THE best thing you can say about Newcastle United at the moment is that they are somehow finding a way to spare their embarrassment. If it wasn’t for being able to score from the penalty spot, they would deservedly be in a considerable mess.

Three days after Callum Wilson’s controversial stoppage-time spot-kick secured an undeserved draw with Tottenham, Newcastle’s players triumphed in a penalty shoot-out against League Two Newport County to reach the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup.

Mark Gillespie’s save from Ryan Taylor meant Joelinton’s earlier miss did not prove costly, and the Magpies’ place in the last eight was secured when Newport centre-half Brandon Cooper blazed his sudden-death effort high into the night sky.

The cheers of the Newcastle players echoed around the empty stands, but this was not a night for celebration. Outperformed for long periods by opponents three divisions below them, Newcastle’s limitations were far too obvious and alarming to be obscured by the lottery of a shoot-out win, even if its novelty was nevertheless noteworthy. The Magpies have now won two of the 12 penalty contests they have been involved in.

The fact they needed spot-kicks to see off League Two opposition speaks volumes though, along with the way in which the course of the game only really changed in the final 20 minutes after Steve Bruce introduced Wilson and Joelinton from the bench. Only by summoning £60m worth of replacements could Newcastle make their supposed superiority count.

For at least the opening hour, the Magpies were wretched, deservedly trailing to Tristan Abrahams’ fifth-minute strike and showing precious little that suggested they were capable of getting back on level terms.

Passes went astray with alarming regularity, and not for the first time under Bruce, it was hard to detect anything that resembled an attacking game plan. It took a goal from pretty much nowhere to change things, with Jonjo Shelvey twisting this way and that on the edge of the area before curling into the top corner with three minutes left, and while Bruce can point to a place in the quarter-finals as an adequate response to his critics, Newcastle’s lack of creativity remains a source of major concern. Never mind expected goals, when it comes to watching Newcastle attack, XG tends to me expectedly grim.

The Magpies might have scored seven goals against Morecambe seven days earlier, but any hopes of a similarly stress-free night against another set of League Two opponents disappeared within the opening five minutes at a sodden Rodney Parade.

Unlike Morecambe, who have precious little cup pedigree, Newport have developed a reputation as giant-killers in recent seasons, claiming knock-out victories over Leicester, Middlesbrough and Leeds as well as securing an FA Cup replay against Tottenham. There might not have been an intimidating home crowd inside their somewhat run-down stadium yesterday, but their ability to make life uncomfortable remained.

Their opener changed the complexion of Newcastle’s task at a stroke, and owed much to some lacklustre defending from the visitors.

Things started to go wrong when Scott Twine was afforded far too much space close to the centre-circle, with the Newport midfielder invited to try his luck from distance as he advanced towards goal.

His 30-yard effort thudded against the crossbar, with Emil Krafth’s failure to deal with the rebound enabling Abrahams to secure possession close to the edge of the penalty area. His scuffed effort should have been easily saved, but Mark Gillespie somehow allowed a bouncing ball to evade him as it trundled into the net. Having watched Karl Darlow perform so impressively at Tottenham at the weekend, Gillespie, a summer free signing after his previous contract at Motherwell expired, was not exactly following his team-mate’s lead.

Newcastle’s overall performance was off-key for most of the night, indeed they would have been two goals behind at half-time had defender Scot Bennett not dragged a hooked half-volley narrowly wide of the target three minutes before the break. Having received a lay-off from Liam Shephard, Bennett’s strike would have caused serious problems had it found the target.

The fact the opportunity was better than anything Newcastle managed to muster in the whole of the first half spoke volumes. Despite being almost 60 places above their opponents, the visitors offered precious little in the final third, a failing that has been a chronic weakness for the vast majority of Bruce’s time on Tyneside.

A damaging tendency to pass up possession was Newcastle’s chief failing, along with a lack of creativity and urgency in midfield that made their one-paced attacks all too easy to contain. Shelvey, sitting deep and firing aimless long balls over the Newport defence, was especially ineffective, along with Ryan Fraser, who broke into a series of blind alleys down the left-hand side. If this was an audition for a regular starting spot in the Premier League, the summer signing from Bournemouth repeatedly fluffed his lines.

The only player in black-and-white to offer any kind of a threat before the interval was Jacob Murphy, who maintained the form he had displayed at Morecambe as he repeatedly looked to cut in from the right.

He forced Newport goalkeeper Nick Townsend into two decent parries within a minute midway through the first half, before finding the target again with another driven effort.

Townsend was surprisingly untroubled for most of the night, although he should have been tested when Javier Manquillo crossed five minutes before the break. Fraser nodded the ball into Shelvey’s path, but the midfielder made a mess of trying to connect with a swivelled half-volley and Newport’s unflustered goalkeeper was able to make a routine save.

Shelvey’s failure to make a proper connection summed up Newcastle’s night, with his fellow central midfielder, Sean Longstaff, proving every bit as sloppy and ineffectual in possession. While Longstaff has suffered injury issues that have prevented him getting into any kind of rhythm in the last 12 months, it seems a long time ago that he was being linked with a £50m move to Manchester United.

He never really looked like changing the course of last night’s game, and while Newcastle’s attacking became slightly more urgent as the second half wore on, their inability to unlock the Newport defence remained unchanged.

Townsend saved from both Fraser and Miguel Almiron at the start of the second half after Newport’s defenders displayed a rare moment of hesitancy as they failed to deal with a long ball over the top, but Bruce’s frustration at what he was watching was apparent in the double change that saw Wilson and Joelinton, come onto the field shortly after the hour mark.

They linked up with nine minutes left to set up Fraser, but the winger’s shot was deflected wide by a superb sliding challenge from Brandon Cooper.

Newcastle were finally building some pressure though, and their equaliser arrived with three minutes left. Shelvey turned neatly before curling home, with his goal setting up the shoot-out that ultimately settled things.