Miles Starforth's match analysis: Wigan Athletic 0 Newcastle Utd 2
If Benitez can win at the DW Stadium on his first visit as the club’s manager, anything is possible.
In the dying minutes of last night’s 2-0 win, United’s 4,000-strong travelling support sang Wham’s “Last Christmas”.
And they changed the words, of course.
They chanted that they’d given their heart to Benitez. And they were only half-joking.
Newcastle’s arrived at the DW Stadium looking to improve on a dismal record at the ground.
The club had won just one of the eight games its played there. Newcastle had lost the rest, often in adbject fashion.
Newcastle’s only previous victory had come thanks to a Shola Ameobi goal in the 2010-11 season, yet the North Stand at the DW Stadium has almost always been full.
This time it was no difference, despite the game falling on a midweek night 11 days before Christmas.
United, under Benitez, have been formidable away from home this season.
And his team, thanks to goals from Mohamed Diame and Christian Atsu, gave the club’s supporters an early Christmas present.
Benitez did something he hadn’t done all season before the match. Newcastle’s manager, surprisingly, named an unchanged side.
DeAndre Yedlin and Ayoze Perez were among those vying for recalls, but Benitez named the same starting XI that had beaten Birmingham City so convincingly at St James’s Park five days earlier.
There hadn’t been a weak link in the 4-0 win.
And those same 11 players made a positive start at the DW Stadium. The bench, which included Yedlin, Perez, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Christian Atsu and Chancel Mbemba, was probably as strong has any seen in English football’s second tier in the Championship era.
Diame, so impressive against Birmingham, made some early runs against his former club.
Jonjo Shelvey flicked the ball to him in the ninth minute, and the midfielder – who spent three years at Wigan earlier in his career – forced a save from Jussi Jaaskelainen with a fierce shot.
The home side were less incisive in their breaks forward, though Yanic Wildschut got past Paul Dummett and delivered a teasing ball into the box. Fortunately for United, nobody could get on the end of it.
Ciaran Clark gave Shelvey an earful midway through the half as Newcastle looked to regain their early momentum.
Seconds later, the ball was in the back of the net.
Diame broke forward from the right and exchanged passes with Hayden on the edge of the box before continuing his run into the area and side-footing the ball past Jaaskelainen in front of United’s large travelling support.
It was a superb strike. Diame’s power had carried him into the box, but beyond the 18-yard line he had needed precision.
Newcastle went close to increasing their lead before the break. Shelvey had a shot deflected wide, and a Clark, stood at the far post, couldn’t react quickly enough to the resulting corner.
United had ended the half in total control, but Wigan came back at them after the interval. Wildschut, having swapped flanks, looked to get past Vurnon Anita, who had to be helped out by Jamaal Lascelles.
Benitez’s side were sat deep as the hour-mark passed at the DW Stadium. Time and again they broke down Newcastle’s right side.
They were targeting Anita, and Benitez made a change with just over 20 minutes left. He replaced Matt Ritchie – who had had a quiet game – with Atsu in an attempt to inject some life into his team.
Diame, so influential before the break, had also gone quiet.
But so often this season, United have been at their most dangerous away from home when they’ve been under pressure.
And so it proved. Again. Shelvey broke down the left and the cross was missed by Diame. The ball was picked up by Atsu, who was clinical with his finish.
The game was over. Wigan had had their chances when they were only trailing 1-0, but they hadn’t taken them.
Newcastle, more often than not this season, have taken their chances.
That’s why they lead the Championship with 21 games played.
Like Wham all those years ago, can they now be Christmas No 1?