NEWCASTLE, Britain: Two days, two totally different starting XIs, but exactly the same result. Newcastle United made it back-to-back pre-season victories at St. James’ Park, this time seeing off Athletic Bilbao 2-1.
Less than 24 hours after Chris Wood’s penalty ensured a 1-0 win over Atalanta, strike rivals Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin netted to see off La Liga opposition this time out. Raul Garcia added a consolation for Los Leones.
In a ploy that has intrigued many among the United faithful, head coach Eddie Howe has opted to split this Newcastle group throughout pre-season.
Hour and half-hour stints in Austria, then a 45-minute show apiece at Benfica before the full 90 for much of the squad this weekend is Howe’s way of easing his players into things and firing them up at just the right time.
In truth, it is impossible to know whether this tactic will work — judgments will be reserved for after the clash with Nottingham Forest next weekend — but it’s kept everyone guessing as to what constitutes Howe’s strongest XI, with Premier League football looming large on the horizon.
“The last two games have been brilliant exercises for us,” said Howe on selection. “Two top teams. Two different XIs for a big test for us, but I think we’ve come through with no injuries. Two positive results and two good performances.
“We wanted a tough test. We wanted every game to examine our team and make sure we’re ready for the rigors of Premier League football. Definitely, the last three games have given us top-quality opposition who have all played in slightly different ways, but they’ve taken the game to us so it was an equal challenge.
“Both teams in the last two days have been going for each other and played some really good football at times. That was the type of test we needed because we know the level of Nottingham Forest will be very high. None of our players can turn round and say they weren’t ready for Premier League football.
“Pre-season is done, we’ve got the last few bits of training to get us up to top speed. I’m sure we’ll be ready.”
While what looked very much like at least four of United’s first-choice back five — four plus a goalkeeper — was deployed against the Italians last night, it looked, to the untrained eye at least, that this XI makes up much of Newcastle’s forward big hitters.
Saint-Maximin and Wilson were joined by Bruno Guimaraes, Joelinton, and Joe Willock, all of whom look set to be guaranteed starters with the newly-promoted Tricky Trees in town in seven days.
And it was two of those who combined to get Howe’s men off to the perfect start.
With just three minutes on the clock, Saint-Maximin cut in from the left, as has become his trademark, and laid into the path of Matt Ritchie, who in turn flipped through the Bilbao backline to Wilson who showed his usual level of composure and class to turn home for 1-0.
Dominant from minute one to 45, Guimaraes ran rings around the visiting midfield, spraying balls left and right and drawing tackles and fouls at will as he frustrated those on the Bilbao bench and the pitch.
Sven Botman, making his home debut, also excelled at the heart of defense as his timely blocks and interceptions shed light on the very different side to his game, the blood and guts defensive work, to go with the slick, unflappable passing game he so clearly possesses.
Like the previous night, a raft of changes from the visiting bench freshened things up for the opposition and, with fatigue a factor, the balance of play leveled somewhat — although not before Saint-Maximin had worked some match-winning magic of his own.
A curled ball from the outside of Joelinton’s right boot set the Frenchman away down the left and driving toward goal, and Saint-Maximin rolled past the outstretched frame of Ander Iruarrizaga for 2-0.
That goal, more than any other this pre-season, will likely have a profound impact. No player has been transformed in approach so starkly this summer than Saint-Maximin. While the goals and assists have evaded him this summer, like the tail end of last season, this all-round player has gone up levels.
Where previously decision-making was found wanting and often the ball turned over to the opposition, the former Monaco man is now doing the simple things well – and, importantly, is a vital and willing component in Howe’s high praise.
“I thought he was excellent today,” Howe said of Saint-Maximin. “Allan thrives on the crowd here, thrives off the energy and the love of the crowd. You could see that in his performance today, it was probably his best performance during pre-season.
“He took his goal very well and worked hard, looking like a real threat. Delighted for him.”
As the game stretched and United’s powers waned, substitute Garcia got on the end of an inviting cross to hammer home a header to reduce arrears but, despite some sustained pressure and thanks to some Martin Dubravka heroics, the Magpies held on to round off their summer in style.
“The first half was good. There were a lot of fluent attacks, good individual displays and collective too,” said Howe, summing up another victorious afternoon for his side. “We looked dangerous, defended well, and were on the front foot – everything we want to be. An intense game.
“Second half, similar to yesterday when the changes were made, we suffered with their fresh legs and our tired bodies but that’s the beauty of the exercise of playing two games in two days so we can get the majority of players 90 minutes.”