With eight games remaining, seven of them in quick succession throughout April, the opportunity to claim an instant return to the Premier League with minimal stress is very much on. This had to begin with a show of improved home form against a pair of relegation strugglers, starting with Wigan today.
The international break had provided some relief from injury, with Gayle and Shelvey restored to the starting line-up in a team that looked primed to deliver a hammering to the second from bottom Latics.
The problem is, at this time of the season you’re likely to get a tougher proposition from a team fighting relegation that may have been a walkover weeks earlier. Wigan were the latest in a line of teams to try disrespectfully hard at St James and proved tough to break down. Gayle looked sharper than in recent appearances and went close with a backpost header from Shelvey’s corner, before Lascelles also got on the end of a centre, his looping header dropping narrowly over.
Our number nine was to have his moment though, with a characteristic peel away from his marker to slot in Diame’s driven cross. This was a welcome positive from the erstwhile Senegalese international, who had approached the game like he was wearing wellies two sizes too big for him. I recently said that a quality number ten would be priority signing for the Premier League, as Diane has failed to impose himself on the role at second tier level. A performance today where his second touch was usually a tackle did nothing to change this perception.
Wigan clearly had a tactic of standing a bloke on each of Diame’s and Shelvey’s toes to stifle the life out of United, which will have contributed to the stuttering performance. With United ahead at half time though, a pair of substitutions seemed to change the visitors up for the better, and there was suddenly an uncomfortable time to be had. A throw-in was allowed to travel a ridiculous distance to bobble to Jacobs in the box, who proceeded to walk through Lascelles as though he were a glitch in a computer game and level the score.
Moments later Newcastle fan Dan Burn was left horribly unmarked but managed to head a corner high and wide in a glaring miss that was almost Chopra-esque. This was getting alarming now. Lascelles looked horribly off the pace in Wigan’s spell of pressure, with Hanley steadier and Vurnon Anita regularly covering from right back in a vastly improved performance from his Fulham horror show. With player of the season Clark soon to return, it could be that our captain finds his place under threat again.
A problem that seems to affect our team is one of collective sluggishness, where everyone seems to compliment each other’s off days. There is one very notable exception to this, and fortunately Matt Ritchie was again on song to secure the points. Dummett’s cross hit Gouffran on the arse and bounced away to nowhere, before Ritchie came zipping up to it and unleashed a thundercracker that came back off the post. With everyone else static, Ritchie had followed his own shot up and headed it straight back into the empty net, sheer determination the key factor here kids.
The remainder of the game saw something of a personal mission as Ritchie was denied point blank by Gilks (when a square ball to Atsu may have been a better option) and ignored by the referee when a penalty looked nailed on to me. It seemed that our man’s alight miscontrol wrong footed the Wigan defender, who had no intent to foul but still clipped the standing foot. The Wigan manager went bananas, but this is no surprise as he’s clearly one of these blokes that is a comfortable league one manager because he shouts a lot.
It was a very tense ending, probably not for the last time this season. After the whistle news drifted through of a late Burton winner at Huddersfield and this, added to the Leeds defeat in the late kick off, should go a long way to seeing us over that line. With another relegation struggler up next in the form of that very same Burton, we need to be on point to avoid a very embarrassing slip up. Achieve this and we can move on to Sheffield Wednesday with confidence that it’s very close.
Wigan, for their part, seemed to enjoy their trip as many have done this Championship journey. It was a game with nothing at all memorable, the type you’ll struggle to recall if it appears in one of those “on this day” type columns. However, the right result was achieved, and I’d say we only need three more of those and Rafa can start planning transfers.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 2 Wigan 1
Saturday 1 April 2017 3pm
Newcastle: Gayle 36, Ritchie 57
Wigan: Jacobs 50
Possession was Wigan 48% Newcastle 52%
Total shots were Wigan 6 Newcastle 18
Shots on target were Wigan 3 Newcastle 6
Corners were Wigan 4 Newcastle 6
Referee: David Coote
Darlow, Anita, Lascelles, Hanley, Dummett, Ritchie, Shelvey, Colback, Gouffran (Hayden 70), Diame (Atsu 63), Gayle (Perez 80)
Elliot, Gamez, Mbemba, Mitrovic
Crowd: 51,849 (1,200 Wigan)
Follow Jamie on Twitter @Mr_Dolf
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