Benitez spurs Newcastle's mission to escape relegation
Magpies post vital win as Townsend and Darlow play heroes
(Andros Townsend 58)
CRYSTAL PALACE 0
Rafael Benitez continues to prove that he can still pull off the improbable.
Just as the end appeared increasingly nigh for Newcastle United, the mastermind behind one of the most iconic Champions League finals in history once again refused to be beaten as the relegation haunted Magpies eked out a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace in the English Premier League last night.
It is unlikely to rank alongside that defining moment in Istanbul's Ataturk Stadium 11 years ago with Liverpool, but Benitez (left, hugging goal scorer Andros Townsend) could find himself etched into a fresh chapter of footballing folklore.
They love a messiah at St James' Park - the legacies of Kevin Keegan and the late Bobby Robson are testament to that.
Benitez looks set to become the latest addition to a newly-formed Holy Trinity.
As their Premier League status hinged on the do-or-die, the Magpies' ponderous start served as an affront to their predatory nickname.
Condemnation to the Championship appeared to be the least they deserved, but then came the half-time interval and the narrative that Benitez knows all too well.
No doubt spurred on by a rousing team talk, the Spaniard's trademark, a gutsy fightback and penalty spot heroics from an unfancied goalkeeper saw Newcastle finally pull clear of the league's relegation zone.
Wins were required from their final three games of the season - they already have one after belatedly seeing off Palace.
Should they succeed in beating the drop, Benitez will be elevated to a new-found level of adulation in the North East.
As chaos and frustration consumed the home crowd following an insipid opening 45 minutes, Benitez's calm head ably steered Newcastle's players away from the abyss.
Nowhere has his influence been greater felt than in the form of Andros Townsend.
There was a reason why the former England international had been consigned to surplus status at title-chasing Tottenham but his performances at St James' Park have typified the Benitez effect at a time when heroes have been desperately sought.
The scenes around the famous old stadium when he rifled home a match-winning free-kick belied his dubious 12-million ($23.5m) transfer fee.
It will appear increasingly small change if that goal ultimately ensures Newcastle's top-flight status is preserved.
Karl Darlow's presence may prove equally priceless after previously failing to inspire confidence.
Newcastle's third-choice goalkeeper was considered a weak link when he was asked to step into the breach after Rob Elliot's season was curtailed at the end of last month while on international duty.
Yet, Darlow's heroics staved off an early Palace onslaught with a series of impressive stops and he crucially denied Yohan Cabaye a happy return to his former stomping ground from the penalty spot in a moment as defining as Towsend's free-kick earlier in the half.
Even with the current momentum from this win and last weekend's fightback at Anfield, Newcastle's Premier League status is by no means assured.
Arch rivals Sunderland will continue to fight them every step of the way in the battle to remain the North East's sole survivor.
But in Benitez, they are set to at least fight until the end.
- Everton 2 Bournemouth 1
- Watford 3 Aston Villa 2
- West Brom 0 West Ham 3
BY THE numbers
Karl Darlow is the first Newcastle goalkeeper to save a penalty in the Premier League since Tim Krul (v Blackburn in Feb 2012). It was also the first penalty miss by Crystal Palace's Yohan Cabaye in five attempts.