We’ve heard it several times this season, ‘today is a must win game’, that statement was never more true than at St James Park today. To be fair, it is very possible that the same statement will apply for our last games too!
With Sunderland and Norwich starting the day 1 point ahead of Newcastle, the former with a significantly better goal difference, we also needed a helping hand from other teams.
In the end, the day would throw up almost the perfect combination of results for the Mags.
First of all we needed to take care of our own business. Just the one change from Rafa saw Wijnaldum replacing Perez, whilst there was a 100th start in black and white for Anita as Cisse continued to keep Mitrovic out of the starting line up.
STARTING XI: Darlow, Anita (Shelvey), Mbemba, Lascelles, Dummett, Colback, Tiote, Wijnaldum (Perez), Sissoko, Townsend, Cisse (Mitrovic)
The St James Park faithful would do their team proud as the match was declared a sell out an hour or so before kick off. The recent wave of optimism that has swept through the region under the steady hand of Rafa has the place buzzing again. Even those nervous moments that normally punctuate a match like this, where fans sometimes seem bereft of ideas or the emotional energy to find something to sing, are now filled with unmistakable renditions of ‘Rafa Benitez’.
The Spaniard will have been touched by the spontaneous singing of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ during the one minute applause in respect of ‘the 96’. If he didn’t know about what football means to those in Newcastle already, the passion and the pride, it must be sinking in by now.
So onto the game.
The first half, in the main, was like a game of chess. Both side probing on occasions but neither wanting to give anything away.
Any thought that Palace would roll over after Pardew’s men had reached the FA Cup Final last weekend were washed away as they entered each challenge and ran for each ball with the equal passion of our lads.
One shot of note for each side in that 45 minutes, with ours being a piledriver from Sissoko pushed away by Hennessey in the Palace goal. Colback should also have tested the keeper but shot wide during one scramble in the Palace box.
The visitors looked a threat throughout, even without the injured Zaha who’d been ruled out just before kick off. Bolasie in particular causing Anita issues from the start.
The second half would be one to remember.
As the half ticked on you could feel the tension building and it started to feel as though a mistake or a moment of brilliance would be required to separate the sides.
On 58 minutes we got it.
A freekick following a foul on Townsend around 25 yards from goal on the Newcastle right saw the same man dust himself down and stand over the ball. The resultant kick would be as good as anything you’ve seen at SJP looping over the Palace keeper into the top right hand corner of the visitors net. Cue pandemonium with every players swamping the England winger. The passion is back in this lot that’s for sure.
Now all Newcastle had to do was see this one out.
But then the twist. A corner from Cabaye, who was roundly booed by the home crowd, saw Sissoko jump to head the ball clear. A whilst from the ref was greeted by bemusement from the home crowd and players alike as the ref pointed to the spot. Sissoko was adjudged to have handled the ball and it would take a few views after the game of replays to realise the ref had probably called this one right.
Only one man now stood in the way of Cabaye becoming public enemy number one on Tyneside, Karl Darlow.
Cabaye would hit his penalty true and to Darlow’s left. Our keeper, who had started the season as third choice behind Elliot and Krul, guessed correctly and with a combination of hands and face pushed the ball to safety.
The save would prove pivotal and Newcastle would see the rest of the game out.
Relief at the final whistle was only tinged by news that Sunderland had equalised in injury time as Stoke who had led for much of the game. Quite how important that goal will be remains to be seen. But for now Newcastle United look down on Sunderland by one point and Norwich by two.
Both those sides had one game in hand on United after Norwich lost to Arsenal in the late game.
Things could have been so much different today, but we did what we had to do. Must win it had to be, and must win it was.
We live to fight another day!