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

Yohan Cabaye stands over DeAndre Yedlin after his poor tackle.
Yohan Cabaye stands over DeAndre Yedlin after his poor tackle.

It was the defining image of the game.

It wasn’t Mikel Merino celebrating his first goal for Newcastle United.

And it wasn’t the teams walking out at St James’s Park against the backdrop of the latest Gallowgate Flags display.

No, it was of a floored Yohan Cabaye being taunted by Jonjo Shelvey, his fist balled, after Merino scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

It wasn’t sportsmanlike.

But Cabaye hadn’t been very sporting himself over the previous 85 minutes.

Mikel Merino's header sails into the Palace net.

Mikel Merino's header sails into the Palace net.

The former United midfielder had recklessly caught DeAndre Yedlin with a scissor tackle.

Cabaye, booed by the same fans that used to worship him, had also had plenty to say to referee Stuart Attwell over the course of the game.

The result left Palace rooted to the bottom of the Premier League.

And it also moved Newcastle up to sixth place.

Jamaal Lascelles (left) confronts Yohan Cabaye

Jamaal Lascelles (left) confronts Yohan Cabaye

United already have eight more points than they did at this stage of their relegation season.

This 1-0 win was far from convincing, and Palace manager Roy Hodgson felt his team deserved more, but they didn’t have a shot on target. Not one.

Newcastle, as they had been against Southampton at the St Mary’s Stadium six days earlier, were disciplined and organised, but they struggled to break down a visiting team which defended deep, and in numbers, as left two players – Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha – up front.

The pace of Townsend and Zaha caused problems in the first half, but they didn’t test Rob Elliot.

Andros Townsend.

Andros Townsend.

They were also fortunate that Cabaye only got a yellow card for his challenge on Yedlin, who was able to continue.

United struggled to pick their way through Palace’s two banks of four – Christian Atsu did get in behind them, but he shot into the side netting – and they had to defend some awkward set-pieces from Cabaye.

They were better after the break. There was more space, and Benitez sent on Merino, Mohamed Diame and Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Merino had been left on the bench for the second game in a row.

But the midfielder – whose loan was converted into a permanent move earlier this month – seized his chance with the help of a deflection off James McArthur, who had attempted to clear Matt Ritchie’s corner.

As it was, the ball cannoned off Merino’s head and into the net.

It was a memorable end to an unmemorable game.

Cabaye and Townsend left Newcastle to further their careers, yet their club is struggling to compete in the Premier League.

United have already shown that they can compete in the division.

Benitez has moulded a competitive side without a big budget.

Newcastle’s manager, unable to buy his first-choice targets, was forced to take gambles on players in the summer.

Just imagine what Benitez could do with a transfer budget to rival the rest of the top 10.

The game was the club’s first since owner Mike Ashley formally put it up for sale.

Thanks to Benitez’s careful stewardship, a committed group of players and a loyal fanbase, it is an attractive proposition to a number of potential buyers.

The game will have been followed closely by those groups negotiating with the club’s hierarchy.

Time will tell if Ashley’s price is right.

But United are getting it right on the pitch.