Matt is hit­ting a Rich vein of form for the Mag­pies

New­cas­tle 2 Stoke City 1

Sunday Sun - - Football - Chris Waugh at St James’ Park @ChrisDHWaugh

NEW­CAS­TLE United reg­is­tered their third straight Premier League vic­tory for the first time in three years by de­feat­ing Stoke City 2-1 at St James’ Park.

Chris­tian Atsu put the Mag­pies ahead dur­ing the first half, be­fore Xher­dan Shaqiri curled in an ex­cel­lent equaliser for the vis­i­tors.

But the home side en­sured it was a happy re­turn to the dugout for Rafa Ben­itez fol­low­ing his op­er­a­tion as cap­tain Ja­maal Las­celles headed in the win­ning goal for the sec­ond match in suc­ces­sion.

This was a thor­oughly en­ter­tain­ing top-flight en­counter on Ty­ne­side – and here, NUFC Writer Chris Waugh takes us through what we learned from an­other huge vic­tory for New­cas­tle...

Ritchie and Las­celles will be vi­tal to United’s suc­cess this term

If this duo can re­peat this every week, New­cas­tle will score a tonne of goals from set pieces this sea­son.

Last week at Swansea, Matt Ritchie curled in a cor­ner which Las­celles leapt into the air to head home.

This time around, that same duo com­bined to re­store the Mag­pies’ lead at a cru­cial mo­ment when Stoke were be­gin­ning to take con­trol fol­low­ing their equaliser.

Ritchie whipped a cor­ner into the area, his cap­tain jumped above his marker and di­rected the ball at goal. It went above Jack But­land’s head, bounced off the un­der­side of the bar and over the line.

And this was af­ter Ritchie had de­liv­ered a de­li­cious cross for Atsu to tap in at the back post and open the scor­ing.

In fact, it was Ritchie who made United tick all game. Las­celles is the cap­tain and com­mand­ing voice out on the pitch, but it is Ritchie’s in­ten­sity and dy­namism which re­ally drives his team on.

That duo are go­ing to be vi­tal to United’s suc­cess this sea­son.

Slim­line dugout

Af­ter of­fer­ing an in­depth first­hand ac­count of his or­deal back on his sofa while watch­ing the Swansea City win a s l i mmed- d own Ben­itez was back in the dugout at St James’ Park.

The 57-year-old lost halfa-stone in the af­ter­math of his op­er­a­tion and, though he is not fully free of dis­com­fort, he is up and walk­ing again – though he did not move into the tech­ni­cal area un­til the sec­ond half.

Don­ning a blue over-

Rafa

is

back

in

the coat, Ben­itez stood up briefly to pass in­struc­tions on to his side when the game was in the bal­ance, though for the most part he re­mained seated.

As­sis­tant Mikel An­tia had taken up al­most per­ma­nent res­i­dence in the tech­ni­cal area at the Lib­erty, as­sisted by Paco de Miguel Moreno on oc­ca­sion.

And An­tia con­tin­ued to adopt such a role, pass­ing on in­struc­tions from Ben­itez to his play­ers – and even ar­gu­ing the fourth of­fi­cial about a few de­ci­sions.

At one stage, he even ap­peared to sug­gest that Xher­dan Shaqiri had dived to win a free-kick.

Any­way, de­spite Ben­itez be­ing un­able to stand on the touch­line for long, his pres­ence was still wel­comed by the home fans – who reg­u­larly chanted his name.

With or with­out Ben­itez present, New­cas­tle are win­ning at the mo­ment.

What was all that fuss about full-backs? When the trans­fer win­dow closed, Ben­itez was left fu­ri­ous by the Mag­pies’ fail­ure to sign a new left­back. Paul Dum­mett is out un­til N o v e m b e r , DeAn­dre Yedlin was still side­lined at that stage, while the Mag­pies man­ager is clearly un­sure about some of his other left-back op­tions.

Je­sus Gamez deputised on the left­de­fen­sive flank against Swansea due to Chan­cel Mbe­mba’s ham­string in­jury, with Javier Man­quillo con­tin­u­ing at right-back.

Yet Gamez dropped out of the match­day squad com­pletely against Stoke – with Mbe­mba re­turn­ing far sooner than pre­dicted in his na­tive Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo.

The cen­tre-half once again filled in on the left.

MIKEL Merino oozes class in the mid­dle. Ja­maal Las­celles is cap­tain fan­tas­tic at the mo­ment. But it is Matt Ritchie who re­ally makes New­cas­tle United tick.

The St James’ Park crowd sing about his magic hat, and the 28-year-old does ap­pear to hold some sort of sor­cery pow­ers over the foot­ball at the mo­ment.

Four as­sists in five Premier League ap­pear­ances this sea­son, in­clud­ing two ex­quis­ite de­liv­er­ies for both goals in the 2-1 vic­tory over Stoke City, high­light how im­por­tant Ritchie is to this side. Only two of the Mag­pies’ six Matt Ritchie cel­e­brates the open­ing goal against Stoke goals in the league so far this sea­son have not di­rectly in­volved the winger.

Last sea­son, Rafa Ben­itez stressed that Ritchie – who scored 12 goals and pro­vided seven as­sists in the Mag­pies’ Cham­pi­onship-win­ning cam­paign – was a top-flight player in the mak­ing.

He had per­formed well for AFC Bournemouth in the Premier League dur­ing the 2015/16 cam­paign with­out ex­celling, but Ben­itez had spot­ted the raw tal­ent.

When Lee Charn­ley was re­luc­tant to meet the Cher­ries’ £12mil­lion ask­ing price for the Scot­land in­ter­na­tional last sum­mer, Ben­itez told him Ritchie would prove value for money even at that sup­pos­edly-in­flated price. The United man­ager knew this was a player who could shine in the top flight, not just the sec­ond tier.

Just 14 months on, and Ritchie has re­paid that £12m – and then some.

It is not just the as­sists that he pro­vides, or even the goals – which will soon ar­rive in the top flight – that make Ritchie the sin­gle most-im­por­tant player in this New­cas­tle side.

His in­ten­sity out on the pitch, from the first minute un­til the very last, rubs off on his team-mates. He

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