FLETCHER FIRES OWLS TO GLORY
Sloppy Magpies mauled by the former Black Cat
GUTSY Sheffield Wednesday reclaimed their place in the top six thanks to a winner from former Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher.
The 30-year-old, signed from Newcastle’s bitter rivals on a free transfer last summer, scored a spectacular header after Tom Lees had given the Owls a deserved second-half lead.
Jonjo Shelvey’s late strike came too late for the off-colour title favourites, who drop to second following Brighton’s victory over QPR on Friday.
Wednesday had kicked off in seventh place with the play-off place demanded of Carlos Carvalhal in serious jeopardy after a run of one win in five games. But the under-pressure Portuguese saw his players respond in style.
“We played against the best team in the competition but we won and we deserved to win,” said Carvalhal, whose side completed a league double over Newcastle.
“On the break, we created three or four clear chances to score. Everybody will agree with me that we were the best team on the pitch.
“After we lost at Barnsley, I said the quality would improve and I said this week that we would be at a high standard. Today, we were near our best.
“Before the game I said to the players, ‘We are Sheffield Wednesday’. By that I mean we are a big club, who should stand face-to-face with every club in this league, even Newcastle. That is exactly what we did.”
Carvalhal has bitterly lamented the absence of Gary Hooper this season. The former Celtic forward, foil to Fernando Forestieri and scorer of 13 goals last season, has managed just 19 appearances in an injury-blighted campaign.
On this evidence, the gripes are justified. Though he wastefully smashed a golden chance against the bar, Hooper crafted two wonderful early openings for strike partner Steven Fletcher.
Teed up six yards out, the Scot first hacked embarrassingly wide of an open goal, then suffered a brave goalline block from Karl Darlow. Chancel Mbemba, mugged by Hooper on his own byline, was the most relieved man in Hillsborough.
With the sparingly used David Jones providing vital ballast in the middle, this was like watching the Wednesday of 2015-16 – quick on the break, pace on the flanks, full-backs bombing on and peppering the box.
With the exception of Shelvey’s spectacular effort from halfway, tipped onto the bar by Kieren Westwood, the home side bossed a first half that also saw Newcastle lose top-scorer Dwight Gayle to yet another hamstring injury.
Aided, no doubt, by a half-time livener from Rafael Benitez, the Magpies briefly fizzed into action. Thrice Shelvey stung the palms of Westwood, the best with a dipping free-kick. Ayoze Perez, again peripheral, wafted a limp shot goalwards.
The goal Wednesday had threatened finally arrived when Ross Wallace swung a sumptuous free-kick onto the forehead of Lees, who deftly guided his effort beyond Darlow.
Fletcher then atoned for his earlier profligacy by looping a sensational long-range header into the far corner for his ninth goal of the season.
Carvalhal’s men spent the final quarter in cruise control. Shelvey’s goal, a smartly dispatched rebound after Westwood had parried from Aleksandar Mitrovic, jarred them to life. The kitchen sink was duly lobbed in a frantic injury-time scramble, but the Owls deservedly held on.
“Very disappointing,” said a downbeat Benitez. “We didn’t do what we have to do. We made too many mistakes. We started badly and even when we were on top of them, we made a silly foul that allowed them to go ahead. Then it was all uphill.”
FLYING HIGH: Steven Fletcher celebrates scoring Wednesday’s second
LATE PRESSURE: Shelvey scores, left, and Mitrovic has an acrobatic effort on goal
CRUNCH: Newcastle’s Ayoze Perez attempts to hurdle an Owl