Townsend magic turns Newcastle's flicker of hope into a genuine flame
Newcastle Utd 1-0 Crystal Palace
Andros Townsend's exquisite free-kick and Karl Darlow's penalty save not only ensured that Alan Pardew endured an unhappy return to Tyneside but lifted his former club out of the relegation zone.
With Newcastle only one point ahead of a Sunderland side who have a game in hand, their position remains precarious but what once seemed the merest flicker of hope is now a genuine flame.
Sam Allardyce is sufficiently worried by the Rafa Benitez-inspired renaissance to have suggested that, by way of celebrating reaching the FA Cup final, Palace would have been "on the pop" all week. And that was not all; Sunderland's manager also claimed a fear of injury might well see Pardew's players pulling out of tackles.
If it was an attempt to provoke the London side into action it seemed to be working during a first half largely controlled by a visiting side for whom Yannick Bolasie and Newcastle's former favourite Yohan Cabaye cause Benitez's team frequent cause for concern.
Pardew may have his critics on Tyneside - although he was largely ignored by his former public here - but he is no tactical mug and clearly did a job on his old employers during a scrappy, stop-start, first half in which Palace were consistently first to second balls and prevented Newcastle from building up any sort of attacking steam.
With Bolasie deployed on the left with a brief to target Vurnon Anita, the midfielder Benitez is deploying at right-back, at every opportunity and Cabaye cleverly preventing the home side taking command of central midfield, St James' Park endured a few nervous moments.
By half-time anyone who dismissed Pardew's hiring of England rugby coach Eddie Jones to issue Palace with a pep talk last week as a mere publicity stunt would almost certainly have revised their opinion.
Had it not been for the ultra sharp reflexes of Darlow - Newcastle's at times scarily unorthodox yet strangely efficient goalkeeper - both Cabaye and Bolasie could have found themselves on the scoresheet before the interval. Instead their shot and volley respectively were well saved and a home defence in which Chancel Mbemba was booked for a foul on Bolasie as early as the sixth minute had just about held itself together. If that was partly thanks to a combination of Anita's diligence in the face of sometimes extreme pressure and Cheik Tiote's reassuring presence in a midfield anchoring role, it was also down to Jamaal Lascelles.
The burgeoning central defensive partnership between Lascelles and Mbemba has been a particularly encouraging facet of Benitez's tenure and it was a tremendously timed tackle from the former that denied Connor Wickham an extremely inviting chance just as Palace's lone striker shaped to shoot.
A similarly smart interception on Scott Dann's part similarly thwarted Papiss Cisse following his connection with a Tiote pass but bar making a fine low save when Mbemba startled everyone - Benitez included - by advancing to unleash a surprisingly good 25 yard shot, Wayne Hennessey was largely unemployed.
When it comes to free-kicks, Townsend is an obvious choice and, sure enough, no sooner had he been brought down by Dann than the sometime England winger was standing over the dead ball around 20 yards out on the right. Dispatched with Townsend's left boot, the ball curved over the wall and, much to the disgusted of a thoroughly confounded, wrong-footed, Hennessey on into the far, top corner.
If Townsend has been one of Benitez's brightest sparks in recent weeks, Darlow - thrown into the front line after serious injuries to Tim Krul and Rob Elliot - is proving an unlikely hero. He was at it again here, saving a penalty after Moussa Sissoko handled the fallout from a Cabaye corner.
Cabaye took the kick but Darlow threw himself to his left to make a fabulous save. Admittedly it was far from the best penalty Pardew's playmaker has ever taken but, should Newcastle ultimately survive, that stop may yet come to be regarded as having been worth the best part of £100m to the club. As chants of "Rafa, Rafa, Benitez" echoed around the ground, you wondered what was going through Pardew's mind.
Sunday Indo Sport