Punctuated by persistent bouts of driving rain and permeated by a distinctly autumnal chill, it was hardly the ideal afternoon for a convalescent to be outdoors but nonethless seemed to do Rafa Benítez a power of good.
A fortnight after undergoing surgery to clear infection from the site of an old hernia repair, the Newcastle United manager walked gingerly into the dug-out at kick off but departed with a spring in his step.
With Christian Atsu’s excellent performance possibly proving more restorative than a week at a health farm, Benítez was left to celebrate his side’s third straight Premier League win. Maybe, just maybe, the Tynesiders are not quite as weak as even he had feared.
The Spaniard is never averse to a spot of rotation and, sure enough, he refreshed the side which won at Swansea last Sunday, with perhaps the most notable change featuring the much improved Atsu’s replacement of Jacob Murphy on the left wing.
By the 19th minute it looked a particularly inspired switch as Atsu connected with Matt Ritchie’s gorgeously curling cross, extending his left foot to volley Newcastle into the lead from close range. Moreover, that goal’s origins also served to justify another Benítez selection call, namely his decision to, once again, start Mikel Merino ahead of the benched Jonjo Shelvey.
Indeed it will not have been lost on Ritchie that it was the Borussia Dortmund loanee’s pinching of midfield possession which prefaced Isaac Hayden’s pass picking Ritchie out down the right.
All scorching change of pace and excellent positional sense, Atsu was the player responsible for a prolonged first half patch in which Stoke’s three man backline appeared in increasing peril of coming apart at the seams.
If his contribution delighted Benítez, Newcastle’s manager must have wished certain team-mates could have been similarly incisive. While an un-marked Jamaal Lascelles headed wide from a highly inviting position, Joselu looked suitably furious with himself after missing a couple of decent chances The £5m summer buy from Stoke says he departed the Potteries because he felt Hughes did not “trust” him. Perhaps the pressure of playing in front of his old boss had simply got to a striker who has previously impressed in black and white but watching Joselu spurn that pair of chances the visiting manager must have felt a sense of vindication.
If Hughes could not exactly afford to feel smug on an afternoon he seemed to permit himself a little smile when, early in the second period, Joselu steered the ball well over the bar after being left clean through by another Atsu delivery.
At least Newcastle were creating clearcut openings. In contrast, for much of the afternoon, Stoke were largely left reliant on the sort of half chances that, back in his playing pomp, even Hughes might have struggled to convert. That said the much vaunted Jesé, in partuclar, proved hugely disappointing.
Xherdan Shaqiri, too, looked somewhat off the pace – or at least he did until, finally granted a yard of space the Swiss creator met Joe Allen’s pass and used his left foot to direct a fine 20 yard shot into the bottom corner. It was a characteristically classy finish but Rob Elliot, a goalkeeper Benítez had hoped to replace this summer, looked somewhat crestfallen at his failure to divert it.
No matter; Elliot soon showed off his true ability by performing wonders to keep Mame Biram Diouf’s header out. That seemed a pivotal moment as, suddenly, Newcastle re-grouped and thought they should have won a penalty when Kurt Zouma appeared to trip the on-rushing Atsu in the box.
Although replays from a certain angle suggested the defender won the ball, Benítez’s players seemed fuelled by a sense of righteous indignation. Making the very most of the resultant surge of attacking momentum they restored their lead when Lascelles met Ritchie’s corner and, having soared above Stoke’s defence, powered a header past Jack Butland.
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