Sharpshooter Dwight Gayle completed a memorable night and hat-trick at St. James’ Park on Wednesday night in the 96th minute against Norwich making it 4-3 & reminding everybody why favourites Newcastle will go up.
Yet it could easily have been a different story, one similar to the frustrating draw against Aston Villa, after a dominant Newcastle side failed to put away their chances and the game in the opening half an hour.
Paul Dummett fizzed in three excellent crosses from the left yet a diminutive forward line of Gayle and Matt Ritchie failed to score until the two combined on the deck in the 24th minute.
Yet exactly how slender a one goal lead is in the frenetic, topsy-turvy Championship was shown beyond doubt when Norwich turned the game on its head with three goals in 30 minutes.
The answer on Wednesday night was – and going forward – is striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.
When monster Mitrovic is on the pitch, all 6ft 2in of him, Newcastle are a different prospect and offer a completely different threat with his aerial prowess and overall physical strength.
Many substitute strikers are told to “Go on and drop hand grenades” yet Mitrovic – after being told to keep the pin in to avoid getting sent off – causes that much havoc he’s the equivalent of pressing the nuclear button.
The Serbian aggressively harries and attacks every ball, occupying the attention of defenders, allowing front men like Gayle and Yoan Gouffran the space and time to get their shots and headers off. Indeed, Gayle said he feared injury after being manhandled by Mitrovic when they were celebrating the team’s 4th goal and the game’s 7th, telling The Daily Telegraph:
“He shook my head, suffocated me and headbutted me,” joked Gayle, when asked about being grabbed in a headlock by Mitrovic and slammed on the floor.
“It was like being whip-lashed. I think he tried to injure me. Nah, he’s a great lad and as I said, we have great team spirit. He was just as excited as we all were. Those were unbelievable scenes at the end.”
Yet he can play, too, and Mitrovic’s hold-up play is superb – both of Newcastle’s injury-time goals resulted from the big striker latching onto or heading down JonJo Shelvey’s ping-point passes.
His only start for Newcastle in The Championship was at Loftus Road and, predictably, Newcastle blew Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s men away as Newcastle’s talent was able to thrive behind the presence of Mitrovic.
Then Mitrovic was dropped against Wolves at home, Newcastle were toothless and lacked presence in attack and played into the Molineux outfit’s hands as Gayle struggled to impose himself on a tough and tall defence as The Magpies slumped to a 0-2 reverse after six wins on the spin.
It was a different story three days later when Daryl Murphy – even bigger than Mitro at 6ft 3in – played against Wolves in The League Cup and showed again the positive effect of having a target man up front to aim at.
Benitez’s preferred formation is 4-3-2-1 yet while such tactics may work wonders in The Champions League, its not needed in The Championship where Newcastle could be blowing most teams away.
Especially obvious after BigSamGate, Newcastle are a Premier League side in the wrong division and have the talent and firepower to flex their muscles yet its something they have to do literally in order to thrive as they can.
Mitrovic was targetted by the referees in last season’s Premier League, whose officials seemed to be keen to relegate Newcastle. He was hauled down by a rugby tackle by Jonny Evans at West Brom, had a perfectly good second goal disallowed at The Etihad having notched one and Leicester’s Robert Huth should have been dismissed at St. James’ Park for an action the Serbian would have certainly been sent off for had it happened the other way around.
Gayle should be scoring in every game yet he needs help and Mitrovic’s presence providing the ball as well as more space and freedom occupying defenders is the key.
Newcastle’s no. 9 has the The Championship’s best goal-per-minute ratio at a goal every 99 minutes and has scored 7 in total including this beauty:
Mo Diame has been underwhelming for the majority of the season so far in a Newcastle shirt – the Bristol City away assist and Brighton home game aside – and needs a rest so could be the next to be rotated.
The Outlaw Aleksander Mitrovic up front alongside The Sharpshooter Dwight Gayle means there’ll be more time spent in Magpies’ seventh heaven a la Wednesday night than the purgatory of Aston Villa or Wolves at home.
Rock bottom Rotherham are up next and they should brace themsleves to face Newcastle’s real wrath.