Scrappy Crystal Palace win breeds hope of a bright future for Newcastle United
It took until the 86th minute, but Newcastle broke the Eagles' resistance to grab a much-needed win.
Saturday’s game at St James’ Park was a meeting of old friends and, to a certain extent, foes. Newcastle United boss Rafa Benitez met Roy Hodgson of Crystal Palace years after the pair failed to see eye to eye in the aftermath of the latter replacing the former at the helm of Liverpool in 2010. The more interesting reunions were on the pitch, as Andros Townsend and Yohan Cabaye both faced the club they left with such sadness.
The term ‘friends’ is used very loosely, of course, as both were met by hostile receptions, for rather different reasons. Cabaye, well on the way to becoming a legend at the club on early performances, departed for Paris Saint-Germain in January 2014, three and a half years after joining.
Newcastle had stalled a bit by the time Cabaye left, and the pull of his homeland and Champions League football was understandably something he didn’t want to ignore. But going on strike the day the season kicked off in a bid to force a move to Arsenal six months earlier ensures he will never be welcomed back with open arms.
Townsend’s exit perhaps stung the most, though. Playing reserve team football at Tottenham Hotspur not so long ago, Newcastle saved his career in January 2016; the switch to the North East was mutually beneficial, as the winger almost helped save the Magpies from relegation.
Benitez struck a chord with Townsend and managed to inspire his best form, but when the club could have counted on his loyalty the next summer, Townsend switched to Palace in a bid to save his England career but was left out of the Euro 2016 squad, by current boss Hodgson, and hasn’t been involved since. Talk of a return to Tyneside has been consistent, but judging by the greeting he received, many fans would need convincing that is a good idea.
The game itself was always going to test Newcastle’s mettle, perhaps more than any other this season. It was the closest they had come to a game in the Championship; while Benitez said the Eagles are much better than their current league position of 20th with one win and seven defeats from eight games, they were heading North with a gameplan similar to the majority of teams faced in the promotion campaign.
After trying, and failing to change their counter-attacking style under Frank de Boer, Hodgson has had greater success taking the team back to basics. Palace intended on sitting deep and springing forward on the break; with no fit striker, Townsend and Wilfred Zaha were their outlets, supported by fullback Patrick van Aanholt.
Yet, there wasn’t much space for them to exploit and they struggled to get in behind; Florian Lejeune and Jamaal Lascelles were once again extremely solid in defence, marshalled by Isaac Hayden, who surprisingly kept his place ahead of Mikel Merino. His selection set the stall out; this one was never likely to be a classic, but for the neutral, it was all too predictable. A horror challenge by Cabaye on DeAndre Yedlin in the first half, which certainly riled the crowd and should have seen the Frenchman sent off, was the only real action.
Most of the threats were coming from the visitors, but only superficially. Rob Elliot was rarely called upon, and the age-old criticisms of both Townsend and Zaha came back to haunt them. Christian Benteke could miss the majority of this season with a cruciate ligament injury, and although Palace are looking far from apathetic under Hodgson, the lack of a consistent goal threat could keep the ceiling frustratingly low at Selhurst Park. The pair did have chances, and Benteke will have watched on knowing he could have put at least one away.
But that is where Newcastle need to take credit. More often than not, it only takes one chance to take control of a match of this magnitude because, as former midfielder Jermaine Jenas pointed out, Benitez’s plans are so meticulously thought out that if executed correctly there is only going to be one winner.
Last season’s success may have come even easier had Newcastle worked out how to break teams down at home and the crucial moment did come from a man who has arrived since. Merino came on in the second half, replacing Hayden, and he met yet another Matt Ritchie corner with a powerful header to snatch the points just four minutes from time.
Certain moments in Benitez’s reign have acted as a milestone to show just how much he has improved matters at the club. Making it categorically clear Newcastle would be nobody’s stepping-stone was the first; avoiding a heavy defeat at Southampton was another. But the tactical approach, scoring from corners and winning tight home games in a scrappy manner are the main reasons the club has changed; relegation is still to be avoided, but the team is much more prepared for the battle ahead than before.
Merino will rightfully get the adulation for his winning goal, but not for the first time has Mohamed Diame changed the game when he has come off the bench. Perceived as lazy by fans, and his captain Lascelles according to reports, Diame is far from popular and is yet to set the world alight. Benitez persisted with him in behind the striker last season, often to no avail, but since he has utilised him in a deeper role late on in games, he has found his calling. Newcastle pressed and harried in the closing stages and it began with his introduction.
For a few reasons, the Crystal Palace game was among the most concerning; Newcastle were asked questions they hadn’t been at home for the first time this season. The patience, precision and intelligence shown proved they answered them with ease; sitting in the top seven now, they could get carried away, but that just isn’t Rafa Benitez’s style.