Rain fell, grey skies suffocated St James’ Park on a miserable afternoon and then a young Spaniard called Mikel Merino outjumped three Crystal Palace defenders from a corner and crashed a header past Julian Speroni, with just four minutes remaining and Tyneside felt a form of global warming.
A stadium rocked, and for that it did not need the presence of Jimmy Nail or Sting in the directors’ box. Merino, a wonderfully gifted footballer, made the story about the game, and for that he deserves immense credit.
Newcastle, with the endless talk of an alleged takeover by Amanda Staveley, lunges willingly sometimes into soap opera. Instead, Merino scored and in doing so, pushed a city’s beloved football club into the top six.
Their players, the people that actually matter, were lauded by all four sides of the stadium when the fourth minute of injury-time had finished. St James’ Park had its glow on an afternoon when that was not easy.
Chances were few, and a sending off that did not come might well have been the most talked about issue, had Merino not struck.
Nobody was quite sure how Yohan Cabaye stayed on the field in the 28th minute. Cabaye had an outstanding spell as a Newcastle player, but he refused to play as he waited for a move and then later, went to Paris St Germain. For that action was once more jeered endlessly inside St James’ Park. To add to the derision from the home stands the France midfielder went in late with an awful challenge on DeAndre Yedlin just before the half hour mark. Cabaye even had the look of man expecting red, but Stuart Attwell ignored the excessive force of the lunge, and after players from both sides had squared up to each other, he produced yellow. Jamaal Lascelles, dominant in front for Gareth Southgate, was also booked, along with Patrick Van Aanholt. Yedlin was left needing lengthy attention.
It was a half devoid of huge drama other than that. Indeed when Attwell blew for half-time, there had not been a shot on target from either side.
Newcastle, for all of the organisation skill of Benitez, still look light up front, with Joselu and Ayoze Perez. Dwight Gayle was missing through a calf strain, further limiting the attacking options and when Aleksandar Mitrovic came onto a still surprising heroes welcome in the 78th minute, his first touch, a misplaced chest, almost led to Ruben Loftus-Cheek giving Palace the lead.
Newcastle’s two wide men came closest in the first half to adding the goal that a game so badly needed. Matt Ritchie tried to place an angled shot into the Palace goal but his shot was deflected off Aanholt. Christian Atsu then charged through on the Newcastle left, outpaced Scott Dann, and then fired his shot into the side netting of Julian Speroni’s goal.
Palace in response were limited in the genuine nature of their opportunities. Wilfried Zaha saw a low cross taken by Rob Elliot, Jeffrey Schlupp ended a run with a shot wide of the far post and when Andros Townsend, like Cabaye jeered throughout for his decision to leave the home side, crossed int he 43rd minute, Zaha headed wide of the near post of Elliot’s goal. In such a tight game it felt like a decent opportunity.
In that context, Atsu’s cross that went narrowly wide of Speroni’s goal and Townsend’s cut in and left foot shot over the top of Elliot’s goal were worthy of mention.
The Newcastle substitute Mo Diame tried his hand with a curling right footed shot in the 72nd minute that Speroni dived to his left to stop. Two minutes later the Crystal Palace goalkeeper could only parry a vicious 30 yard drive from Jonjo Shelvey.
It told Newcastle wanted it, and with four minute remaining they got it.
Matt Ritchie sent over a left wing corner and Merino was there to out jump three Palace defenders and head past Speroni.
With that Newcastle went sixth.
Newcastle (4-2-3-1): Elliot; Yedlin, Lascelles, Lejeune, Manquillo; Hayden (Merino 56), Shelvey; Atsu, Perez (Diame 66), Ritchie; Joselu (Mitrovic 78).
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Speroni; Ward, Dann, Sakho, Van Aanholt; McArthur (Sako 88), Cabaye, Milivojevic, Schlupp; Townsend, Zaha (Loftus-Cheek 77).
Ref: Mr Stuart Attwell
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