Miles Starforth’s match analysis: Newcastle United 1 Crystal Palace 0

Karl Darlow saves Yohan Cabaye's penalty
Karl Darlow saves Yohan Cabaye's penalty

Jamaal Lascelles hardly got a kick under Steve McClaren.

Yet if Newcastle United do stay up, Lascelles’ kick up the backside off the pitch a few short weeks ago could prove to be as important as any kick on the field.

Aleksandar Mitrovic (left) and Andros Townsend celebrate

Aleksandar Mitrovic (left) and Andros Townsend celebrate

Lascelles has also backed up his words with actions.

While Andros Townsend and Karl Darlow took the headlines after Saturday’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, Lascelles also made a hugely-important contribution.

Lascelles’ early challenge on a goal-bound Connor Wickham was perfectly-timed and executed.

And it had to be.

Just over three weeks ago, Lascelles asked for more “heart and desire” from Rafa Benitez’s on the pitch after the club’s 3-1 defeat to Southampton at the St Mary’s Stadium.

Since then, what Newcastle have lacked in quality, they’ve made up in heart and desire.

Those qualities were again evident against a Palace team which didn’t look like it had spent the week “on the pop”.

Pardew ducked out of some of his post-match media duties – he chose not to speak to newspaper journalists – but his players had done his talking.

Maybe Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce’s mind games had worked.

Maybe there was never a chance of them not being “mentally ready” in the wake of their FA Cup semi-final win over Watford the previous weekend.

Or maybe Palace turned up looking to win because they HAD to.

After all, Pardew’s side are still not mathematically safe.

Whatever the reason, Newcastle – who all too often have started slowly this season – were given an uncomfortable 45 minutes by Palace, and especially Yannick Bolasie.

United had Darlow to thanks for first-half saves from Bolasie and Yohan Cabaye, booed on his return to St James’s Park.

The crowd, which had sung “You’ll Never Walk Alone” during a minute’s applause in memory of the 96 fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster, was anxious and the atmosphere was subdued.

There was also anxiety on the pitch.

As against Liverpool at Anfield the previous weekend, Newcastle were a yard off the pace.

United had chances – the recalled Georginio Wijnaldum and Chancel Mbemba tested Wayne Hennessey in the visiting goal – but there was relief when referee Mike Dean blew the whistle for half-time.

Newcastle needed a lift, and they got one early in the second half when news filtered through of Marko Arnautovic’s goal for Stoke City against Sunderland at the Britannia Stadium.

The goal roused St James’s Park, and if anyone was going to force a breakthrough, it looked like being Townsend.

And when Townsend was brought down by Scott Dann as the hour-mark approach, the winger stepped up to take the free-kick.

The January signing somehow bent the ball around Palace’s wall and beyond Hennessey.

St James’s Park erupted. There was bedlam.

It was a stunning, stunning goal, and Townsend’s emotional reaction – he ran to the corner bellowing and clenching his fists at the crowd – told its own story.

Ten minutes later, it all almost unravelled.

Moussa Sissoko flung his arms up and inadvertently handled a Cabaye corner, though few inside the stadium saw the offence.

The decision was greeted by silent disbelief.

Seconds earlier, Cabaye – who left the club in early 2014 – had been loudly taunted for being “greedy”.

Would he greedily take the penalty?

Cabaye, after a long wait, put the spot kick to the right, and Darlow, having studied his previous penalties, guessed right.

Crucially, Paul Dummett got to the ball first after Darlow pushed it away from goal.

Cue more bedlam inside the sold-out ground.

Newcastle managed to see the game out – Lascelles again put himself on the line as Benitez’s players tackled and blocked – but the same couldn’t be said for Stoke, who conceded a penalty deep in injury time which was converted by Jermain Defoe.

But that couldn’t take the shine off a hugely-important win for United.

Cheick Tiote, another player who featured little under McClaren, though his availability has restricted by injuries, was also immense in front of the back four, while Jack Colback, his midfield partner, had his best game of the season.

Admittedly, Newcastle were poor before the break.

But the statistics bear out the improvements Benitez has made at both ends of the pitch in a short space of time.

Steve McClaren, his predecessor, often talked about “progress” during his troubled tenure, but there has been tangible progress made on Benitez’s watch.

But United’s destiny isn’t in their own hands.

All Newcastle can do is win their final two games and hope for the best.

Sunderland, in 18th place, remain the favourites to beat the drop given that they have a game in hand.

But United, 17th in the table and a point above the danger zone, have done enough over the past few weeks to worry them.

And the only worrying thing a month ago was Newcastle’s own form.