Miles Starforth’s match analysis: Newcastle United 4 Reading 1

Matt Ritchie celebrates scoring from the spot
Matt Ritchie celebrates scoring from the spot

Fortune, it’s often said, favours the brave.

Rafa Benitez was brave at St James’s Park.

Lascelles was dropped less than a fortnight after being handed the captaincy.

And Benitez was rewarded for his bravery with a convincing win.

Newcastle United beat Reading 4-1 last night to ease the nerves on Tyneside.

No one would have predicted his team sheet.

Who would have thought that Yoan Gouffran, having been handed his first start in more than five months, would leave the field to applause late in the game, having had a hand in two of Newcastle’s goals?

Or that Jamaal Lascelles, the club’s newly-appointed captain, would be dropped?

But the stars of this victory were Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie and Isaac Hayden, three of the club’s summer signings.

Gayle netted twice, and Ritchie and Hayden also scored.

For 45 minutes, however, it was a tight game, and it was only after the break that United took control.

But they did, and they got the three points. The result mattered. Nothing else.

Benitez had been ruthless streak before the game.

Defender Lascelles was dropped less than a fortnight after being handed the captaincy at Newcastle, while forward Gouffran, last seen in a United jersey on March 2, was one of four players to come into his starting XI.

Ciaran Clark, signed from Aston Villa, made his debut in the heart of a defence which had looked vulnerable in the club’s first two Championship games.

Experienced right-back Daryl Janmaat was also left out of Benitez’s team.

Benitez, again without suspended striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, had talked of making changes after the weekend’s 2-1 home defeat to Huddersfield Town, but the decision to drop Lascelles and start Gouffran surprised fans.

In the absence of Lascelles, left-back Paul Dummett took the captain’s armband.

The changes will also have caught out Reading manager Jaap Stam, who had replaced Brian McDermott at the Madejski Stadium in June.

It was a proud moment for Dummett, who had had a tough start to the season.

And Newcastle, under the 24-year-old, had seemingly got off to a perfect start in the third minute. Ayoze Perez, recalled to the starting XI, broke up the right and crossed for Gayle, who caught the delivery with his arm as he attempted to head it past Ali Al-Habsi.

Referee Andrew Madley and his linesman initially gave the goal, but it was, rightly, ruled out amid protests from Reading players.

United, at least, were finding spaces in behind Reading and creating chances, something they had struggled to do against Huddersfield.

Reading, backed by 500 travelling fans, had seemingly taken the sting out of Newcastle after a difficult opening 15 minutes.

But the breakthrough wasn’t long in coming. Perez was brought down on the edge of the box and the visitors failed to clear Matt Ritchie’s delivery into the box.

The ball ran for Hayden, who turned and struck a low shot past Al-Habsi.

Roy Beerens struck the crossbar at the other end of the pitch for Reading, whose approach became increasingly combative as the break neared.

Then came calamity. Newcastle, for the third game in a row, conceded a goal in the 45th minute, this time from the penalty spot.

Clark made a rash challenge on John Swift, heading away from goal, and Madley pointed to the spot. Garath McCleary converted the penalty.

Benitez sent out an unchanged side for the second half, and they were back ahead in the 50th minute.

Chris Gunter hauled down Gouffran as a corner was delivered, and Madley awarded another penalty.

Ritchie, signed from Bournemouth for £10million, confidently stroked the ball past Al-Habsi to score his first Newcastle goal.

Minutes later, Madley waved away another appeal from United after Gayle was barged off the ball.

Newcastle could have done with the decision. They needed another goal.

They didn’t look comfortable against a dangerous Reading side. Hayden forced a save from Al-Habsi in the 67th minute, but there were also chances at the other end.

Gayle, however, settled the nerves with a superb free-kick in the 69th minute.

And he added a fourth – his third in as many games – a minute from time from close range.

The relief was palpable – on and off the pitch. United, finally, are up and running.