As we near the business end of the season the pressure mounts and anxiety can leach into any side that isn’t quite running on all cylinders.
With the recent performances and results at Hillsborough I was a little concerned that something like this may well affect Carlos Carvalhal and his team in the run-in to the end of the season. In what was a huge week for the club, the win at Rotherham last Tuesday was vital, no less than three points would have been acceptable against a struggling, already relegated side, and fair play to all the players and staff, they achieved what they ultimately set out to do.
It wasn’t a great performance by any means but as I have said earlier this year, at this point of the season it is all about results and not necessarily performances. With this in mind I was hoping that the result, a couple of goals for Stephen Fletcher and a welcomed clean sheet would ease that possible anxiety and the team could ‘kick on’ and approach the remaining six games with a bit more confidence.
On paper there really wasn’t going to be a bigger test than the visit of Newcastle United, who from the start of the season have been favourites for promotion and to be crowned as champions. Carlos again chose to shuffle the pack and in my opinion made a very bold decision in dropping Jordan Rhodes to the bench. The game started at a frenetic pace and I felt we matched Newcastle in the early stages, we were playing with a high tempo, pressing Newcastle at the right times and played on the front foot, something we have all been calling out for all season.
As the game progressed we grew in stature and created by far the better chances in he first half, Gary Hooper seemed to be instrumental in everything we did and we had Newcastle on the ropes. The only thing missing was a goal and with Fletcher missing a gilt-edged chance after another excellent piece of build up play we had a timely warning when Jonjo Shelvey hit the crossbar from the half way line with a fabulous piece of individualism.
I was delighted with the first half performance, it was poles apart from what we have seen most of the season and the Newcastle defence couldn’t live with Hooper. We continued this level of intensity in the second half and the deserved break through came when firstly Tom Lees, and then Fletcher both scored with excellent headers. It was nothing less than we deserved and Fletcher had another decent chance that would have finished the game off but we had a nervy last ten minutes after Shelvey got one back, although there was a blatant foul on Tom Lees in the build up and the goal should never have been awarded.
Overall it was an absolutely fabulous performance from start to finish. Hillsborough was bouncing, reminding me of the play off semi final against Brighton last year. We defended resolutely, we were disciplined in our closing down and pressing of Newcastle and what really impressed me most of all was the willingness and desire to play in Newcastle’s half of the pitch.
We attacked with pace and quality and showed what a good team we can be when we click. Nobody could deny that we were worthy winners and with the teams around us winning it pushed us back into the final play off spot, overtaking Fulham who had gone above us for a couple of hours. You could not have asked for a better performance and result.
So, another game down and just five more to go and who else, but Mr Neil Warnock paying us a visit this coming Friday when Cardiff City arrive at Hillsborough.
It makes absolutely no difference who the opposition are if we can reproduce the display that we showed against Newcastle. Don’t get me wrong, it will be a different sort of game. I would imagine Warnock will set his team up in a very different way to how Rafa Benitez did. Newcastle came to try and win the game, Cardiff will come to try and stifle us, upset and frustrate us and get plenty of bodies behind the ball.
When teams do this it can be extremely difficult to break them down but if we play with plenty of pace and a high tempo we shouldn’t fear anyone. I hoped we would gain some confidence from the Rotherham result, after the Newcastle result we should now be flying high. It couldn’t have come at a better time, and against a better opposition. With five games left and three of those at home it is most definitely in our hands. Hopefully we will look back on the fabulous Newcastle performance as a turning point?
I think there also has to be a very big well done to Carlos Carvalhal. He’s been under a bit of pressure recently and to drop Rhodes was a massive decision, especially at a time when he knew that if it didn’t work out he would have been subjected to even more criticism. He made his decision, stuck by it and it worked out well for him. A very bold and strong piece of management!
Finally, with 20 minutes left of the game it was great to see Fernando Forestieri pleading with Carlos to give him some part of the game. Instead he opted for Semedo to replace Wallace, which incidentally I think was the correct decision, but having him fit and well there is an abundance of quality to choose from.
Two big games coming up over the Easter period and with more and more players returning to fitness and the confidence from beating Newcastle it's suddenly looking a whole lot rosier.
Jon Newsome is the owner of prestige, sports and performance cars specialists, Automarques 21-23 Leigh Street, Sheffield S9 2PR