Great Britain

Newcastle’s Miguel Almirón ends goal drought to sink Crystal Palace

A whipped-in cross, a cushioned flick from Andy Carroll and, finally, an unerring volley from Miguel Almirón. As the Paraguayan whipped off his shirt and the Gallowgate End turned giddy with excitement Steve Bruce raced down the touchline, fists pumping thin air.

Almost a year after arriving from Atlanta in the MLS, Almirón had scored his long awaited first goal for Newcastle and the power of his smile seemed capable of switching on Tyneside’s entire complement of Christmas lights.

As the celebrations eventually subsided, Simon Hooper was obliged to book Almirón for the shirt removal but seemed to be apologising as he did so to a forward who can never have been happier to see a yellow card brandished in his face.

Hats off to Bruce for bringing the best out in his £21m playmaker though. He and Roy Hodgson have known each other for a very long time but Newcastle’s manager succeeded in surprising his Palace counterpart here. It came in the form of a tweaked system with Newcastle shifting from 3-4-3 to 3-4-1-2. That sounds a case of tactical semantics but switching Almirón from wide on the right to a free, roving role, loosely in the hole behind Carroll and Joelinton made a significant difference. For a start the visiting centre-halves, James Tomkins and the out of position Cheikhou Kouyaté seemed unsure as to who precisely they should be marking.

All darting runs and clever through passes Almirón excelled in his preferred position, effectively joining the dots for a sporadically impressive Newcastle. The downside for Bruce was that his side were creating half-chances rather than clear-cut openings and only looked really dangerous if Almirón or Jonjo Shelvey were in possession.

The resultant lack of service, and early deliveries especially, left Joelinton and Carroll increasingly disconnected chasing scraps with the latter gradually relieving the pressure on the defence by dropping deeper in search of the ball.

Palace started slowly, created precious little and were well below their best yet still conjured the first half’s most menacing moment. Almost inevitably it involved Wilfred Zaha, whose first-time shot was smartly saved by a rapidly reacting Martin Dubravka after Christian Benteke had slid a pass through to the, for once, unmarked winger.

Albeit incrementally, Palace were improving and Bruce had Dubravka’s swift advance and narrowing of the angles to thank for preventing James McCarthy dinking the ball home after being played in by Patrick van Aanholt.

By now the underrated Paul Dummett was doing more defending than overlapping from left wing-back, Carroll and Joelinton looked ever more like strangers and Isaac Hayden’s inability to adapt to Newcastle’s new midfield shape had allowed the visitors a way back into the game.

Bruce duly replaced Hayden with Sean Longstaff and, a little later, the ineffective Joelinton with Dwight Gayle but Palace retained the initiative with only Dubravka’s reflexes coming between Benteke and a goal.

Almirón’s volley changed the narrative and all that remained was for a beaming Bruce to embrace his match-winner in a bear hug at the final whistle.

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