He is class, and quite possibly will be better than Fabregas. Yes, today belonged to Mikel Merino as he scored a late winner and his first goal for the Magpies to keep all three points at St James Park and continue Newcastle’s excellent start to the season against lowly Palace.
The Spaniard had, in fact, been left on the bench for the second successive game by boss Rafa Benitez, as he continued to make use of all those in the squad he trusts to grind out yet more points.
But having played our familiar 'backs to the wall' style for long spell before his introduction at about the hour mark, the introduction of Merino was pivotal to Newcastle’s success in this one.
STARTING XI: Elliot, Yedlin, Lascelles, Lejeune, Manquillo, Hayden (Merino, 57), Shelvey, Ritchie, Perez (Diame, 66), Atsu, Joselu (Mitrovic, 78)
Palace, to their credit, arrived at St James Park with renewed optimism and a verve that perhaps would still have been lacking but for their shock win over Chelsea last weekend. Having lost all of the their first 7 fixtures most Palace fans would have seen today as their big chance to kick start their season had they been asked 10 days ago. Instead, buoyed by that victory, they set off a double quick pace from the first whistle.
Continuing to play without a recognised striker due to injury problems, Woy would start with the pacy Zaha and Townsend up front, a combination that had served them so well the week before.
For Newcastle and Rafa it would serve up yet another puzzle to fix, dealing with the constant movement and having always to be mindful of the opportunities behind the back four that may leave space for the forwards to run into.
Perhaps surprising then that Rafa choose to play most of the game with a relatively high line, with both Lascelles and Lejeune reading the game extremely effectively to steal a march on the two when any balls were played into that space.
Indeed Palace would not manage to test Elliot once with a shot on target throughout the 90 minutes, resorting to range efforts and a few half chances. Their best chance perhaps a great cross just before the Newcastle goal that would only see van Aanholt slide in at the far post and miss the ball completely.
The visitors would also have a villain in the ranks in the form of ex-mag Cabaye. After the usual pantomime booing greetings for both he and Townsend this would descend into something far more venomous from fans and then players too as the Frenchman would carry out a footballing assault on DeAndre Yedlin during the second half. Our American full back will be thankful his foot was not planted in the St James Park turf as Cabaye’s scissor tackle could, without exaggeration, have seen our lad out for the season.
The resultant yellow card for Cabaye no justice at all.
Fortunately our lad was fine to continue after a little treatment and his team came back with the perfect repost.
With Merino now already on the pitch and the Newcastle midfield starting to dictate play, the further introduction of Mitrovic on 78 mins also seemed to add another dimension to Newcastle’s play.
A free kick earned by the Serb then resulted in a corner to Newcastle after a cross was cut out by Townsend. And from the resulting kick Merino would accept a little bit of luck in seeing his deflected header loop over Speroni in the Palace goal to give Newcastle the lead with just 4 mins left.
There would be no scares to endure to the Newcastle faithful between the goal and the final whistle, despite a flurry of late free kicks, and the points would be ours.
Another day at the office for our man Rafa. Another three points.