Newcastle United’s startling metamorphosis under Eddie Howe continued as Miguel Almirón’s exquisite first half goal not only elevated them to the security of 40 points but secured a sixth successive home victory.
That run equals a record set in 2004 here, back in the days when Tyneside’s were “walking in a Robson wonderland” during Sir Bobby Robson’s tenure. Eighteen years on Eddie Howe’s side remain a work in progress but, bolstered by Bruno Guimarães’s midfield excellence, are almost unrecognisable from the team Steve Bruce failed to coax a single win out of before being replaced by Howe in November.
Newcastle’s cause was helped by meeting Crystal Palace on an evening when Patrick Vieira’s players were well below their best and performed as if they had not quite managed to shake last Sunday’s disappointment at Wembley from their systems.
It is probably an understatement to say that Allan Saint-Maximin and Vieira did not always exactly see eye to eye when they were player and manager at Nice. While Vieira appreciated the winger’s natural talent he deplored his perceived lack of work ethic and, right from kick off, it appeared that this was one match Saint-Maximin particularly wanted to impress in.
The two Frenchmen had no overt first half contact but, given that Saint-Maximin was deployed down Newcastle’s left, close to the technical areas, during that opening half there were plenty of moments when he shot surreptitious little glances at Palace’s manager.
Evidently anxious to prove a point, Saint-Maximin was fairly heavily involved but, perhaps trying almost too hard, saw repeated dribbling manoeuvres fall apart at the vital moment. If he were still his coach, Vieira would doubtless have told him to keep his head up.
Instead Palace’s coach was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the shortcomings of his current team. Before kick-off he had told his players he would “not tolerate a loss of concentration and hard work” in the wake of last weekend’s FA Cup semi final defeat to Chelsea.
Unfortunately their repeated, rather slapdash, concessions of possessions as Newcastle dominated the opening 45 minutes, indicated that this message had fallen on deaf ears and few visiting fans could complain when Almirón gave Howe’s side a 32nd minute lead.
Seconds after being embroiled in a mini scuffle with Wilfried Zaha, Almirón regained his composure sufficiently to receive a dropping through ball from Guimarães wide on the right.
Having used his head to bring it under seamless, high skilled, control, the Paraguayan forward shrugged off his marker before advancing to send a sublime angled left foot shot swerving into the top corner, evading Vicente Guaita’s out-stretched fingertips on its subtly curving route.
After spending the early part of Howe’s tenure on the sidelines, Almirón is making the very best of a very rare first team run facilitated by Ryan Fraser’s recent injury and both he and the, once again, influential Guimarães forced Guaita into decent saves before the interval.
The second period began in similar vein. When Saint-Maximin slalomed beyond a series of defenders and remembered to look up he played in Guimarães who, in turn, cued up Almirón.
On that occasion his shot was blocked but Vieira’s expression suggested that he would have relished throwing off his managerial anorak, jogging onto the pitch and turning back time by seizing control of central midfield, putting Guimarães in his place along the way.
With Joelinton having failed to make the most of a glorious headed chance after connecting with Matt Targett’s free-kick, Palace’s manager decided change was imperative and duly made three substitutes by the hour mark.
While Jordan Ayew had replaced Michael Olise in the 40th minute Jean-Philippe Mateta and James McArthur were introduced at the expense of Conor Gallagher and Cheikhou Kouyaté.
Suitably galvanised Palace – and Zaha – finally woke up. If Howe looked somewhat relieved to see Zaha shoot wide after dodging three markers, he had reason to be grateful to Dan Burn in the wake of the centre-half’s fine interception to deny Mateta as he closed in on goal.
With McArthur pleasing Vieira by finally making things tough for Newcastle’s midfield, Martin Dubravka needed to save the suddenly lively Odsonne Édouard’s header as Palace attempted to atone for the first half by finishing strongly. Almirón though had already ensured such efforts would prove too little too late.