Though it did little to ultimately affect the result against Aston Villa on Monday night, the sight of Dwight Gayle returning to the sidelines after just 33 minutes of action would have been a worrying one for all those connected with Newcastle United amid their promotion push.
Having made his first start since picking up a hamstring injury away at Brentford on January 14th, the Championship’s top scorer was ready to lead the line against Aston Villa on a huge occasion for both clubs. Although within their ranks, the Toon Army also boast Aleksandar Mitrovic and Daryl Murphy, there’s little doubt Gayle is the focal point of an attacking side who have bagged an impressive 62 goals.
20 of them have fallen to the former Crystal Palace man, who has in no way been burdened by the demands of Newcastle’s iconic No. 9 shirt, so having him back for a tie against a side who hold such a strange hoodoo over the Magpies was clearly a boost.
But was it necessary?
Previous results are one thing, though Aston Villa are in dire straits right now and perhaps the idea of starting a man who’d missed so many games of late against an opposition in no sort of form was a tad risky. In fact, both the aforementioned Mitrovic and Murphy played huge roles in securing a thoroughly professional victory – though perhaps the most ‘Championship’ of wins so far this season – against Wolverhampton Wanderers only nine days previously.
The Serbian striker notched the only goal of a tight game at Molineux, while Murphy demonstrated exactly what he was bought for, acting as a battering ram up front when the Magpies were forced to go long. Furthermore, Benitez has also experimented with playing Yoan Gouffran in a central striking berth and Christian Atsu on the left, so there are certainly options available.
Throw Ayoze Perez into the mix and you really start to get a feeling that Gayle could have been given an extra chance to further his recovery, particularly against a Villa team to have already conceded 38 goals this season.
Granted, hamstring problems are hard to manage, but Benitez has a history in problems of this nature following his time in charge of Liverpool with Fernando Torres. As majestic as the forward was during his time in red, injuries perennially seemed to strike him and rarely was he given an extended break, such was the pressure of finishing in the top four at Anfield.
Despite the presences of Peter Crouch, Andriy Voronin, Robbie Keane and Dirk Kuyt throughout their time together on Merseyside, they were very rarely trusted to lead the line for any extended period of time. Now, that may not sound like the most clinical array of forwards, though Keane and Crouch both went on to greater success in the Premier League after leaving Liverpool.
Mitrovic has improved in recent weeks and was particularly impressive when he came on against Villa, leading the line well and not getting involved in too much carry-on away from the ball. Clearly, hanging your hat on a man with a such a disciplinary record is far too risky a move for a coach as calculated as the Benitez, but there were other options available.
Gayle will now likely miss crunch away games against promotion rivals Brighton and Hove Albion, Huddersfield Town and Reading in what could be a defining period in shaping the complexion of the Toon Army’s season. Perhaps they will come through unscathed and all will be forgotten, but Benitez must learn from what happened with Torres.
Hopefully, the former Real Madrid coach will be in charge at St. James’ Park next season for a Premier League campaign. If he is, Gayle will surely be as crucial to his plans in the top flight as he is now, so handling this situation delicately is of paramount importance.
Ideally, Newcastle would come out of this tough period of fixtures still in top spot and the former Peterborough forward will be allowed to return to the first-team fold in a much more leisurely fashion. Still, nothing about life in the Championship works in an ideal world. In fact, little about life at Newcastle United works in one either.