NEWCASTLE: Lift off Newcastle United. Eddie Howe’s Magpies warmed up for their mid-season trip to Saudi Arabia by recording just the second win of their Premier League campaign against Leeds United.
Jonjo Shelvey’s second half strike — a low, curling free-kick — was enough for United to claim all three points at Elland Road and close the gap to safety to just one point.
It was a result which sparked wild celebrations among the loud United faithful on the terraces and saw a relieved Howe let his emotions spill over, as he fist-pumped and screamed in joy at the traveling Magpies army.
The win and clean sheet, their first away from home this season, sees United climb to 18th in the top flight table, just below Norwich City, who climbed to 17th with their second successive win against Watford on Friday night.
Head coach Howe made just the one change to the side who let two points slip last time out against the Hornets, with Joe Willock making his first United start since mid-December in place of Sean Longstaff.
As expected from a Marcelo Bielsa side, the hosts burst out of the blocks and there was a pace and a purpose to their play, which Newcastle have lacked for so long.
Despite that, United did carve open the first opportunity of the game with form striker-turned-midfielder Joelinton scooping wide when well placed.
At the other end, the movement, speed of passing and obvious want to exploit the flanks began to cause the Magpies all kinds of problems.
Raphinha down the United left was a constant sense of annoyance for Paul Dummett, and even Trippier found Jack Harrison down the other side a real headache.
It was the Brazilian who opened up space down that Leeds right for Dan James in the opening quarter, only for Martin Dubravka to pull off an excellent stop to deny the Welshman the opener.
Anything Dubravka can do, so can Illan Meslier.
A sharp left-footed volley from Jonjo threatened to break the deadlock only for the flying Frenchman to palm away the effort.
As good as Leeds were early doors, the game shifted in United’s favor as the half wore on. Some consistent pressure, with Shelvey instrumental, saw the Magpies pin the hosts back without really carving open anything of note. Even a groin issue which forced Joelinton off before the break failed to blunt United’s improvement.
Having been a relatively tight, compact game of football in the opening 45, this one really opened up in the second — and that could not be explained away by an injection of quality.
Mistakes created spaces and opportunities for both sides as Raphinha and Allan Saint-Maximin began to come to prominence, the former more so than the latter, it must be said.
The spaces allowed United’s midfield, given a tough time in recent weeks, to shine, with Willock, substitute Longstaff and Shelvey stamping their authority on an increasingly fading Leeds unit.
Another substitute, Javier Manquillo, on for the injured Paul Dummett, had his lung-busting run halted on the edge of the Whites’ area. That allowed Shelvey, ushering away free-kick specialist Trippier, to deliver what proved to be the killer blow.
At the left corner of the area, the midfielder spun across a ball between keeper and onrushing attackers, at the perfect angle to unsight Meslier — and with the help of the keeper, the ball nestled in the back of the net.
Given confidence was so low, it would have been understandable to see United retreat into their shell, much like they did seven days previous. However, they did anything but. In fact, they looked more like scoring at 1-0 than they did with the scoreline goalless.
Longstaff went close with a fizzing shot wide, Fraser put past the post when it looked easier to score and Saint-Maximin was chopped down in the area but VAR was inexplicably not called for, despite his protestations, as Leeds eventually ran out of steam.
Willock had the chance to put the icing on the cake at the end but saw Meslier deny him with a quite brilliant save — and Howe’s men had to settle for one goal.
In truth, one goal was all they needed.
They would have settled for a point before kick-off, so to take three is a welcome boost ahead of the team jetting off to Jeddah this weekend.
Can United pull themselves to safety? Well, for now, it is too early to say.
But, where doubt reigned supreme following the last two games, hope now springs eternal for United.
And, of course, there is still nine days to go in the transfer window, with United set to be the busiest team in the division between now and Jan. 31.