Newcastle return to Championship summit despite referee's howler

LONDON (Reuters) - Newcastle returned to the top of the Championship and moved a step closer to an immediate return to the Premier League with a controversial 1-0 victory against Burton Albion on Wednesday.

Newcastle thought they had opened the scoring when Matt Ritchie converted a penalty but referee Keith Stroud blew his whistle having spotted an apparent encroachment before the spot kick was taken.

In bizarre circumstances, however, he disallowed the goal rather than order a re-take as the law dictates -- much to the bewilderment of Newcastle and manager Rafa Benitez.

Ritchie finally did open the scoring with a thumping strike in the 68th minute to seal the win.

Minutes after the final whistle the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) -- the group which officiates all Premier League, English Football League and Football Association matches -- said an apologetic Stroud had "mis-applied" the rule.

"The referee Keith Stroud awarded Newcastle a penalty in the 29th minute. As Matt Ritchie took the kick Dwight Gayle encroached in the penalty area," the PGMOL said in a statement.

"An indirect free kick was awarded to Burton but the laws of the game state the penalty should have been re-taken.

"Unfortunately the referee has mis-applied the law. Keith and his team are understandably upset at the lapse in concentration and apologise for the mistake."

Benitez was incensed on the sideline immediately after the incident and exchanged animated words with the fourth official after the final whistle.

The Spaniard, however, refused to comment when questioned about the incident after the game.

"I was very surprised but I don't want to talk about the incident that we have seen," he told Sky Sports. "At the moment I prefer to talk about the game. We scored a great goal and I prefer to talk about that."

Victory means, with six games remaining, Newcastle have 84 points -- one more than second-placed Brighton and Hove Albion.

Huddersfield Town climbed to third, nine points behind Brighton, with a comfortable 3-0 win against Norwich City thanks to goals from Elias Kachunga, Aaron Mooy and Nahki Wells.

Reading are a point adrift in fourth while Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday sit fifth and sixth with 69 and 66 points respectively.

(Reporting By Tom Hayward, editing by Neil Robinson)

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