NEWCASTLE: Newcastle United took a giant leap toward Premier League safety by securing all three points against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Friday, ending a three-game losing streak in the English top flight.
Chris Wood’s second-half penalty allowed United to steal an early weekend march on their rivals in the bottom half of the table by reopening a 10-point gap between themselves and the relegation zone.
With just seven games left to play for the Magpies, it feels like survival is so close they can almost touch it.
“Massive tonight,” head coach Eddie Howe said of the win. “It was the kind of game we expected it to be. Wolves make it difficult for you. We had our moments. It took a penalty to win the game but the players gave everything, again.
“I am so pleased for Chris Wood. You could see him filling in on the left of midfield. He is a willing lad. The goal will do wonders for him. I am pleased he stepped up and took it.
“Bruno Guimaraes is going to be a mainstay of the team. The difficulty is that we went on that winning run and it was difficult to break the midfield up. He got his opportunity today and I thought he was excellent. He offered a different dimension. I am excited by what he can bring to the team,” Howe added.
“We still have work to do but that was a massive step forward, tonight. It brings us closer to safety. I hope there will be a different Newcastle in the future but we have to play a certain way to get results at the moment.”
Having taken stock of the 5-1 hammering by Spurs last Sunday, Howe made some tweaks to his starting XI for United’s first home game in more than a month. In came Guimaraes for his first home start since his $52million move in January from Lyon, with injured Joe Willock making way. Emil Krafth replaced Javier Manquillo at right-back.
A cagey opening period by the visitors allowed United much of the early ball without them really creating a whole lot in front of goal. Guimaraes buzzed around, pulling the strings and dictating the play, but Wolves stood firm, a well-drilled, well-oiled Bruno Lage-inspired machine.
The only bit of quality in the opening 45 came when United appeared to take the lead — for about 120 seconds until the video assistant referee decided otherwise. In a silky move, Guimaraes and Miguel Almiron, taking the place of the injured Ryan Fraser, exchanged passes and then found Wood, who diverted the ball home at the second attempt. He was denied his second goal in black and white because Bruno had strayed an inch offside in the build up.
Wood wasn’t to be denied for long, however. On 72 minutes he was played through on goal by Joelinton as United broke through with purpose. Wood touched the ball around Portuguese keeper Jose Sa, who clipped Wood’s ankles and the penalty was awarded.
Having only scored once since making the switch from Burnley in January, few would have been surprised, perhaps, if the striker had displayed a lack of confidence in front of goal but Wood was quick to pick up the ball and made no mistake in dispatching it past Sa with a minimum of fuss to make it 1-0.
With the goal came a collective sigh of relief that swept over the stadium, no doubt felt most acutely by New Zealander Wood.
Although they saw the game out, the Magpies did not have it all their own way in the latter stages, as Wolves wrestled back control and dominance. Fabio Silva had two late chances to level things as United rode their luck; one he put over the bar, the second was a poorly angled header that went wide.
At the other end Allan Saint-Maximin showed some flashes of his undoubted brilliance — and his influence arguably swung this one in United’s favor. A burst of action during which he had two goal-scoring opportunities and showed some typically fearless running preceded Wood’s penalty.
The star of the show, however, was Guimaraes, who lit up the evening with his midfield brilliance.
“I thought he did very well today,” said Howe of the Brazil international. “It was a difficult game but he showed real intelligence in terms of his positional play. His desire to get on the ball is so strong; there is no fear about getting on the ball and that’s in part why we love him so much.
“But also defensively, the discipline, his ability to recover, help his teammates out of possession was very good. As we know, the Premier League is very different and that was always going to be his biggest challenge, adapting to the pace of the league, but he had no issues with that tonight.”
With 34 points on the board, and 35 points being enough to guarantee top-flight survival for nine of the past 10 seasons, it is looking increasingly likely that United will live to fight another day in the Premier League next season. How big an achievement that will be cannot be overstated, especially when you consider that no other team has ever managed to remain in the top flight after failing to win any of their first 14 games of the season.
Safety was always seen as having the potential to unlock the door to a brighter future on Tyneside. Having endured nearly 15 loveless years with Mike Ashley at the helm, few could begrudge the Newcastle fans their rare moment of joy — joy, they hope, that will become more common in the years to come as part of this new-look, Saudi Public Investment Fund-driven dream.