Coming into Saturday (7 April), Newcastle was riding a two game win streak, having collected 10 points in the last 5 matches. The recent run of form had helped Newcastle leap from the relegation places to approaching safety. Most recently, two home games against relegation candidates saw Newcastle handle business easily. But Saturday’s matchup was expected to be a true test of mettle as the Toon Army visited Leicester City.
Meanwhile, across the pitch…
Leicester City has been relatively safe all year, and their goal for the season was to grab the 7th and final European spot, to which they trailed Burnley by three points as Saturday arrived. The Foxes came into the match with Newcastle on a decent run of form and had history on their side as the Magpies hadn’t won at King Power Stadium since 1999. The home side also boast two stars, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who have been in form most of the season. In the two clubs’ first tussle—during Newcastle’s nine match winless run—Leicester won 3-2, looked the better side all afternoon, and were expected to compete similarly Saturday.
Newcastle start fast…
That said, Newcastle turned the tables and surprised everyone by continuing their hot run of form, winning 2-1 on the road and looking the better side from start to finish.
Newcastle started the match furiously earning a few quick corners and forcing smart saves from Leicester ‘keeper Kasper Schmeichel. In the 18th minute, the visitors finally broke through on the counterattack as Ayoze Perez found Jonjo Shelvey, who finished from just inside the 18-yard box.
The Foxes were rarely able to break through the Newcastle defense, which was only the beginning of their first half frustrations. In the 23rd minute, a scuffle broke out between Newcastle striker Dwight Gayle and Leicester’s Harry Maguire, leading to yellow cards for both Maguire and Newcastle Skipper Jamaal Lascelles. 15 minutes later, Riyad Mahrez looked to have suffered through a bad challenge by Newcastle left-back Paul Dummett, but neither a penalty nor a simulation yellow card was brandished.
…and Newcastle finish strong
The second half continued with Newcastle happy to let Leicester City play in certain areas without conceding shots on goal. The 75th minute saw Newcastle double their advantage after Ayoze Perez pounced on a defensive lapse between Maguire and Foxes Captain Wes Morgan; from far outside the box Perez was able to flick over Schmeichel, far removed from his goal at the time. The 83rd minute saw Leicester jump onto the scoresheet after substitute Shinji Okazaki’s header across goal-mouth was finished by Vardy. A nervy finish saw Newcastle withstand Leicester City and the Black and Whites were able to see out the final 10 minutes in a competent manner, which has been lacking during parts of the season.
Who showed up:
Simply put, Jonjo Shelvey is playing the best football of his life. On Saturday, Shelvey played both the role of creator and destroyer in midfield. His passing was crisp, he got onto the score sheet for the first time this season, and his ability to disrupt Leicester City in the midfield made Mohamed Diame a relative after-thought on the afternoon. On Shelvey’s goal, he showed obvious desire to get forward with a lung-busting run to receive the ball. Then he finished with the craft of which maybe one other Newcastle player possesses. Man of the Match for me.
Big credit must also be given to the back-line. DeAndre Yedlin locked down his side of the pitch for most of the afternoon. Florian Lejeune and Jamaal Lascelles were their typical selves clearing almost all the danger they faced. Perhaps most impressive on the afternoon was Paul Dummett, who was able to shackle and frustrate Riyad Mahrez on the right side. If they do not concede late, the unit might’ve earned Man of the Match.
If there’s a way to purchase Kenedy from Chelsea, Newcastle should make an effort to do so. His loan, and his performances under Benitez, have been a catalyst for their current form. An example of all his talents could be seen early in the second half, where he carried the ball into Leicester territory, shoved off a would-be tackler, used a bit of Brazilian flair to split two Leicester defenders, then displayed composure and vision in finding the open man on the right wing. Simply masterful.
Who didn’t show up:
I will admit, it is harsh to put Martin Dubravka in this section because he commanded the box very well Saturday and his back line prevented him from getting any real work. There was one shot on goal all afternoon and I thought Dubravka could have done better to prevent that shot from being on the scoreline.
While he was a scorer on the afternoon, I thought Ayoze Perez was disappointing as his passing was awry and he could’ve been better in holding play. But this is nit-picking to be honest; this was one of the better performances by Newcastle United this season, and if they had not conceded late, no one would be in this section.
What comes next
Newcastle United host Arsenal at St. James’ Park, which the visitors have been in blistering form with 5 wins in their last 5 across all competitions. Arsenal has been much better since their first match earlier this season, when they scored a 1-0 victory. Invigorated by the arrivals of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Gunners are currently playing to their expected lofty levels. If their Europa League match was closer, Arsenal’s mid-week clash in Moscow would have been a great advantage for Newcastle. Their 4-1 win last week affords Arsene Wenger the opportunity to rest star players.
Rafa Benitez is not a manager to rest on his laurels, and he won’t be satisfied to simply survive. He is looking to get the best possible finish and this should be an intriguing matchup between two in-form sides and two of the better managers in the Premier League era. Until then, enjoy Newcastle being in the TOP HALF of the table for the first time since early October, and HOWAY THE LADS!