Miles Starforth’s analysis: Hanley, Murphy & Co’s Newcastle time will come – just as Atsu’s did at Rotherham

Christian Atsu
Christian Atsu

It was a surprise. A big surprise.

Not one of the 2,587 travelling fans expected to see Christian Atsu’s name on the teamsheet at the expense of Matt Ritchie.

Mohamed Diame, right

Mohamed Diame, right

After all, Ritchie has been one of Newcastle United’s most influential players so far this season.

Yet the winger found himself on the bench at the New York Stadium.

And Atsu, a player who we had only seen glimpses of since his loan move from Chelsea, made the starting XI against Rotherham United.

It was a bold move from Benitez.

But the boldest thing about Saturday was the home side.

Rotherham, bottom of the table, went for it from the first whistle.

For all the pre-match talk of a rout of the Championship’s basement club, Benitez was cautious.

United’s manager was torn being going on the attack, and giving Alan Stubbs’ side the opportunity to play on the break, and taking a more defensive approach to a game which would have been on many coupons as an away banker.

As it was, Newcastle spent much of the first 45 minutes on the back foot.

Time and again Rotherham came at them.

They were relentless, and Benitez was forced to switch to a more defensive formation – with both Jonjo Shelvey and Jack Colback sitting deep in front of the under-pressure back four – midway through the first half to stifle Izzy Brown, on loan from Chelsea.

Ciaran Clark was again immense in the heart of Benitez’s defence.

And he had to be.

It was reminiscent of the club’s win at Bristol City back in August.

Back then, goalkeeper Matz Sels had had little to do despite the home side’s dominance.

And Karl Darlow, again between the posts after his recall for last week’s dramatic 4-3 home win over Norwich City, didn’t have much to do in the first half.

Newcastle had the occasional foray upfield – Yoan Gouffran had an early shot stopped on the line – but the momentum was with Rotherham.

That was until Shelvey broke upfield four minutes before the break and played the ball to Atsu to the right of the home side’s box.

The winger did the rest.

Speaking after the game in a dimly-lit corridor as his team-mates filed out of the dressing room and towards the waiting team bus, Atsu, with a bright smile, said he knew his chance would come.

The hard part was going to be taking it.

Atsu took the ball from Shelvey and cut inside on to his favoured left foot.

The 24-year-old curled a shot beyond a helpless Lee Camp and into the far corner of the net.

Atsu had taken his chance.

At the other end of the stadium, a short walk from Rotherham’s former Millmoor home, now sadly decaying, Newcastle’s support erupted.

The goal calmed the team, but the second half was still uncomfortable.

What was comforting, however, was the manner in which Newcastle defended ball after ball.

A week earlier, they had let a one-goal lead slip two minutes from time at Villa Park.

Benitez had opted against sending on powerful defender Grant Hanley against Aston Villa for fear of inviting even more pressure on his team. This time, Hanley followed Ritchie and Aleksandar Mitrovic on to the pitch.

He felt he had no choice.

Clark made an important late interception as Newcastle clung on to their advantage.

They clung to three more important points.

At the final whistle, captain Jamaal Lascelles and his team-mates walked to the other end of the stadium to applaud the club’s travelling support.

The applause was repciprocated. The players had earnt it.

It had been another exhausting 90 minutes.

The Championship campaign is still only 11 games old. There are 35 more matches to come.

Over the coming weeks and months, third-placed Newcastle’s squad should come into play.

The decision to rest Ritchie will have been taken with a view to the longer term. Benitez needs his players fresh.

League leaders Huddersfield Town also won, as did second-placed Norwich in the later kick-off on Saturday to go back above Newcastle. Chris Hghton’s Brighton and Hove Albion, in fourth, also triumphed.

Promotion won’t be won or lost for a long, long time.

But Newcastle, going into the international break, are well placed.

“It is important to win before and after the internationals,” said Benitez afterwards.

“Normally when you go away for a week or 10 days if you lose, it’s always worse.”

And Newcastle can play better, much better. They were far from their best at the New York Stadium, yet they had enough about them to win.

It was the same story at Ashton Gate and the iPro Stadium.

There are players, like Hanley and Daryl Murphy, have hardly played so far this season.

Their time will certainly come – just as Atsu’s did at the New York Stadium.