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Continental centre-backs, a homegrown hero and South American splendour: A whirlwind Newcastle United week

It’s that sensation in the pit of your stomach. If you concentrate you can feel your heartbeat right there. You’re sat in the stand, hunched over, transfixed by the twenty-two figures on that pristine turf.

Whether you’re sat almost half a mile away at the top of the Milburn Stand, or pitch-side, in earshot of Matt Ritchie’s incessant barking of instructions, the sensation is all the same. “Please score, please win”.

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At half-time at St James’ Park as Newcastle United took on Huddersfield Town, with the two sides level at 0-0, the sensation returned, just as it did shortly after kick-off.

Too many times have we seen a United side dominating proceedings ‘out-Newcastle’ themselves by conceding against the run of play or throwing away a lead. It felt like that was going to be the case once again, despite that notion going against all rational thinking and the first half’s clear dominance by the home side indicating anything but.

Those fears were allayed less than a minute into the second half as Salomón Rondón – arguably the most hard-working and industrious striker United have had since Demba Ba – spun in the penalty area and scored. “One-nil, okay, the floodgates should surely open now, Huddersfield are down to ten.”

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Florian Lejeune had received the ball wide on left-flank just inside Newcastle’s half, before angling a perfectly-weighted ball into the path of DeAndre Yedlin who had galloped into space on the opposite side of the pitch, fifty or so yards away.

A first-time pass into Ayoze Pérez in the penalty area, who did well to control and flick it to Isaac Hayden, eventually found its way into the gait of the Venezuelan who swivelled and gave United the lead.

A brilliant team goal, akin to that of Georginio Wijnaldum’s goal against West Ham United in 2016 where Jonjo Shelvey, Daryl Janmaat and Wijnaldum had all combined in that order to give Newcastle a lead.

Newcastle’s openers in both instances were no flukes, they were an example of players with exquisite technical quality perfectly delivering a difficult ball to create something out of nothing.

Florian Lejeune went one better, because only five minutes later, having received the ball once again on the left-side of a new-look, somewhat continental centre-back trio, he lofted the ball in behind Huddersfield’s backline to Miguel Almirón.

The Paraguayan half-volleyed a tricky ball to control across the face of the 18-yard box which was neatly headed down by Yedlin, touched on by Rondón and expertly finished by Pérez. “Two-nil. This is very good football, enjoyable to watch.”

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It finished two-nil, but everybody who was at the game, or simply watched highlights, could see that it could have been much, much more. Newcastle purred against Huddersfield but still with just one Premier League point more than games played at this stage, there was little time to sit back and admire a consummately professional and entertaining performance.

Burnley next, at St James’ Park three days later. Two games in the space of a few days against hardly the most exciting opposition, but that’s how the fixtures fell. Tuesday night under the sixty-seven East Stand floodlights; the stage is set.

One change made; Javier Manquillo in for DeAndre Yedlin who worked tirelessly down the right flank against Huddersfield Town. Burnley are unbeaten in eight league games, Sean Dyche has turned his side’s fortunes around and steered them away from a relegation battle, one season after finishing seventh.

They’re unfashionable, they’re rough and tumble, but they’re effective and they’ve picked up results in some unlikely corners of England this season, not least at Old Trafford just a few weeks prior.

Newcastle are buoyed by the weekend’s results, and not just their own. Relegation rivals have been beaten, and heavily. Tuesday night’s game represents a fabulous opportunity to open up a five, six or even seven-point cushion between themselves and the dreaded 18th place which the club has been all too familiar with over the past ten years.

Midway through the first half, it has hardly been the most enthralling game. Miguel Almirón, fresh from striking the post with the most audacious of lobs on Jonas Lössl just three days earlier, has been kept relatively quiet by Burnley’s coarse defensive line.

In keeping with the theme of continental centre-backs from the weekend, Fabian Schär drives forward from his berth at the right-hand side of Newcastle’s defensive trio, and finds a ball into Isaac Hayden in the middle. His pass into the final third bobbles around for a moment before Ayoze Pérez reacts quickest and seizes on a loose ball, diverting it wide to Manquillo. Start again.

When the Spanish full-back laid the ball into the path of Schär – who had not yet retreated back into defence – I doubt very much that he imagined he’d be credited with an assist. But that is what happened.

A rasping, right-footed strike found the inside of Tom Heaton’s near post and was met with an audible gasp from the 52,000 inside St James’ Park. “One-nil. Again. This is really good.”

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Newcastle became more dominant as the first half wore on, gaining confidence with every sequence of completed passes. The ‘Three Amigos’ at the head of United’s attack seemed to be in sync with each other and the understudy duo of Hayden and Sean Longstaff in central midfield looked at ease – it was looking very good, but you couldn’t help but think, “this is Newcastle United we’re watching here.”

Against Huddersfield, Sean Longstaff almost opened his Premier League account with a beautifully-curled effort which found the wrong side of the post. It struck the opposite side of the same section of woodwork to which Schär’s shot veered in off.

That opportunity must have been running through Longstaff’s mind as the ball fell his way twelve yards from goal. Touch. Pause. Foot over the top of the ball. Strike. “Two-nil. Sean Longstaff’s first goal at St James’ Park. What a feeling.”

No player on the pitch deserved that moment more than the 21-year-old. Since coming in for the likes of Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diamé, he has been superb and that goal was the culmination of a string of fine performances.

It was actually Longstaff that started the move for his goal, finding Almirón whose pass out wide sought Matt Ritchie. The Scot lofted the ball into the area and a nick off a Burnley defender’s head saw it fall at the academy product’s feet.

There is often talk about an entire stadium sucking a ball into the net. Everybody was willing that ball to nestle in the bottom corner, and it did.

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Sometimes it goes right, so, so right and that is exactly what happened. The remainder of the game was an exhibition; Newcastle knocking the ball about in confident fashion. Martin Dúbravka claimed everything, coming through body after body, commanding his penalty area.

Sometimes it goes right, but sometimes it is absolutely perfect, and the two games back-to-back versus Huddersfield and Burnley – hardly Barcelona and Real Madrid – were exactly that, perfect.

It shows that the momentum gathered when Newcastle are on a run is unrivalled, the city is joyous, walking out of the ground you’re hard-pushed to find a fellow black-and-white soul without a smile on their face.

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With the likes of West Ham United, Everton and AFC Bournemouth still to play, and United’s relegation rivals falling away one-by-one, let’s all get carried away, aye.

Images: Serena Taylor, Robbie Jay Barrett and Ian MacNicol

2 Comments on Continental centre-backs, a homegrown hero and South American splendour: A whirlwind Newcastle United week

  1. Aaron Naidoo // February 28, 2019 at 6:30 pm // Reply

    Hi Joe. Brilliant writing. Felt like I was at the game reading this.

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