Newcastle show character to lift Benítez’s spirits
NEWCASTLE 2 Atsu 19 Lascelles 68 STOKE 1 Shaqiri 57
Punctuated by bouts of driving rain and permeated by a distinctly autumnal chill, it was hardly the ideal afternoon for a convalescent to be outdoors but nonetheless it seemed to do Rafael Benítez a power of good.
A fortnight after undergoing surgery to clear infection from the site of an old hernia repair, Newcastle United’s manager walked gingerly into the dugout but departed with a spring in his step.
With excellent performances from Christian Atsu, Matt Ritchie and Jamaal Lascelles possibly proving more restorative than a week at a health farm, Benítez was left to celebrate his side’s third straight Premier League win. Maybe, just maybe, the Tynesiders are not quite as weak as he had feared.
“We deserved to win,” said Benítez who watched his team rise to fourth on a day when Joselu missed three good chances. “I’m really pleased with our togetherness, work rate, character and connection with the fans. There’s a lot of positives but we also have things to correct. There’s plenty of room for improvement.”
After spending the transfer window forlornly imploring Mike Ashley to fortify his squad Benítez seems to have called a truce with Newcastle’s owner but is necessarily adopting pragmatic tactics. Often sitting back and permitting Stoke a degree of possession before catching them out on the counterattack, this was a Newcastle win crafted on the training ground. Heavily dependent on elbow grease and meticulous organisation, it seemed a testament to the thoroughness of Benítez’s preparation.
Typically, he included a spot of rotation with perhaps the most notable alteration from the side who won at Swansea in his absence last Sunday featuring the much improved Atsu’s reintroduction on the left wing.
By the 19th minute it looked a particularly inspired switch as he connected with Ritchie’s gorgeously curling cross, extending his left foot to volley Newcastle ahead from close range.
All scorching change of pace and excellent positional sense, Atsu at times ripped apart Mark Hughes’s imposing three man backline at the seams and the scoreline would surely have been more decisive had Joselu taken proper advantage.
Newcastle’s £5m buy from Stoke – who says he departed the Potteries because Hughes did not “trust” him – looked suitably dejected after his three misses. The last opening saw the one time Real Madrid striker steer the ball well over the bar after being sent clean through by another Atsu delivery; perhaps he was simply trying too hard to prove a point to his former manager.
At least Joselu put his heart and soul into battling Stoke’s defence. How Hughes must have wished the same could be said of the much vaunted Jesé, who proved particularly disappointing.
Xherdan Shaqiri, too, had looked somewhat off the pace until, finally granted a yard of space, the Swiss playmaker met Joe Allen’s pass and directed a fine, left foot, 20-yard shot into the bottom corner. It was a characteristically classy finish but Rob Elliot, a goalkeeper Benítez had hoped to replace, appeared crestfallen at his failure to divert it.
Happily, Elliot soon showed off his ability, performing wonders to keep out Mame Biram Diouf’s header. It seemed a watershed moment as, shortly afterwards, Newcastle felt they should have had a penalty when Kurt Zouma appeared to trip Atsu.
Although replays from a certain angle suggested the defender won the ball, a sense of righteous indignation fuelled Benítez’s players. Making the most of the resultant surge of attacking momentum they restored their lead when Lascelles – another player improving in leaps and bounds – met Ritchie’s clever corner and, having soared above all-comers, powered a header in off the bar and beyond Jack Butland.
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Diouf spurned decent opportunities but Hughes was not fooled. “Our loose passing played into Newcastle’s hands,” the Stoke manager said. “We didn’t play particularly well.”
Captain Fantastic: Jamaal Lascelles rises above the Stoke defence to head in the winner for Newcastle.