What a difference a week makes. Sunderland’s win at Norwich and Newcastle’s fine home win over Swansea has blown the relegation fight wide open again as The Magpies now lie just three points behind The Canaries with a game in hand. The goal difference margins have swung too with Newcastle just one goal worse off than Norwich.
It was a far cry from the surrender at St. Mary’s a week before and that was, in large part, down to the five changes Benitez made to United’s starting line-up. The back four was as predicted with Paul Dummett starting at left back, giving Newcastle the much needed balance provided by a genuine full back. Vernon Anita looked much more comfortable at right back and did extremely well against the dangerous Montero.
He may not be many Newcastle fan’s favourite player but Anita always gives his all in a black and white shirt and he didn’t let anyone down. Despite being slightly fortunate not to concede whilst one ahead, Newcastle’s back four defended well and recorded a welcome clean sheet.
It was further up the pitch though that Benitez really showed his tactical expertise. He opted for experience by starting Tiote and Cisse and both gave solid, industrious displays before being substituted. The true stroke of genius though was the three-pronged decision to drop Shelvey for the game, give the armband to Sissoko and move the big Frenchman into a central position. It was a difficult fixture for Shelvey considering his history with Swansea and his recent form suffering under the weight of captaincy. Judging by some fairly ‘tasty’ challenges by Shelvey when he came on, notably leaving his foot in on Jack Cork twice, it was a masterful piece of management to start with Colback in midfield to take the heat off Shelvey.
It also allowed Benitez to inspire a performance from Sissoko by giving him the armband and placing him in his preferred central role. Sissoko responded by giving his best performance of the season and scoring his first goal of the campaign.
Mitrovic came off the bench to provide a stunning performance, contributing significantly to Newcastle’s second and third goals. He seems to be at his best when impacting late from the bench. Andros Townsend was a threat all game and thoroughly deserved his goal. Interestingly he was the only January signing to start the game. He was probably the best player on the pitch and is in great form heading into the final five games of the season.
The great escape could be back on if Newcastle can build on this tremendous victory. We knew they had quality, now we know that some of them at least, have fire in their bellies too. Hopefully this win will give them confidence and momentum. Attention turns to Tuesday night now as Newcastle bid to close the gap and save their season.