NEWCASTLE, Great Britain: Two days, two totally different starting XIs, but exactly the same result. Newcastle United have won back-to-back pre-season victories at St. James’ Park, this time beating Athletic Bilbao 2-1.
Less than 24 hours after Chris Wood’s penalty secured a 1-0 win over Atalanta, rivals Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin scored to eliminate La Liga opposition this time around. Raul Garcia added consolation for Los Leones.
In a ploy that puzzled many United faithful, head coach Eddie Howe opted to split this Newcastle squad throughout pre-season.
Hour and half-hour stints in Austria and then a 45-minute show each at Benfica before the full 90 for much of the squad this weekend is Howe’s way of easing his players. into things and shoot them at the right time.
In truth, it’s impossible to know if this tactic will work – judgments will be reserved after the clash with Nottingham Forest next weekend – but it leaves anyone guessing what constitutes Howe’s strongest XI, with the Premier League football looming on the horizon. .
“The last two games have been brilliant exercises for us,” Howe said during the selection. “Two top teams. Two different XIs for a big test for us, but I think we got through it injury free. Two positive results and two good performances.
“We wanted a tough event. We wanted every game to examine our team and ensure we are ready for the rigors of Premier League football. Without a doubt, the last three games gave us great quality opponents who all played slightly different, but they brought the game to us, so it was an equal challenge.
“Both teams over the past two days have been battling each other and playing some really good football at times. It was the type of test we needed as we know the level of Nottingham Forest will be very high. None of our players can turn around and say they weren’t ready for Premier League football.
“The pre-season is over, we have the last training sessions to reach our top speed. I’m sure we’ll be ready.
While what looked a lot like at least four of United’s first five picks – four plus a goalkeeper – were deployed against the Italians last night, it seemed, to the untrained eye at least, that this XI constituted a much of the great Newcastle striker. hitters.
Saint-Maximin and Wilson were joined by Bruno Guimaraes, Joelinton and Joe Willock, who all look set to be guaranteed starters with the newly promoted Tricky Trees in town in seven days.
And those were two of those that combined to give Howe’s men the perfect start.
With just three minutes on the clock, Saint-Maximin cut from the left, as has become his trademark, and got in the way of Matt Ritchie, who in turn crossed the Bilbao backline. towards Wilson who showed his usual level of composure and class to go home for 1-0.
Dominating from the first to the 45th minute, Guimaraes ran rings around the visiting midfield, spraying balls left and right and firing tackles and fouls at will as he frustrated those on the Bilbao bench and the ground.
Sven Botman, making his home debut, also excelled in the heart of defense as his timely blocks and interceptions highlighted the very different side of his game, the defensive work of blood and guts, to go with the smooth and unflappable passing game that he so clearly possesses.
As on the previous night, a series of changes from the visitors’ bench freshened things up for the opposition and, with fatigue a factor, the balance of play stabilized somewhat – but not before Saint-Maximin has worked its own winning magic.
A curled ball from the outside of Joelinton’s right boot sent the Frenchman away on the left and headed for goal, and Saint-Maximin passed Ander Iruarrizaga’s taut frame for 2-0.
This goal, more than any other this pre-season, is likely to have a profound impact. No player has been transformed into approach as brutally this summer as Saint-Maximin. While goals and assists have eluded him this summer, like at the end of last season, this versatile player has climbed the ladder.
Where previously decision-making was lacking and often the ball handed to the opposition, the former Monaco man now does the simple things well – and, crucially, is a vital, willing element in Howe’s praise.
“I think he was great today,” Howe said of Saint-Maximin. “Allan feeds off the crowd here, feeds off the energy and the love of the crowd. You could see in his performance today it was probably his best performance during the pre-season. .
“He took his aim very well and worked hard, looking like a real threat. Glad for him.
As the game dragged on and United’s powers waned, substitute Garcia finished an inviting cross to hammer a header to reduce the backlog but, despite sustained pressure and thanks to some heroics from Martin Dubravka, the Magpies held on good to end their summer. in the style.
“The first half was good. Lots of flowing attacks, good individual and collective performances too,” Howe said, summing up another winning afternoon for his side. dangerous, we defended well and were up front – everything we want to be Intense play.
“In the second half, like yesterday when the changes were made, we suffered with their cold legs and tired bodies, but that’s the beauty of the exercise to play two games in two days so that we can get the majority of players 90 minutes.”