Miles Starforth’s match analysis: Bristol City 0 Newcastle United 1

Matz Sels
Matz Sels

It was uncomfortable viewing at times.

And it was just as uncomfortable for Newcastle United’s players on the pitch.

Yet the club’s 1-0 win over Bristol City was more comfortable that the scoreline suggests.

For all their possession, and for all their balls into the box, the home side could muster just two shots on target on Saturday.

It wasn’t pretty at times, and there were some nervous moments for the club’s 2,501-strong travelling support behind Matz Sels goal in the second half, but United dealt with everything that was thrown at them on a soggy afternoon in Bristol.

Newcastle themselves just needed one shot on target.

With a player like Dwight Gayle – the strike took his tally to four from as many games – in your team, that can be enough, just as it was at a rebuilt Ashton Gate.

The goal owed everything to a sublime ball into his path from Mohamed Diame.

Two touches later, it was in the net.

United know if they can scrap, battle and contest every ball, they have enough quality in the final third to get a goal or more.

Crucially, striker Aleksandar Mitrovic has now served a four-game suspension and is available for tomorrow night’s home EFL Cup tie against Cheltenham Town.

Mitrovic gives them a plan B.

Rafa Benitez’s team, previously unused to the pace and intensity of the Championship, are quickly getting used to one of football’s most unforgiving divisions.

And four games in, seventh-placed Newcastle are well-positioned after overcoming a difficult first 180 minutes in English football’s second tier.

Next up in the league are second-placed Brighton and Hove Albion, managed by Chris Hughton, the last man to take the club out of the Championship.

Hughton’s United team was built on togetherness, and if United are to return to the Premier League at the first attempt – they are still the bookmakers’ favourites to win promotion – they’lll need to replicate that team ethic.

It was a case of one for all and all for one in front of Ashton Gate’s biggest gate in 26 years.

Newcastle had started well enough. They passed and they probed.

However, once Gayle put them ahead in the 20th minute, they retreated under pressure from an eager, energetic and enthusiastic City side.

And United went on to spend much of the following 70 minutes on the back foot.

Without a player like Mitrovic, often at his best with his back to goal, up front to use as an outlet, they struggled to get out of their half, and Lee Johnson’s side went on to dominate the second half.

Ball after ball was headed away. Newcastle tackled and blocked, again and again.

Yoan Gouffran, fielded on the wing for the second successive game, ran himself into the soggy turf.

And he wasn’t the only one.

An exhausted Diame, still short of fitness after his move from Hull City, was replaced by Ayoze Perez just after the hour-mark.

Diame had done his bit. And he’ll be better for the 63 minutes he got on the pitch.

United came through a difficult last half hour – and five tortuous minutes of added time – to get their first away win under Benitez.

Newcastle will be better with the ball on their travels this season, but they set a standard for themselves without the ball. That was Benitez’s “message” to his players after the final whistle.

“It’s a clear message,” he said.

“We have to work as hard as we did, and then afterwards use the quality that we have got.”

The quality in Benitez’s squad isn’t in doubt, but this performance showed that the club’s gifted players can back up their talents with grit and graft.

One post-game talking point was the performance of Sels, who is still adjusting to the English game following his summer move from Belgian club Gent.

It’s too early to judge the 24-year-old, who is yet to dominate his box.

But Benitez, speaking in a small makeshift press conference room after the game, again backed the goalkeeper, though Karl Darlow – whohas started the season on the bench – could get a chance in the EFL Cup.

Gayle also spoke after the game. Leaning against a wall in a darkened corridor, Gayle just wanted to talk about how well the team had defended.

It’s also clear he is looking forward to playing alongside Mitrovic, a player capable of creating space for him up front.

United spent much of the game on the back foot, but it was a step forward for the team.

Where does this leave Moussa Sissoko?

You wouldn’t trust Sissoko, yet to kick a ball for the club, to replicate the efforts of his team-mates at Ashton Gate.

The midfielder – who is interesting a number of clubs – wants to leave, but the club is yet to receive an offer for him.

Benitez has often talked about his keenness to get beyond transfer deadline day.

It’s not hard to see why.

A clutch of players, maybe as many as half a dozen, want to leave St James’s Park this month.

They can’t be allowed to break the spirit that got Newcastle through a testing 95 minutes at Ashton Gate.

The next 42 games, we know, won’t be for the faint-hearted.