Ayoze Pérez hat-trick allows Newcastle to ride out Southampton revival

Newcastle United fans are unlikely to find even the richest, most indulgent Easter egg remotely as satisfying as the evening that virtually rubber-stamped their team’s Premier League status for another season.

Featuring a yellow card that should have been red, a smart second-half switch to 4-4-2, two clever substitutions and an Ayoze Pérez hat-trick, this was a game that kept on giving. Indeed it was so good that, for 90 minutes, home supporters all but forgot about the enduring impasse between Rafael Benítez and Newcastle’s owner, Mike Ashley, over negotiations to extend a managerial contract that expires in June.

By the final whistle Pérez had emphasised his metamorphosis from perceived weak link to Tyneside cult hero and nagging, albeit slim, relegation worries still lingered for a Southampton side who started and finished badly but impressed immensely in between.

“I’m really pleased,” said Benítez. “We can see the potential, we can see how big this massive club in this fantastic city can be.” Asked what was happening regarding his contract the reply was instructive. “I have no idea,” he said. “I am the manager until 30 June, so we have to talk.”

If he looked mildly cross when Anthony Taylor, the referee, denied his side a second-minute penalty for Pierre-Emile Højbjerg’s perceived handball, Benítez was downright disgusted when James Ward-Prowse escaped with a yellow card after a cynical bodycheck on a rapidly counterattacking Miguel Almirón.

Considering Ward-Prowse was the only remaining marker between the badly winded Paraguayan playmaker and Angus Gunn’s goal, everyone in black and white was convinced the blow to the solar plexus represented the denial of a clear-cut goal-scoring opportunity and an automatic red card.

Taylor presumably ruled that Ward-Prowse should be spared a sending-off as Almirón was still in his own half but that contentious judgment provoked a torrent of Spanish swear words from the usually much more measured Benítez. Given the bodycheck was so blatant it was arguably worthy of a dismissal alone and there was a real sense of justice being done when Pérez scored two goals in quick succession.

His first began with Isaac Hayden dispossessing Højbjerg before picking out Pérez with a fine pass that left the Spanish forward with his back to goal on the edge of the area and quite a bit to do. Pérez though proved equal to it, holding off Maya Yoshida to swivel superbly and direct a low-angled shot through the legs of Jan Bednarek before watching it brush the inside of a post en route to the bottom corner.

Rafael Benítez congratulates Ayoze Pérez
Rafael Benítez congratulates Pérez after the game. Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters

The celebrations had barely subsided when Pérez claimed his second after dodging Ryan Bertrand on the wing-back’s blindside, sliding in to connect with a Salomón Rondón cross and leaving his right foot to do the rest.

Southampton resembled a side who had spent the day dozing in the unseasonably warm Tyneside sunshine and could not quite wake up. They certainly failed to deal with Almirón’s coruscating pace and did not appreciate Newcastle’s assiduous closing down in a midfield dominated by Ki Sung-yueng and Hayden.

It was time for Ralph Hasenhüttl to earn his money and Southampton’s manager did not disappoint as he switched from 3-4-3 to 4-4-2 at the interval, introducing Stuart Armstrong and Mario Lemina to transformative effect.

Hasenhüttl acknowledged his players were “too slow” and “not aggressive enough” in the first half but his revamp had a radical impact as the visitors finally began blitzing Martin Dubravka’s goal and a dangerous Ward-Prowse cross was headed tantalisingly wide by Yoshida.

Although Ki saw a low shot rebound off the base of a post with Gunn beaten, Southampton were a side reborn and no one looked too surprised when Lemina reduced the deficit. Nathan Redmond crossed, Armstrong cushioned the ball for his fellow substitute and Lemina sent a low shot curving, subtly and exquisitely, beyond the diving Dubravka’s grasp.

Suddenly Newcastle were straining every sinew and could have done without Almirón being helped off with a nasty looking hamstring injury. Another Redmond cross resulted in Yoshida volleying fractionally over the bar from six yards but Hayden’s deflected volley very nearly reinstated Newcastle’s two-goal cushion.

Pérez delighted in completing that restoration job four minutes from full-time by redirecting Matt Ritchie’s header into the net to lift Newcastle to 12th on 41 points. All that remained was for St James’ Park to turn up the collective volume and implore Benítez to stay.

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