VAR was brought in to ensure the things that truly excite us about football were not lost beneath endless, tedious debate. Yet here we are, coming out of a League Cup semi final between two sides who haven’t won a trophy in decades, a real footballing occasion, talking about the officiating.
One disallowed goal apiece, both due to handball, took the shine off this meeting of the third-placed and rock-bottom teams in the Premier League. For one side, the Carabao Cup has been an early warning that they have arrived as a genuine force. For the other, it has been a sticking plaster that is barely holding the club together. But the debate in the coming days will eclipse both Newcastle’s victory and Southampton’s spirited display.
The first half began with the typically cautious air of a high-stakes first leg to a two-pronged semi final. An early Joe Willock cross found Callum Wilson for a half chance. James Ward-Prowse’s smart through-ball did similar for debutant Carlos Alcaraz at the other end. Players were getting into good positions but showing a lack of cutting edge when receiving the ball.
Miguel Almiron was a bright spark in a lumpen display, as the Paraguayan wizard often is. A pair of smart down-the-line passes to Kieran Trippier led to two crosses that both needed better finishes from Willock. Almiron also got the wrong side of Duje Caleta-Car, who was booked for clumsily chopping him.
The only truly memorable moment of the half arrived when Willock had a shot saved from the left channel. Wilson sliced at thin air and Joelinton smashed home the bouncing ball to give the Magpies an apparent lead. Referee Stuart Attwell deliberated over the decision, with the goal eventually chalked off for an apparent handball from Joelinton as the ball bounced off the turf. Replays appeared to show the ball hitting his torso rather than an illegal body part. But nevertheless the goal was ruled out, with VAR not finding a clear and obvious error in the decision.
Plenty of debate in the studio 👀
Almiron’s artistry was on display once more in the second half. The winger cut back for Sean Longstaff who hopelessly ballooned his shot over the bar. Almiron must have been taking it personally minutes later, when a pitch-perfect cross saw Joelinton miss an absolute sitter. The Brazilian fired over with a close-range effort that truly beggared belief.
Southampton were on the receiving end for the most part, though former Magpie Adam Armstrong fashioned a long-range chance which went over the bar. Manager Nathan Jones brough Che Adams and Samuel Edozie on, changing the look of his side from an attacking perspective. It was a timely switch considering how characterless Saints had looked thus far.
Kyle Walker-Peters nearly carved out something spectacular for Ward-Prowse. A tidy cross saw the midfielder attempt an overhead kick which didn’t quite come off. While the midfielder is used to delivering highlight reel moments, they usually come from dead ball situations. Adams then drew a superb save from the feet of Pope as Saints belatedly found a foothold in the game. Pope was called into action again with another excellent reaction save from Adams after a Ward-Prowse free kick created the opening.
After one alleged refereeing injustice and one inexcusable miss, Joelinton finally found the net with just over a quarter of an hour to go. Alexander Isak’s tireless work on the right put the striker in a position to square to the Brazilian midfielder. The Newcasle number seven slotted home with the sort of calm aplomb that evaded him earlier. And this time there was no stray arm in sight.
Almost immediately, Armstrong popped up at the other end to stick the knife in his former club. Ward-Prowse’s cross was nodded on by Adams towards Edozie. The 19-year-old lifted the ball towards Armstrong who bundled it home. This time VAR was employed and Armstrong was found to have handled the ball. It appeared to ricochet off the knee of Dan Burn, then the knee of Armstrong before hitting his hand then his knee and arriving in the net. But whatever your interpretation or mine, the goal did not stand.
Just to hammer home the heavy hand of the officials over proceedings, Caleta-Car was sent off for a second yellow card with five minutes to go. A thoughtless trip on substitute Alain Saint-Maximin had Attwell seeing red and Jacob Murphy amusingly waving the Southampton player off the field.
Thankfully, for a game that was steered so forcefully by refereeing decisions, nothing was truly settled tonight. There is everything to play for at St James’ Park in the second leg. Southampton have far from sacrificed a possible place at Wembley, though Newcastle remain in the box seat. Let’s hope when these teams meet again in a week’s time, the players rather than the officials will decide the tie.