If Newcastle’s season has been defined in part by Allan Saint-Maximin, he might have rescued it in the space of seven minutes. They were dragged into the relegation battle after he contracted coronavirus in November. Now he may have extricated them from it.
Just a third win in 20 games came courtesy of Saint-Maximin’s catalytic cameo and may spare them a fraught finale to the season. They are six points ahead of Fulham and just one behind his victims, Burnley. Safety beckons.
Burnley can testify to Saint-Maximin’s devastating impact. He got an assist and a goal in swift succession, giving Newcastle a lead they did not relinquish. It may prove the most influential substitution of their season. Vindication for Steve Bruce, who brought him on, and Mike Ashley, who persevered with an unpopular manager who now has four points from his last two games? Some might say not: introducing Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson was an obvious move and, while Bruce was cautious with two players who had recently recovered from injury, others might have started them.
Their season remains underwhelming and their first-half display was mediocre but Newcastle, who had been aggrieved they were denied a penalty before half-time, could instead savour a comeback and a first victory in eight matches.
Injury and the after-effects of Covid have rendered Saint-Maximin a bit-part player in recent months but, for seven minutes, he was explosive. First he occupied two defenders in a mazy dribble and teed up Jacob Murphy, whose shot curled away from Bailey Peacock-Farrell. Then he picked the ball up in the centre circle, drove forward and turned away from both Ben Mee and James Tarkowski before driving a shot in at the near post.
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Burnley could rue his brilliance and the options that were afforded to Bruce. Sean Dyche’s bench featured four youngsters; his two striking substitutes were rookies, not Wilson and Saint-Maximin. His starting forwards impressed rather more than Joelinton, who failed to build on the fine display against Tottenham last week. But, for the second successive week, his forwards gave him a lead they relinquished.
Chris Wood can look a cumbersome dribbler but he shuffled past Ciaran Clark too easily to cut the ball back for the advancing Matej Vydra to slot in his shot. It underlined how hesitant Clark was in the central role of Newcastle’s back three. It had been filled by Jamaal Lascelles against Tottenham but, with the captain’s season perhaps over, Bruce rejigged his defence, initially unsuccessfully.
But for the agility of Martin Dubravka, Burnley’s lead might have been insurmountable. He made two outstanding reflex saves, the first to parry Josh Brownhill’s glancing header, the second to spare Paul Dummett an own goal when an attempted clearance became a menacing volley. He excelled again to tip over a volley from Matthew Lowton, who has a flair for the spectacular, and denied Dwight McNeil, who exerted a considerable influence.
Saint-Maximin’s transformative effect extended to Peacock-Farrell’s afternoon. Deputising for Nick Pope, who has a shoulder injury, his second top-flight game featured a stunning save to deny Dwight Gayle who had applied a near-post touch to Jacob Murphy’s cross. Burnley got a different sort of reprieve; James Tarkowski both cleared and then kicked Sean Longstaff’s head as the Newcastle midfielder tried to convert the rebound. Neither Anthony Taylor nor the VAR, Stuart Attwell, thought it merited a spot kick, much to Newcastle’s annoyance. “I don’t get the rules any more,” the injured Newcastle midfielder Isaac Hayden tweeted. “Anywhere else on the pitch it’s a penalty.”
The Professional Game Match Officials Board was quick to communicate that the fact Tarkowski played the ball first and Longstaff “stooped” spared Burnley. But Saint-Maximin did not and, though Vydra twice threatened an equaliser, Tarkowski made a wonderful goal-line clearance to deny Miguel Almiron a third goal for Newcastle.