After an embattled 1-1 draw with Liverpool before the international break, Newcastle kept up their fighting spirit with another hard-fought draw with Southampton.
Somewhat of a bogey team for Newcastle, the long trip down to St Mary’s hasn’t been a good journey for Magpies fans in recent years.
However, today’s journey truly showed the difference between a Benitez team and the teams of the past.
Today’s performance was one full of fight and determination, something that has been missing in meetings between the two teams in past seasons.
The Magpies had the perfect start too, when on 20 minutes a ball pulled back into the box first saw Christian Atsu’s shot charged down, and come back out to Isaac Hayden.
From 25 yards out, Hayden smashed home a brilliant volley past the flatfooted Fraser Forster.
It was a great start, and Newcastle nearly pushed on further from it when Joselu struck a shot off the bar.
The second half exploded into life, when on 47 minutes, Saints striker Manolo Gabbiadini – back in the Southampton squad and desperate to prove himself – struck a rare home goal for the Saints.
Their equaliser didn’t last too long, however, as the Magpies restored their lead after just 87 seconds through Ayoze Perez.
The Spaniard, who expressed his desire and determination in midweek to represent his country at the World Cup finals at the end of the season, had his first effort saved from Forster, but all he could do was push the ball back out to Perez.
He made no mistake from the second effort, striking the ball from a tight angle past Forster at his near post.
Everything was looking good for United until new French defender Florian Lejeune – who was making his second appearance of the season, after Harry Kane’s tackle put him out of action 34 minutes into his debut against Tottenham – clumsily bundled Shane Long to the floor.
It was a nightmare moment of madness by Lejeune, who had looked so assured and comfortable defensively until that point, especially given that Long was going nowhere and had likely overran the ball anyway.
Gabbiadini made no mistake in dispatching the penalty, much to the delight of the home fans.
It was game that wasn’t without contention, including in the second half when referee Kevin Friend was very kind to DeAndre Yedlin when he didn’t show the American a second yellow card for a foul that, quite frankly, was deserving of one.
Either way, though, both sides continued on and fought out the draw in what was a back-and-forth game between the teams of two very tactical managers – Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle side against his former player, assistant manager and protege Mauricio Pellegrino’s Southampton.
Newcastle weren’t without their issues. Perez showed good work rate once again, charging down a Forster kick early in the game, but once again his end product, even despite bagging himself a goal, appeared rushed at times.
Joselu and Dwight Gayle offered little penetration or threat going forward, and the signing of Jacob Murphy continues to baffle me. I simply do not see what he offers the team.
Lejeune was incredibly unlucky in his performance today, as for almost the whole 90 minutes he looked assured and impressive, reading the game well and playing out from the back with confidence – much like he did during preseason.
However, one moment of madness – be it rustiness from just returning from injury or lack of match fitness – will have defined this game for him in the eyes of a lot of people, and it is a negative definition that on the whole of it he doesn’t deserve.
It was a point that Newcastle will take, another small step towards safety this season, but in reality it was also a game that had it not been for some easily avoidable mistakes the Magpies should have been walking away from with all three points.