Saturday 15 December 2018

Benitez hails matchwinner Merino

Newcastle United 1 Crystal Palace 0

Mikel Merino of Newcastle United celebrates his goal Photo: Getty
Mikel Merino of Newcastle United celebrates his goal Photo: Getty Sportsdesk

Rafael Benitez admitted he would happily have taken 14 points and a place in the top six after Newcastle's first nine games back in the Premier League.

Substitute Mikel Merino's 85th-minute header snatched victory over Crystal Palace at St James' Park to ease the Magpies up the table and leave Benitez a happy man.

Mikel Merino of Newcastle United scores with a header Photo: Getty
Mikel Merino of Newcastle United scores with a header Photo: Getty

"Obviously, we have come from the Championship and we didn't sign too many players, so if you were telling me that after September 1, I would have said to you, 'It's fine'," he said. "We have to keep working and credit to our players because they are doing really well."

Benitez is unlikely to get carried away, however, after watching his side turn in one of their poorest performances of the season against bottom-of-the-table Palace before 21-year-old Merino, who completed a permanent £7million move to Tyneside from Borussia Dortmund earlier this month, struck amid a late Newcastle flurry.

Until that point the Magpies, who have been engulfed by takeover talk for the last week, had been decidedly second best with Wilfried Zaha squandering a good opportunity before the break.

"In this case, without playing at the level at which we have been playing in the past, it's even more important for us to get three points," said Benitez.

Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez Photo: Getty
Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez Photo: Getty

"I don't think too much about where we are. I'm happy with the points that we have because it means that all the hard work in the training sessions is paying dividends now, so that is positive."

Merino was given a warm welcome when he was introduced as a 56th-minute replacement for Isaac Hayden, but his big moment arrived when he got his head to Matt Ritchie's late corner to send the home fans into raptures.

Benitez said: "It's not the main thing, the best thing he can do - he can pass the ball and he has scored for Spain's under 21s with his feet. But he's not bad in the air - we have seen today he is not bad in the air."

However, Palace boss Roy Hodgson had a different view of the decisive goal.

"I must say, I couldn't see it from the touchline," he said, "but when you watch the replay, we were unlucky that the [James] McArthur header actually cannons into Merino and whizzes past our goalkeeper, so that was a further piece of bad luck."

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport