Newcastle United endured their first game without midfielding maestro Jonjo Shelvey, and it showed as the Mags lost another home game with Sheffield Wednesday captain, Glenn Loovens, finding the back of the net in the second half.
The atmosphere created by a sold out stadium raised the tension but it was the visiting side that was able to thrive while Newcastle looked lost in their own stomping ground. Left overwhelmed, Newcastle gave Brighton Albion their chance to move to the top spot - as they are only separated by one point and play their festive fixture on December 27.
Physicality came into play and with players such as Fernando Foresteri and Steven Fletcher, there was some difficulty for the officials. Some of the questionable decisions made by the referee could have altered the scoreline, however, missed penalty appeals or misjudged freekicks do not conceal the fact that Newcastle simply did not step up to the mark.
There are four more games left to play without Shelvey and it is clear that Newcastle United need to find an alternative route to victory as their home form has been compromised once more. For Sheffield, however, it looks bright. They are unbeaten in seven games now and their overpowering performance left their fans singing that The Owls are on the up, and it very much looks as though the players believe that too now they have proved they can beat a top 10 side - an element that has been absent from their campaign thus far.
Christmassy touch from the Toon
Proceedings kicked off with the true meaning of the Christmas season as Newcastle gave two youngsters battling neuroblastoma the gift of being a mascot.
That touching start translated into a positive atmosphere was alive from the moment the moment the ball kicked off. The chants from the Gallowgate end clashed with away chants from the other side of St James' Park until the entire stadium was ringing out with songs representative of the two teams.
Newcastle flustered by dominant visitors
Spurred on by a increasingly cagey atmosphere as the two sets of fans, the flow of the game struggled to amount to anything coherent and the fractured game resulted into a lesser style of play than United have showcased in the Championship. Instead of winning balls, the Toon often found themselves tracking back to defend the positive advances of the visiting side.
In the seventh minute Sheffield Wednesday offered the travelling supporters the first chance of the game with a freekick but was dealt with ease. Dwight Gayle had his chance, breaking into the box after finding space but the lightening strike could only find a place onto the top corner of the cross bar.
Wednesday raised the level of intensity with a barrage of attack. Darlow was able to co-ordinate his defence enough to withstand the heavy fire, he most importantly tipping Steven Fletcher's powerful strike over the bar.
The former Sunderland man is not a stranger to the feeling of a sold out St James' Park, and it was showing as he wormed his way into dangerous positions on more than one occasion, unfazed by the boos directed towards him. Early into the second half, the Scot fired at close range as the Toon flanks were exposed once again. However, Darlow was able to put a stop to the advance with an outstretched leg - causing the crowd to erupt into a chorus of "always believe in Karl Darlow!" to the tune of Gold by Spandau Ballet.
Liam Palmer slammed a ball well over Newcastle's crossbar and that is when the frustration, that was beginning to set in, became hostile. Numerous cynical tackles were made, before half time Wednesday had already picked up several yellow cards. This theme continued into the second half, but with The Mags picking up their fair share of the disciplinary action.
No Shelvey, no creativity
So far in the league, Newcastle fans have enjoyed Hollywood showings from their midfield with the orchestrator always being Shelvey. Despite a squad fully loaded with creative flare and talent, the midfield department of Newcastle looked flat on Boxing Day.
None of the players were able to make the deliveries that have been instrumental to United's ability to finish. Hayden, Matt Ritchie and Jack Colback all made attempts of Shelvey's signature log balls but they often found the opposition or the ball ended up out of play. The team were unable to even string passes together. The team that scored against Ipswich Town in the opening minutes with each player touching the ball, before the oppositon even had a look in, seemed to be long gone.
With such a narrow margin between first and second place in the table, there was a feeling of anxiety making its way around the Milburn stand. Fans muttering their concerns for the next 45 minutes due to the lack of their key man, and their worst fear would soon be confirmed as the home side continued without any imagination.
Wednesday find their pace after the break
Shot stopper Karl Darlow was called into action straight after the game was restarted, quickly becoming the key player for United as the attacking contigent were simply uninspired. An athletic save from the keeper denied Wednesday at first but skipper Glenn Loovens capatalised as the Mags failed to clear. It was delight all round for Yorkshire based outfit as this was Loovens' first goal for his club and the move that would take them further into the play off spots.
Even when the visitors were pushed back into their own half, Newcastle still looked threatened and in dire need of a change, which came fairly soon - Christian Atsu injected some pace, followed by the enthusiasm of Ayoze Perez but the showing was still ultimately lethargic.
Combining Foresteri with Adam Reach was causing havoc between the sluggish Jamaal Lascelles and Paul Dummett. With the constant need to defend as the midfield lost the ball in the middle of the pitch the Toon boss was stuck in a dilemma, play at both ends of the pitch needed a face lift.
One final change, one last chance
As both sides began to tire, Sheffield Wednesday looked the more settled of the two but Rafa had one last trick up his sleeve. Aleksandar Mitrovic. The change to two up front almost immedately yielded dividends as the fan favourite headed the ball down to the corner of the net, a style of goal he has become known for. He made Kieren Westwood work for it, but in the end, the keeper was able to wrap his hands around the ball with relative comfort.
The clock kept on ticking on and the environent grew more toxic, the fans were well aware that this was shaping up to be their team's fourth defeat at home in this half of the season. Their side were picking up in energy but it was too little, too late. Flow of the game was further hampered as Fletcher fell the ground in the middle of the pitch and stayed there, hisses from the 52,000 Geordies implied time wasting. It did not phase him though, he had been in this situation before. However, the debacle did amount to of six minutes of added time, dangerous while the momentum was with Newcastle.
Mitrovic's impact was being felt by the team in blue but Westwood was confident and Loovens extremely capable. This resilient effort as the long spell of additional time trudged on, was enough to send their team home with all three points and leaving Newcastle fans slightly concerned for the new year. The question on each Geordie's mind: "what are we going to do without Shelvey?"