SOUTHAMPTON: It was a piece of pure magic, forged in the heat of the January transfer window, and executed right under the nose of Ralph Hasenhuttl.
Revenge is best served, not cold, but full of Brazilian spice — and for Newcastle United, on a seasonally warm night on the south coast of England, four of their five January transfer window signings silenced their biggest winter window critic by claiming all three points at St Mary’s.
When this game was first set to be played — on January 2 — the Magpies were deep in the relegation mire.
With one win all season their Premier League prognosis was grim. Southampton’s wasn’t all that much better, to be honest.
However, when COVID-19 swept through the Newcastle squad and Eddie Howe’s request to have the game called off was granted, the decision enraged Hasenhuttl.
He seethed: “I was disappointed we couldn’t play. I don’t think it is really fair for them (new signings) to play in games that have been postponed. We should think about it because of the integrity of the league.”
Doubling down, and taking the bait again, earlier this week, Hasenhuttl bristled: “(It is) strange now to concentrate on a game you should have played two months ago against a completely different team.”
Newcastle signed five players in winter trading — and four of those combined to ensure all three points took Howe’s men a remarkable 10 points clear of the Premier League relegation zone.
While Chris Wood netted the equalizer, his first goal for the Magpies, following a fortuitous Stuart Armstrong opener, they saved their best till last as Bruno Guimaraes, making his first start in English football, ghosted into a crowded home area to produce a backheel volley that announced himself to the English game.
Now, we really need to talk about Bruno.
And much to Hasenhuttl’s ire, that stroke of a wand by Bruno was firstly crossed in by Matt Targett, a January signing, headed down by Dan Burn, another winter addition, and finished by the former Lyon man, Newcastle’s jewel in their transfer crown.
Post-match, Hasenhuttl had a whole lot less to say about the issue that clearly irked him so much. When quizzed he quickly retorted: “It doesn’t interest me today.”
Classy Howe didn’t need to say a thing; his players, new and old, did the talking for him out on the pitch.
“I thought it was a welcome to the Premier League for Bruno. It was an end-to-end game. It was high in transitions and a very physical game,” said Howe. “For us, that’s been one of our hallmarks. I thought we looked a little bit leggy at the start but we grew into the game physically.”
“That will be a really, really good experience for Bruno. We made a tactical switch when we conceded and he showed his best qualities.
“The goal is probably something we didn’t expect from him but it shows his technical ability and the eye that he has,” he added. “He’s going to be a huge player for us and I’m really pleased for him tonight.”
If Bruno’s addition to the side was a rabbit out the hat for Howe, he also had to deal with a disappearing act or two.
The surprise pre-match was not necessarily seeing Guimaraes’ name in the starting 11 but more the absence of in-form Joelinton. The Brazilian travelled with the Newcastle squad to the south coast, but was left out of the side with a slight groin issue.
Another absentee on the night was Allan Saint-Maximin, whose lack of availability was down to a non-COVID-19-related illness, not a recurrence of his recent calf problem.
Nothing could split these sides at St James’ Park earlier in the season, with late drama ensuring the shares were spoiled in an entertaining, but ultimately frustrating 2-2 draw.
And for much of the first 45, again, there was little to divide the two as defensive frailties, recently eradicated by Newcastle in this encounter, were evident at both ends.
Quality, for 45 minutes, at least, was in short supply. Guimaraes more than made up for that in the second, mind.
After some early waves of pressure at both ends, as the game ebbed and flowed, it found itself punctuated, quite abruptly with Armstrong’s opener.
The Scotland international’s runs into the visiting area were rarely picked up by a leggy looking Newcastle midfield early on and a lobbed cross from the left by Kyle Walker-Peters was knocked back into the path of unmarked Armstrong, who bundled home via Burn’s midriff.
With Saints shading it, it was hard to argue they didn’t deserve to edge their noses in front.
Newcastle sides of old have folded on their travels under less pressure, but this Howe-constructed unit is made of firmer, more resilient stuff — and in weathering the storm, managed to bite back and level themselves.
A well-worked move down the left saw Ryan Fraser and Targett exchange passes, before laying back to skipper Jonjo Shelvey, who’s perfect cross found the head of Wood to open his Newcastle account in emphatic fashion.
After the break came the second — and it was exactly the spark Newcastle, and the game, required.
A corner from Southampton-nurtured Targett was guided back across goal by Burn, both of whom will be on the mind of England boss Gareth Southgate ahead of the upcoming international break, and cue a back-to-goal Bruno flick that left a Saints defense bamboozled and Fraser Forster helpless.
Nine unbeaten. Six wins in seven. The Newcastle rise continues. At this rate who knows when they’ll hit their top flight ceiling — and the same goes for Guimaraes.
“Instantly looking at him, I loved his way of playing, eye for a pass and composure but also he’s not frightened to do the other side of the game. You have to be in this league. You can’t carry anybody,” said Howe.
“That will be slightly different for him. He came off, got a bit of a cramp but I think that’s expected because he hasn’t played for a while."