New­cas­tle show char­ac­ter to lift Benítez’s spir­its

The Observer - Sport - - SPORT | FOOTBALL | PREMIER LEAGUE - Louise Tay­lor

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.”

Scott Hep­pell/ Reuters

Cap­tain Fan­tas­tic: Ja­maal Las­celles rises above the Stoke de­fence to head in the win­ner for New­cas­tle.

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