Friday 23 March 2018

Rafalution kicks off to give Toon lifeline

Newcastle Utd 3 Swansea City 0

Moussa Sissoko celebrates scoring Newcastle’s second goal against Swansea City. Photo: Craig Brough/Action Images via Reuters
Moussa Sissoko celebrates scoring Newcastle’s second goal against Swansea City. Photo: Craig Brough/Action Images via Reuters
Newcastle United's Cheick Tiote in a sliding challenge with Swansea City's Andre Ayew. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters
Newcastle United's Jamaal Lascelles celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

St James' park

The Rafalution finally has lift-off, hope is flickering for Newcastle United and the race against relegation has just become very interesting.

No matter that Newcastle's performance was not always quite as convincing as the final scoreline, Rafael Benitez celebrated his 56th birthday with his first win in five attempts since succeeding Steve McClaren last month.

"Rafa, Rafa Benitez," sang an exultant St James' Park between bouts of serenading the Spaniard with "Happy Birthday to you". It may yet prove a false dawn but goals from Jamaal Lascelles, Moussa Sissoko and the impressive Andros Townsend were sufficient to leave Newcastle - who face Manchester City here on Tuesday - breathing down the necks of Norwich and Sunderland.

Benitez's team-sheet made interesting reading. Jonjo Shelvey, Steve McClaren's marquee £12m signing from Swansea and Newcastle's recent captain, was dropped to the bench, thereby facilitating a holding midfield recall for Cheik Tiote.

Few would have expected to see the armband handed to Sissoko but not only did Benitez offer the France midfielder that honour but also permitted him a rare outing in his favourite "in the hole" role.

With Aleksandar Mitrovic - the sort of traditional centre-forward Swansea's Ashley Williams and Federico Fernandez relish marking - dropped to the bench, Sissoko found himself operating behind the more mobile Papiss Cisse.

Benitez was rewarded by much-improved performances on the part of the recently anonymous Sissoko and Gini Wijnaldum, while Tiote's sometimes bruising ball-winning abilities helped diminish Swansea's initial enthusiasm. There were cameos when Newcastle still looked horribly vulnerable and an edginess seemed to inhibit their passing but they were winning virtually every second ball.

Yet if Francesco Guidolin's team were largely on the back foot, Lukasz Fabianski still did not have an awful lot to do. True, the goalkeeper did well to scramble a cross to safety before diving low to swoop on a shot from Townsend but generally Swansea defended intelligently enough to keep St James' Park in fairly muted mode.

At least a distinctly make-shift home defence, featuring Vurnon Anita out of position at right-back, was succeeding in keeping the dangerous Gylfi Sigurdsson quiet while ensuring Karl Darlow was not called to arms until the 35th minute. Newcastle were largely doing a good job of strictly rationing Swansea's possession and this strategy paid dividends when they finally took the lead for the first time in five games under Benitez's charge.

This breakthrough arrived from a corner and was delivered by the slightly unlikely figure of Lascelles. Sigurdsson was tugging him back as Townsend whipped in the set-piece but the centre-half shrugged off the Icelander before powering home a header which went in off the helpless Fabianski.

Newcastle fans - and even Benitez - seemed so startled by what they had just seen that they paused momentarily before celebrating. Early in the second half Lascelles might have scored another but failed to apply the decisive touch.

All in all, it was perhaps not the best day for Jason Levien - who, along with his fellow American Steve Kaplan, is currently in talks about a potential takeover at Swansea this summer - to be casting an eye on this prospective new investment.

He saw Benitez replace the tiring Tiote with Shelvey which, possibly coincidentally, seemed to serve as the cue for Swansea to finally wake up and create some chances. After Williams half-volleyed narrowly wide, Jefferson Montero and Bafetimbi Gomis both missed opportunities.

It was time for Newcastle to reassert themselves and Sissoko could not have chosen a better time to score his first goal of the season. The increasingly influential Townsend delivered another good corner and, following a bit of pinball, Sissoko forced his shot past Fabianski. Townsend deserved a goal and, sure enough, he got the third, defying Swansea's offside trap to shoot beneath Fabianksi's body after being cleverly played in by Mitrovic.


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