Newcastle United progressed to the third round of the English Football League Trophy on Tuesday night, after seeing off a spirited Cheltenham Town outfit 2-0 at St James’ Park.
To the surprise of many, United were lethargic and unconvincing throughout the opening 45 minutes, and they were perhaps fortunate to head into half time in the lead after Perez curled in a sublime opening goal in added time.
Thankfully, Perez’s fine strike seemed to imbue Benitez’s men with renewed confidence heading out into the second half, and Newcastle put on a much improved display during the final 45 minutes to sail into Wednesday’s third round draw without ever really breaking a sweat.
The Magpies could and perhaps should have finished the game with a larger margin of victory, however, on a night where the Tynesiders struggled to get out of second gear, the scoreline was probably a fair reflection of an adequate if unremarkable performance.
Below, I rate and analyse how each player performed against The Robins as well as discussing who should be figuring prominently in Rafa’s thoughts ahead of Saturday’s crunch encounter with fellow promotion favourites Brighton.
Karl Darlow – 7
Darlow was handed his first start of the season at St James’ on Tuesday evening, and the former Forest stopper staked his claim for a first team spot with a confident and assured display between the sticks.
In the first half against Cheltenham, United were really struggling to find their rhythm, allowing their League Two opponents to crank up the pressure and deliver a range of dangerous deliveries into the area.
A big concern for United fans over the opening weeks of the season has been current no.1 Matz Sels’ unconvincing displays and propensity to flap at crosses, causing chaos in the penalty area, however, Darlow’s display was the exact opposite of this, as he expertly dealt with everything The Robins threw at him.
Darlow’s assertiveness and calm persona seemed to rub off on the United back four throughout the contest, instilling them with a confidence which gradually filtered through to the rest of the team as the game progressed.
After ending last season in a rich vein of form and tending the nets during the Magpies’ impressive six-game unbeaten run, Darlow can feel very hard done by to currently find himself playing second fiddle to the thoroughly unconvincing Sels, and, for me, on last night’s evidence, the 25-year-old should be United’s current first choice keeper.
Jamie Sterry – 6
United academy graduate Jamie Sterry was handed a first competitive home start for the Magpies against Cheltenham on Tuesday, and the Geordie defender can feel pleased with a solid yet unspectacular debut at right back.
Defensively, the 20-year-old looked very polished and accomplished throughout, however, when in possession and in advanced positions in the opposition half, Sterry looked short on ideas and failed to make any telling contributions.
Nevertheless, as far as debuts go, this certainly wasn’t a bad one and it would be pleasing to see Sterry get more opportunities to impress and develop with the first team as the season progresses.
Jamaal Lascelles – 7.5
In yesterday’s programme notes, new United captain Jamaal Lascelles confessed that he felt his opening two performances of the season were well below par and praised manager Rafael Benitez’s bold decision to relegate him to the substitutes’ bench in last week’s 4-1 triumph over Reading.
The former Forest defender certainly seems to have turned his disappointing omission from the first team into a positive and, on the back of a commanding display at Bristol City, Lascelles was a rock at the back once again against Cheltenham.
As The Robins looked to capitalise on the Magpies’ lacklustre first half showing by pushing for an opening goal, Lascelles repelled their advances on countless occasions and did a great job of covering in behind Grant Hanley when Gary Johnson’s men looked to capitalise on the Scottish international’s lack of pace.
You could see Lascelles organising the side and barking orders throughout the 90 minutes and, slowly but surely, the imposing 22-year-old seems to be growing into his new role as skipper.
Grant Hanley – 7
Grant Hanley was handed his competitive home debut against The Robins, and the former Blackburn Rovers’ skipper performed impressively at the heart of the Newcastle defence alongside his partner for the evening Jamaal Lascelles.
Cheltenham’s direct approach played straight into the powerful 6ft 3in centre back’s hands, with Hanley emphatically winning all of his aerial duels and also providing a number of key interceptions to halt the League Two side in their tracks.
Like Lascelles, Hanley also displayed impressive leadership qualities throughout the tie and could be heard organising the side, ensuring that the back four were switched on and cohesive for a majority of the 90 minutes.
The Scottish international cut out a host of crosses at the near post and attacked the ball aggressively in defensive areas to ensure that Darlow had a relatively uneventful evening between the sticks.
On last night’s showing, it’s clear to see why Hanley was brought to the club, and he will be a real asset to the side when coming up against teams who opt to adopt a more direct approach.
Jesus Gamez 7.5
Like a majority of Newcastle’s team on Tuesday night, Gamez began the game rather slowly and had to feel himself into the encounter.
During the opening half hour, the former Atletico Madrid full-back was neat enough in possession, however, he didn’t get forward as frequently as many would have liked and looked to be short on confidence, but that all changed once Perez netted the opening goal.
From the get-go in the second half the experienced 31-year-old showed why he was playing for one of Europe’s elite club’s last season and outclassed Cheltenham down the left hand side with a number of thrilling attacking excursions, as well as producing a number of timely defensive challenges.
Gamez’s link up play with his compatriot Ayoze Perez was thrilling to watch at times, and with Paul Dummett’s glaring offensive shortcomings, United’s experienced summer signing should surely accumulate plenty of minutes this season; especially at St James’ Park where the Magpies will be expected to take the game to the opposition.
Jack Colback – 7
Newcastle’s resident midfield workhorse Jack Colback put in a typically industrious display against The Robins and did a very effective job of breaking up play; particularly in the first half when United were struggling to get on the front foot.
The flame haired Geordie is in the team to be a spoiler, a player who stops the opposition in their tracks and makes it difficult for them to break between the lines, and in this role his shortcomings aren’t exposed.
In many ways, Colback is the perfect midfield foil for Jonjo Shelvey, as he does the donkey work without any fuss, allowing his more creative teammate to dictate the pace and orchestrate play from the middle of the park.
Colback’s set for a big season in the Championship this year, and the 26-year-old put in another solid performance which will perhaps slip under the radar due to its unstylish nature.
Jonjo Shelvey – 7.5
Jonjo Shelvey’s display against Cheltenham was certainly a slow burner, but once the former Swansea City lynchpin got into full swing, United fans were reminded of why the club splashed out big money to bring the England international to St James’ Park.
During the opening 45 minutes, Shelvey struggled to have any sort of telling influence on the game, and visibly grew frustrated as United repeatedly fluffed their lines when trying to carve through the Robins resolute back four.
As the game went on and Cheltenham’s resistance was broken, the 24-year-old’s class really began to tell, and he soon found himself running the game from the middle of the park, picking up possession from deep and sparking United’s attacks with his vast range of passing and intelligent driving runs.
The main frustration with Shelvey is that we all know how talented a player he is, making it mind-boggling to see how often games pass him by.
When he’s up for it, the former Charlton Athletic youngster is a joy to watch, and the second half of Tuesday night’s game is the best I’ve seen Shelvey look in a black-and-white strip this season, although the calibre of opposition must also be taken into consideration.
Hopefully Shelvey can kick on from a couple of encouraging displays in the Magpies’ engine room and really cement himself as a mainstay in Benitez’s midfield.
At this level, with his ability, he should be looking to prove that he’s the best centre midfielder in the league, bar none.
Rolando Aarons – 5.5
Seeing the hapless Rolando Aarons crumple to the floor with his head in hands was a sight that no United fan wanted to see this season, however, less than one month into the 2016/17 campaign, the 20-year-old’s worst nightmare already appears to have come true.
After finally recovering from the host of injury issues that have blighted his Newcastle career to date, Aarons recently signed a lengthy new contract with the club after proving his fitness and impressing Benitez and his coaching staff during pre-season.
On Tuesday night, the tricky winger was largely ineffectual on the right hand side, and, just as his influence on the tie looked to be growing, Aarons was left reeling from what looked like a fairly innocuous challenge, before being taken from the field on a stretcher and heading straight down the tunnel.
Benitez expressed concerns that the England u20 international had sustained a serious foot injury, and the club will wait with bated breath to discover the severity of Aarons’ latest devastating injury setback.
When will this lad catch a break?
Mohamed Diamé – 6
Summer acquisition Mo Diamé still looks to be finding his feet in a black-and-white shirt and the Senegalese international endured another mixed evening at St James’ Park against Cheltenham.
Diamé was initially operating in a free role behind Aleksandar Mitrovic to little effect, however, once United were struck by a bizarre array of injuries, the former Hull City man was tasked with occupying a number of roles across the midfield and attacking line.
It’s clear to see that the 29-year-old is blessed with bags of ability, however, for large spells of Tuesday night’s game Diamé was a mere passenger, and he struggled to adapt to the rhythm of the game in what was, at times, a frustrating display.
There were moments of quality – such as the breathtaking piece of second half skill that almost resulted in a sensational goal – to remind the Toon Army of what a key role he has to play this season, however, it looks like fans may have to remain patient during the Senegalese powerhouse’s bedding in period before they see him at the peak of his powers.
Ayoze Perez – 8
After a blistering pre-season, Ayoze Perez has had a rather disappointing to the 2016/17 campaign with the Magpies, failing to have the kind of telling impact that many fans had anticipated heading into the season.
During the first half of Tuesday night’s game, that trend looked like it was set to continue, with the Spanish youngster flitting in and out of the game from the left hand side without ever really threatening the Cheltenham goal, however, once he took a nasty looking knock to the head, that all changed.
Like magic, the injury seemed to stir Perez into life and his first contribution after returning to the field sporting a fetching head bandage was to curl in a delightful opening goal from the edge of the area to break the deadlock.
From that point onwards, Ayoze didn’t look back, and he was a constant menace to The Robins back four during the second half, with his smart interplay and mazy dribbling runs causing the visiting back four all sorts of problems.
The 23-year-old could easily have bagged a hat-trick had it not been for some wasteful finishing, however, he is off the mark for the season and this can hopefully spark the beginning of an improved run of form for Perez heading into a very tricky run of league encounters.
Aleksandar Mitrovic – 6
Mitrovic was full of running on his eagerly anticipated return to the Newcastle starting XI after a four-game ban, however, the loveable Serbian’s night was brought to a disappointing end after he suffered an apparent concussion defending a Cheltenham set piece in his own area after just half an hour.
After the head injury, Mitro desperately tried to continue the game, but he was ultimately forced to withdraw himself from the action after suffering a concerning bout of blurred vision following the hefty collision.
During his brief spell of action against Cheltenham, the 21-year-old offered the type of formidable forward presence United have missed at times this season, competing for every ball and winning aerial battles; although he did cut an isolated figure, paying credence to the popular opinion that he and Dwight Gayle should operate as a front two.
Hopefully Mitrovic’s latest blow will not be a serious one and he will be available for selection come Saturday.
Dwight Gayle – 7
During his brief 19 minute spell of action, it was clear to see that Gayle is full of confidence after a stunning start to his Newcastle career. The former Palace striker was full of running and his predatory instincts resulted in the Magpies’ second goal, as he sniffed out a defensive lapse before unselfishly feeding Perez for his second of the night.
Let’s hope that his head injury isn’t too serious!
Yoan Gouffran -6
Gouffran put in a typically committed performance after entering the action as a replacement for the crocked Aarons, and the Frenchman offered a decent outlet for United down the wing, although he was sloppy in possession on several occasions; needlessly handing possession back to the opposition.
Vurnon Anita – 6
Anita filled in down the wing for Newcastle after Gayle was forced from the action, and, though it was evident that he was playing out of position, the Dutchman was typically full of effort and running.
He should have netted his first of the season after Gamez whipped in a stunning cross to the back post, however, the petite 27-year-old somehow conspired to miss the target from six-yards out.