Before this game and due to a series of events involving a haircut, a bairn’s party deposit and the Metros acting themselves, I found myself walking into the town from Jesmond. As I came up Jesmond Road I caught sight of the Leazes end stand looming impressively against the belatedly pleasant spring sky and something came over me I haven’t felt in a long time.
Suddenly I felt excited. Not just about seeing my mates for a few drinks as was the appeal for so many years, but excitement for the game itself, the atmosphere and anticipation of the possibility of getting a great result. For so long this feeling had been missing as we attended blindly out of loyalty, beset with anxiety as we laboured for our place in the top flight, or to make voices heard against varying levels of mismanagement.
Right now, and today in particular, everything is alright. This game highlighted a feelgood factor that may well prove to be another false dawn, but the permanently dour and intrinsically miserable among you, might want to skip most of this report (barring a brief caveat at the end).
Much was made of Arsenal feeling the after-effect of a Europa League trek to Moscow as improving our odds in this game. The team the Gunners put out made six changes from the one focussing on Europe, but annoyingly this still allowed a front two of Lacazette and Aubameyang, not bad if you can afford it.
United started brightly, crucially Shelvey looked on top form again and his ball over the top for Gayle was the stuff of many a Championship goal last year. Monreal is a bit better than your average Championship defender though, and crowded Dwight out. Kenedy had a solid shot on target, but it was easy stuff for Cech.
Meanwhile, Arsenal were looking alarmingly good on the break, and that annoyingly expensive good front pairing used this type of occurrence to devastating effect. Mustafi knocked a fine pass to Aubameyang on the left, and he fired across to Lacazette who slid in to complete a lethal counter. Bugger, maybe they weren’t that knackered.
This is no longer the Newcastle United who would collapse at such a setback though. There was an air of serene calm about the measured response and it took less than 15 minutes to restore parity. Shelvey picked another killer pass to Gayle, who was forced slightly wide but found Yedlin there in support. The flying full-back squared the ball with pace and there was Perez, yet again producing a magnificent finish with a deft touch to beat Cech at the near post. Beautiful.
To be fair, Arsenal had the best of the half from here, almost creating a carbon copy of their goal as Mustafi neatly headed across for Callum Chambers to belt it wildly into the Gallowgate end. The same player had their next best chance but elected again to miss by miles, this time heading from a corner.
The run of Gunners pressure brought a raucous response from their notoriously loud support, with one bloke crinkling a crisp packet while someone with a bit of a cold gave a throaty cough every couple of minutes.
The second half fell a bit flat for a while as Arsenal had the best of possession and United did what they’ve done so well of late, working, fighting and battling for everything. It felt like every time an Arsenal attack became worrying, Mo Diame appeared from out of nowhere to break it up. It was almost as though there were trap doors all over the pitch he was popping in and out of, a trick pioneered by evil Grimthorpe City boss Gus Parker in an old Billy the Fish cartoon. This just goes to show how thoroughly and extensively Rafa studies tactics.
In spite of the spirited show, United were starting to look a bit lethargic up front. This changed dramatically with the withdrawal of the tiring Gayle for Slimani, who showed emphatically what difference, quality striking options can make. This seemed a better look at the Algerian than we got against Huddersfield and I can see a player this club could grow to adore if we’re given the chance.
Slimani is strong, powerful, great in the air and surprisingly quick for a big lad. What I found especially impressive was what a team player he was shaping up to be, given that the lad has 6 games to impress someone enough to play him next season.
The above factors were all combined decisively within 5 minutes. With four Arsenal defenders dithering around him over a high ball, Slimani zipped in and powered a header into the box. Perez gave a deft flick to nudge the ball on to Ritchie, who had time and space to take a touch and smash a right footer past Cech.
Slimani continued to thrive, first skinning Mustafi before squaring for Perez to be foiled twice, then releasing Kenedy with a terrific through ball. Mustafi did better this time, getting a block on the Brazilian’s effort, but the deflection spun up dangerously onto the bar.
Into the last ten minutes, the Arsenal fans made their only sound since their goal, chanting for the removal of the manager who has led them to three titles, seven FA cups and basically paid for their ground. Apparently this is a debate we wouldn’t understand, given that Arsenal have such a pedigree of success compared to our own meagre pickings. I didn’t realise it took such high scale empathy to be qualified to identify a spoilt bastard but I’ll bear this in mind next time I see an appallingly raised child willfully sh…ing on the floor of the Metrocentre because their parents are incapable of dealing with their sugar-fuelled insistence on some Paw Patrol-related uber-rubbish. I’ll just mind my own business.
The final whistle was celebrated wildly, with the subsequent lap from Rafa and the players giving off an air of end of season celebration in front of a still-full ground – 41 points reached and surely safety rubber stamped. Unlike his opposite number, our manager’s stock could not be higher as we can look forward to enjoying the end of the season free of pressure for the first time in what feels like decades.
I did promise something for the old farties though, so here’s a word of caution.
This recent incredible run has been forged on the back of some incredible runs of form and an amazingly clear injury list. Were Perez or Diame to slip back into their early season selves, or should Lascelles or Ritchie find themselves on the treatment table, our squad is still pitifully thin on quality and depth.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that Mike Ashley will take this season’s achievements on little outlay as the green light to serve up similar austerity measures in yet another transfer window. I consider all 5 remaining games to be winnable – but even in this scenario there will be trepidation of the summer going awry.
At least, in the here and now, we have hope and happiness. Thanks Rafa.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 2 Arsenal 1
Newcastle: Perez 29, Ritchie 68
Arsenal: Lacazette 14
Possession was Arsenal 72% Newcastle 28%
Total shots were Arsenal 15 Newcastle 8
Shots on target were Arsenal 3 Newcastle 4
Corners were Arsenal 5 Newcastle 2
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Dubravka, Yedlin, Lascelles, Lejeune, Dummett, Ritchie (Murphy 86), Shelvey, Kenedy, Perez (Joselu 79), Gayle (Slimani 63))
Darlow, Manquillo, Clark, Hayden
Crowd: 52,210 (2,700 Arsenal approx)
(Alan Shearer revels in Newcastle win and has Piers Morgan and other Arsenal fans biting – Read HERE)
(United fan/writer instant reaction to the 2-1 victory – Read it HERE)
(Match ratings of all NUFC players after beating Arsenal – Read HERE)
(Arsene Wenger says Newcastle didn’t even deserve a point…Read HERE)
(Rafa Benitez reaction after final whistle – Read HERE)
(Garth Crooks revisits ‘Rafa could win Premier League with Newcastle’ comments – Read HERE)
(Mohamed Diame talks through the win over Arsenal and reaching PL safety – Read it HERE)
Follow Jamie on Twitter @Mr_Dolf