didn’t turn out to be as sharp as we feared, but Newcastle ran in EIGHT unopposed goals to send a strong message to the Premier League. What’s more, eight different goalscorers got in on the act, with Longstaff, Dan Burn, Botman, Wilson, Bruno, Gordon, Miguel Almiron and Isak all notching. Kieran Trippier had a direct hand in three of the goals on a day few will forget.

Cup draws weren’t kind to Newcastle all season, so it should be no surprise that they were pulled out of the hat to face Manchester City in the third round of the Carabao Cup – but at least it was at St James’ Park.

Story of Newcastle's season as Man City and Liverpool cut short Villa thrills (2)

Both sides fielded slightly weakened teams, but there was still plenty of quality on show, not least when Joelinton weaved his way into the box before squaring for Isak to score the winner. Paul Dummett and Emil Krafth formed an unlikely if solid partnership at the back which kept out Jack Grealish, Julian Alvarez and Co, and stayed resolute even when Phil Foden and Jeremy Doku were introduced late on.

It was to be the last time United would be drawn at home in a cup competition, but after a difficult August, sending Pep Guardiola’s treble winners home with nothing to show for their efforts was a serious morale boost for Eddie Howe’s squad.

They were back at St James’ Park just a few days later for the visit of Burnley to bring the curtain down on September. With the 8-0 win over Sheffield United still fresh in the memories, there was hope of a similar performance against fellow new boys, but Vincent Kompany’s men were made of sterner stuff.

In fact, they made the brighter start before Miguel Almiron dashed any hopes they harboured of a shock by curling a sublime left-foot effort into the net to put United ahead after 14 minutes, and Isak made sure of the points with a second-half penalty. So a positive end to a testing first two months and, with Paris Saint-Germain next up at St James’, hopes were high of more to come.

One word of warning . . . United ended September with Sven Botman, Joe Willock, Callum Wilson and Joelinton ruled out through injury. That was only just the start.

Story of Newcastle's season as Man City and Liverpool cut short Villa thrills (2024)
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