Martin Dubravka shines in Newcastle's victory over Manchester United
January signing Martin Dubravka endeared himself to the Geordie nation. His world-class performance was the foundation for Newcastle's astonishing 1-0 win over Manchester United. Several commanding catches and authoritative punches from crosses were prevalent. He also established excellent communication with his back line.
A number of composed touches at the back, despite the frequent sight of an on-rushing Romelu Lukaku, set the tone for a calm and authoritative display between the sticks. If his distribution was good, his shot-stopping was a marvel. First, he denied Anthony Martial in a one-on-one situation. Few keepers can prevent Martial, usually deadly in such situations, from finding the net. Yet the Slovak's refusal to commit to ground too early followed by an out-stretched leg saw Martial's effort carom off for a corner. In the dying seconds, Dubravka pulled off a magnificent reflex save to ensure Newcastle claimed all three points. Concentration to the degree Rafa Benitez's new shot stopper displayed is a mark of quality.
The driving, dynamic, and powerful centre-midfielder in this match was expected to be Paul Pogba. Instead it was fellow Frenchman Mo Diame.
Diame had been linked with a move away from St James Park during the season's first half after playing just ten times before December. Mostly starting from the bench, his future looked bleak. Through perseverance and hard work, Diame has muscled his way back into Rafa Benitez's plans. He is carving out a regualar starting berth for himself.
On the day, it was easy to see why. Aggressive, he matched Pogba and Nemanja Matic's physicality, refusing to be bullied into submission. He also displayed keen vision and good attacking qualities.
Consistency will be key. If Diame can maintain his current form, he will be an integral part of Newcastle's fight for survival.
Ten and a half men
Paul Pogba limped off during the warm-ups. The assumption was that he would not be included. Yet, the £89 million man kept his starting spot alongside Nemanja Matic. Jose Mourinho is renowned for demanding his players push through the pain barrier, but in this instance, it would have been best had Pogba not played.
It was immediately clear he was inhibited. His usual lopsided swagger was slower, more pronounced. Clearly he was struggling. There was a discernible absence of confidence in his running. A fear that he may tweak something should he commit himself too much. His anxiety translated into his touch, passing, and general ability. Diame's hustle simply emphasised Pogba's meekness.
He finally hobbled off at hour mark for Michael Carrick, with United chasing the game. That is not the ideal situation for the Englishman. For all his composure, he lacks the vision to puncture a solid back-line. Had the Englishman started from the off, his presence and authority in the centre may have contributed to a different outcome. Instead, Pogba's indifferent performance meant United lost the midfield battle. The last thing you want to do is show the Geordie nation weakness. Newcastle preyed upon it.
One has to admire Pogba's determination to fight through his pain. On this occasion, though, it would have been more helpful to be honest.