…Isak in attack, Newcastle are gonna…
We rarely do things easily, but even by our standards this was a new one. The shock of a Man U win in the derby meant we were looking for a win to take us back to third. On a sunny, crisp January day, this was what we all came for. The new Leazes banner for Eddie Howe was excellent and gave us an opportunity to revel in the quote that we were here to compete – unfortunately today so were Fulham.
Football is a strange game sometimes, and after the drubbing we gave them in west London many had forgotten that they were reduced to ten men very early in the fixture. In fact, the pre-match DJ seemed to have forgotten that we were the home team, blaring out Freed from Desire (aka Mitro’s on Fire). Eventually that was removed.
Newcastle made the vast majority of the running in the first half, but two things were noticeable to me. One was that we were slower to move the ball forward than normal, and the second was that Fulham weren’t here to roll over. One great early ball found Joelinton, which was flicked into the path of Willock. He fired wide but it was a strong start. Bruno was getting some close attention and after about twenty minutes was felled on the edge of the box. The game carried on, but it was clear he was in agony. When it was stopped it seemed certain he would go off. He left at half time but was in no way moving freely before that. I think we may be without him now for some time.
Trippier and Almirón were getting some great joy down the righthand side in front of the East Stand: once, in particular, a cross came to Wilson who should have done better; there was also a brilliant ball to Longstaff in the box, but an outstanding block to stop what appeared a certain goal. Wilson managed to roll Tim Ream and fire at the keeper, as well, but otherwise we were largely playing balls over the top and hoping runners were in behind.
Botman and Schär spent a long time in possession. And when out of it they seemed to be largely comfortable dealing with the Serbian striker who previously adorned the black and white. One instance, in particular, saw Botman and Burn combine to cut him off, knock him over, and then make him move the ball whilst in the box.
At half time Bruno was removed and ASM was introduced. It’s a mixed bag for Maxi these days. He’s someone the manager can show faith in to win a game, but today, when there was an easy excuse to return him to the starting eleven (the off field indiscretions of our number seven), the manager chose not to. When he arrived onto the field it was as the left-sided player in the three, but bar a shot fired wide when well placed in the centre of the box and the usual minute spent rolling on the deck, his impression on the game was minimal.
Then, the opposition had two penalty shouts in a matter of seconds. The first looked more troubling from my vantage point across the other side of the ground. When play stopped with a Newcastle corner a full ninety seconds later, VAR drew the official’s attention to Trippier’s challenge. This time the penalty was given, though the defenders were not happy. Nick Pope was booked for not retreating to his line fast enough, a bit of a joke given the time Leno had been taking over any clearances. Isak was announced as arriving, though in actual fact it didn’t happen until after the penalty.
Mitro struck it, and it diverted into the Leazes goal. Immediately, Nick Pope sprinted from his goalmouth and, with another six Newcastle players, surrounded the referee. Quickly it was ruled out and later replays showed that Mitro had (hilariously) struck it off his own standing leg. The (non)scorer definitely knew something was amiss as he’d stopped his celebrations quickly.
Our record signing was then introduced and seemed to play just behind Wilson in a sort of four-two-three-one. This saw us carrying far more of a scoring threat, but still Fulham held strong. Schär had earlier hit a post with a great free kick, but other set pieces followed a recurrent pattern: lofted ball to back post, cleared or then claimed by keeper at either the first or second opportunity. Miggy was then replaced by Murphy, and it felt like it would be (yet) another game where we had felt in control without landing the killer blow.
Cue a clever pass from Trippier back to Longstaff, who measured a perfect ball over to Callum Wilson. His header hit the retreating defender, but his second touch was to send the ball back across goal. Waiting with the goal at his mercy, Alexander Isak scored again. Three goals in four league games for the man from Sweden, and it not been for an unlucky ricochet against Palace he could have scored in each league game he’s played. He turned and pointed at Wilson – maybe the manager is preparing us for the two playing together. Not long after, we were reminded of where we are in our evolution, as Chris Wood joined us for a brief cameo.
This was similar to Leeds in that it could easily have been a frustrating afternoon, but this time we had a real attacking threat to bring off the bench. Alexander Isak is a fantastic player and has all the attributes needed to be a success in this league. His return and, hopefully, full fitness for the second half of the campaign may be the difference for our top four hopes. Next time we all meet, though, we will hopefully have something far more important to celebrate.
Stephen Ord @smord84