|Well, our worst fears about Danny Ings seemed to come to pass, after the injury sustained at the Aston Villa away match, where it initially seemed that he was going to be OK. However, during the week at Staplewood, his knee became swollen while training. Another scan quickly showed a small operation was needed and he would be out for between four to six weeks.
There were several days of Ralph trying to weigh up how he was going to cope with this and eventually he decided to go with Theo Walcott partnering Adams, with Armstrong and Djenepo on the flanks.
The other problem was covering the left back position with Bertrand and his young deputy Jake Vokins, both injured. In the end he chose to play the very right footed Jack Stephens there. That was very much a calculated risk, that Newcastle would not be able to put enough pressure on him. As it turned out, it paid off, as Steve Bruce's side had their hands full keeping the rampant Saints forwards away frothier goal.
During the week there had been a growing realisation that if Saints actually won the match, they may well go top of the Premier League table for the first time ever (they had been briefly top of the old First Division in pre-Premier League days), if only for a few hours.
As things turned out, not only did Saints beat Newcastle to top the League, but it was a full two days before they were overtaken. Heady days indeed! Although circumstances favoured us, make no mistake, this is a damned good side, with a very good manager.
During the day and while watching the Newcastle match on Sky, I was wearing my Johnstones Paint Trophy Final polo shirt, emblazoned with the date '2010'. My, how things have changed in those ten years. The most that I was hoping for in those days, was that one distant day, we might get back into the Premier League. It seemed so far away then.
|This was a day that I never thought I would be around to see, Saints at the very top of the Premier League table for the first time ever, if only for a couple of days. They did top the table in the 1980's briefly, but that was before the advent of the Premier League. So, pretty heady stuff!
Make no mistake, this is a very good Saints side and very much more than the sum of its parts. Up until now, it was probably fair to say that there was probably a bit of a consistency issue, particularly when one of the core players is missing, as in this case with Danny Ings out with a knee injury. Ralph has now established his six key player positions, namely the goalkeeper, full backs, centre backs, defensive midfield pair, attacking midfield pair and strikers. So, it was good to see that Walcott and Djenepo seamlessly stepped into the side, with the only issue being Stephens having to cover the left back position in the absence of both left backs.
From the beginning Saints were as we have come to expect, all over Newcastle like a load of angry bees, allowing the visitors no time to settle on the ball. From pressuring the defenders JWP found Armstrong, who laid off to Adams right in front of goal. He swivelled and shot on target, with the Darlow, the Newcastle goalie making an instinctive diving save, just managing to push the ball away.
That wasn't the end of it though. Walker-Peters and Walcott combined to dispossess a Newcastle defender and Theo sent a pin-point cross right to Adams, still in the penalty area, who shot first time past the despairing dive of Darlow. 1-0 and only seven minutes gone.
Although Saints were very much on top, they briefly allowed Newcastle back into the game and Longstaff could only head tamely, straight at McCarthy, after Vestergaard missed his header.
For most of the rest of the half, it was all Saints, with Stephens having a quiet time at left back. Why Newcastle didn't try to put him under more pressure is beyond me. As it was, the few times the play came down his side, he dealt with it simply and effectively.
Just before the break, Saints almost had a second, when there was a quick break after a rare period of Newcastle pressure. Ward-Prowse came out of a tussle almost on the halfway line and saw Djenepo in front of him. The Malian swivelled, taking just the merest touch to lay the ball into the path of Theo Walcott, who was under pressure from two defenders, but managed to make space for himself and shot ..... wide of the far post! A real chance missed.
So, half time and 1-0 up. It should have been more, given Saints dominance. Still, the live Premier League table was showing Saints at the top, would they still be there at the end of the game?!
The second half continued in much the same fashion as the first, with Saints swarming all over Newcastle and with all their players often in their own penalty area. From one of the corners won by Saints, Ward-Prowse found Vestergaard at the far post, who headed it down to Bednarek. His first time shot was cleared off the line by a defender with Darlow nowhere near. Close.
It was one way traffic for much of the time, with Newcastle defending like Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Next it was the turn of Romeu to come close. He picked up a loose ball, advancing from deep and totally unmarked. He looked down and unleashed a tremendous shot, which was on it's way in to the top right corner, when Darlow just got a finger tip to it and pushed it up enough for it to crash against the crossbar and fly over. Even closer.
Then came the nearest to a controversial incident in the match. Adams played a very cute ball through to Armstrong, who slid a pass into the penalty area for the onrushing Walcott, who was unceremoniously upended by Lascelles. My first reaction was that it was a penalty, but watching the replay later, it was clear that Lascelles got the ball first and Theo fell over his foot. To be fair to Theo, he didn't complain and said in the post-match interview that the challenge was fair.
The second Saints goal when it came was persistence from Saints combined with dithering from Newcastle. Walcott went racing straight at the Newcastle defenders and surrounded by four of them, was eventually dispossessed. The defenders than left it to each other, when Armstrong came rushing in and pinched the ball off the toe of Longstaff, dummied and shot into the bottom far corner of the Newcastle goal. 2-0. Game over.
With about five minutes left Newcastle had their best chance of the game, with Lewis advancing down the Saints right, he sent a peach of a cross in, right onto the head of substitute Joelinton. Somehow McCarthy managed to get to it and push it away. He had had practically nothing to do for the whole game and then he does something like that. Great save.
There was still time for Armstrong to force another save from Darlow, with a fiercely bending shot, but that proved to be the last action of the game and Saints were very deserving winners and top of the Premier League. Savour that!
Man of the Match
Well, where do you start? There were outstanding performances all over the pitch, from Romeu and Ward-Prowse in the middle, to Walcott and Armstrong, all deserving cases. For me though, the way Ché Adams has blossomed into the striker role and taken up the mantle from the absent Danny Ings, was just superb. He was everywhere and took his goal superbly. A deserved winner.