Analysis: Bold, brave birthday boy Rafa Benitez shows Newcastle what’s needed

Newcastle United's Moussa Sissoko celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game
Newcastle United's Moussa Sissoko celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game
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Fortune often favours the brave.

And Rafa Benitez had to be brave at St James’s Park on Saturday.

Jamaal Lascelles stretches for a cross

Jamaal Lascelles stretches for a cross

He had no choice given a wretched eight months which had left Newcastle United on the brink of relegation.

Benitez’s players also had to be brave.

The club is still on the brink.

But there was character, fight and desire from the players against Swansea City, resulting in an emphatic 3-0.

Jamaal Lascelles had called for more character, more fight and more desire a week earlier after the club’s 3-1 defeat to Southampton.

Benitez has been looking for leaders since taking over the club last month.

And he has one in Lascelles, who wasn’t afraid to say what needed to be said in the dressing room, and to the media, at the St Mary’s Stadium.

The 22-year-old defender returned to the starting XI against Swansea along with Papiss Cisse, Paul Dummett, Chieck Tiote and Jack Colback.

Just as significantly, Jonjo Shelvey – who had been captaining his team – dropped down to the bench.

It was a surprise move.

Shelvey, until 90 minutes before kick-off time, had been expecting to face his former club.

Benitez had had to be bold on his 56th birthday. And he was.

Moussa Sissoko – who had been just as ineffective as Shelvey against Southampton seven days earlier – was handed the captain’s armband at St James’s Park.

What followed wasn’t always pretty, but United won. They won ugly on a day in which Tyneside experienced all four seasons.

There were snow showers on the morning of the match.

But there was bright sunshine by the team Sissoko led his team on to the pitch.

And the day got brighter still.

Benitez’s players fought. They scrapped. They battled. And in the end, they had enough quality to score three goals and claim what was their first win since February’s 1-0 success over West Bromwich Albion.

The players were as nervy as the fans early in the game.

It was a tense, awkward game, and Newcastle struggled to play a telling ball in the final third of the pitch.

Their first chance fell to Colback, played in with a clever flick from Cisse.

Colback’s shot, unfortunately, was easily gathered by Lukasz Fabianski in the visiting goal.

United’s best chance of a goal looked like coming from a set-piece.

And when Lascelles lost his marker late in the first half to meet an Andros Townsend corner with his head, there was only going to be one outcome.

Lascelles barely celebrated. His job, and that of his team, wasn’t nearly done.

The crowd knew it too. The stadium didn’t over-celebrate either.

Cisse and Lascelles couldn’t get touches on a Townsend free-kick early in the second half.

Newcastle, however, spent much of the half on the back foot, and Shelvey replaced Tiote in the 66th minute.

United played on the counter-attack, but the ball didn’t stick up front for him and they looked like coming unstuck until the introduction of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who headed a corner down to Sissoko two minutes later.

Sissoko – who hadn’t scored all season – finished past Fabianski.

This time, however, there was more of a celebration.

Sissoko ran to the bench to celebrate with Benitez and his team-mates.

And this time, St James’s Park erupted.

The significance of the all-important second goal wasn’t lost on anyone, and Townsend’s third goal, also set up by Mitrovic, was the icing on the cake, while it also helped narrow the goal difference between Newcastle and 17th-placed Norwich City to just one.

Two weeks earlier, United had been beaten at Carrow Road by an injury-time goal.

The home fans then celebrated Martin Olsson’s goal as it was the strike that would ensure their Premier League survival.

Norwich supporters won’t be so certain now, having seen their team beaten 3-0 by Sunderland in Saturday’s early kick-off.

Newcastle would climb above them with a win over Manchester City, in what is their game in hand, at St James’s Park tomorrow.

Sunderland also have a game in hand over Alex Neil’s side.

Benitez had a quiet birthday celebration after the game.

But, typically, he was already planning for the City match.

Speaking after the game, he said: “I’ll try a little bit (to celebrate his birthday and the win), but we have to train on Sunday.

“Obviously, you have to recover. We’ll see if we have any knocks and be ready for the next game.

“I’ll try to enjoy my (birthday celebrations) a little bit with friends and staff, but we have to concentrate on the next training session and the next game.”

United have given themselves a chance of staying up, nothing more.

But if the club is to go down, it must go down fighting.

For once, there was some welcome fight in Benitez’s team against Swansea. They need much more.