Prior to the international break Newcastle United were flying and there is no reason at all to believe that the hiatus will have impacted on their altitude.
Seventeen points from a possible 27 since mid-January have propelled them out of relegation danger to the relative safety of 13th in the league, and this form and circumstance is in stark contrast to the first half of their season. Then the defeats racked up with an opening victory not arriving until deepest winter. Then discontent was rife with the club’s despised owner Mike Ashley rightfully bearing the brunt of it. A few weeks into the campaign Rafa Benitez was being criticised by pundits for his cautionary ways and, with goals so hard to come by, it looked for all the world like the Magpies were mired in crisis.
How very different things look now and it’s initially tempting to suggest that the transformation began with Newcastle’s resilient win over Manchester City that surprised everyone and shook up both ends of the table.
That, though, would be over-looking the 3-0 dismissal of Cardiff a week earlier and forgetting a stoic and unfortunate loss away to Chelsea that revealed there was ample fight and belief in the camp.
Fight, belief and organisation, but to propose that the latter is anything new is a misnomer. You will always have a well marshalled defence when Benitez is orchestrating proceedings from the technical area, but what has changed of late is that Newcastle are now creating more chances on the counter attack and, crucially, putting them away.
Salomon Rondon deserves some plaudits here, with the loanee from West Brom finding the net on four occasions in the last eight games while the rigorous forward play of Ayoze Perez has also been hugely beneficial. Mostly, though, Newcastle’s metamorphosis has come about due to the arrival of a small, speedy superstar-in-the-making by the name of Miguel Almiron.
Who would have thought that spending a significant sum on a decent talent could change a team’s fortunes? It is hoped that the infamously parsimonious Mike Ashley will learn from this and loosen the club’s purse-strings. He won’t, he absolutely won’t, but equally there is no harm in hoping.
Almiron has been a revelation in the black and white stripes since his introduction against Wolves in early February. His direct defence-troubling runs have greatly enthused onlookers and ignited his team-mates to show similar ambition.
Furthermore, as so often happens when a new player quickly establishes themselves as a pivotal figure, the knock-on effects have been substantial. It is to Newcastle’s enormous credit that their dramatic win over Everton and merited draw at the Vitality Stadium were secured minus Sean Longstaff, who has arguably been their most consistent performer this term, but the superb form of Matt Richie and Isaac Hayden has more than compensated.
At the back the ever-impressive Fabian Schar and Jamaal Lascelles now have a greater impetus to shut opponents out knowing that they pose a genuine threat at the opposite end. In short, Newcastle are now a team and more so a very good one and with the confidence that has bred – both on the pitch and across a previously fatalistic St James’ Park – prospects look encouraging indeed until the season’s end.
Which makes it the ideal time to travel down to the Emirates to take on an equally upbeat Arsenal on Monday evening for what is undoubtedly their toughest test since Manchester City. Benitez stated a fortnight ago that his side realistically require just one more victory to remain in the top flight but there will be no expectation – nor requirement – to get that here. Not with Newcastle’s recent inability to produce the goods on the road despite their improvement. Not with Crystal Palace, Brighton, Fulham and Southampton still to come.
What this presents then is a free hit, from a side in the ascendancy that are experiencing the rare thrill of enjoying their football. It would be unwise to bet against them.
When widening the scope to take in the fuller picture there are still some serious problems on Tyneside. Ashley isn’t going anywhere whereas Benitez might well be off this summer, enticed by a better funded project. The squad, meanwhile, for all of its splendid maximisation of its capabilities, remains in dire need of an influx of elite personnel.
Despite this there are genuine causes for optimism. There are smiles instead of deep-set frowns. There’s a front-three who excite parading their talents in front of a crowd that is excitable.
That is sufficient in the present. And by God it’s been earned.