Eddie Howe played his poker face when questioning Alexander Isak’s fitness on Friday. What he really had was an ace in his back pocket, not to mention a match-winning joker from the bench.
Club-record signing Isak, starting for the first time in a month, was brilliant, scoring Newcastle’s opener and injecting thrust into a forward line that has been going backwards in recent weeks. But it was one of those dropped to the sidelines, Miguel Almiron, who would prove the winning hand.
Howe was accused of being too loyal to under-performing players on the eve of this game. Nice guy Eddie responded by axing his top goalscorer. But in discovering a ruthless streak, the head coach forced Almiron into rediscovering his own.
It looked like Newcastle were heading for a sixth winless game after Wolves substitute Hwang Hee-chan cancelled out Isak’s goal when scoring with his first touch on 70 minutes.
But Almiron, no doubt motivated by his demotion, suddenly looked like the player who had terrified opposition defences in the first half of the season when striding onto Joe Willock’s pass and finishing unnervingly with his left boot on 79 minutes. It was the sort of goal he had made look so routine before the turn of the year.
Newcastle beat Wolves 2-1 at St James’ Park as Miguel Almiron scored a winner off the bench
Almiron helped to secure a huge win for the hosts with an effort that deflected off Max Kilman
Newcastle jumped back up to fifth with the result to end a five-game winless run in the league
Nothing, though, has been coming easily to Howe’s side of late and this win was met more with relief as opposed to the ecstasy of their early-season ascent.
It restores them to fifth position and felt significant in setting the tone for the remainder of their campaign.
But they were also fortunate. Nick Pope’s last appearance here, when he was sent off against Liverpool, cost him a place in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley.
Having sailed through the season to that point, it is fair to say he has looked all at sea since. Not with regards his handling, his gloves remain as safe as ever. Rather, it is his feet which have the yips.
NEWCASTLE (4-3-3): Pope; Trippier, Schar, Botman, Burn; Guimaraes, Longstaff, Willock; Murphy (Ritchie 85), Isak (Wilson 68), Saint-Maximin (Almiron 68)
Subs not used: Dubravka, Dummett, Lascelles, Targett, Manquillo, Anderson
Manager: Eddie Howe
Scorer: Isak 26, Almiron 79
WOLVES (4-3-3): Sa; Semedo, Dawson, Kilman, Jonny (Ait-Nouri 69); Neves (Nunes 69), Lemina, Moutinho (Collins 75); Traore (Neto 45), Jimenez, Podence (Hwang 69)
Subs not used: Bentley, Nunes, Cunha, Gomes
Manager: Julen Lopetegui
Scorer: Hwang 70
Booked: Semedo, Podence
Referee: Andy Madley
Alexander Isak earlier put Newcastle 1-0 up with a fine header from a Kieran Trippier cross
It was the £63m striker’s first league goal in almost two months and his fourth of the season
Hwang Hee-chan levelled for the visitors with his first touch after coming off the bench
It came after a defensive disaster for the hosts as Trippier slipped when trying to clear the ball
One heavy touch midway through the first half left the majority of St James’ with a sinking feeling as Raul Jimenez stole before colliding with the goalkeeper and crashing to ground.
At least, referee Andy Madley saw it as a collision as opposed to anything more sinister. To everyone else, it looked like a penalty and possible red card.
But was Madley, knowing the ball had ran out of play, waiting instead for VAR to review the incident rather than make a decision himself?
If so, it saved Newcastle. Sticking with the umpire’s call is probably the fairest way to describe the instruction of those at Stockley Park.
Yes, there was contact and Pope had been clumsy in trying to correct his error, but enough to overturn? You suspect not. The same applies in reverse – had Madley given the penalty, it almost certainly would have stood.
Isak was a menace all afternoon for the Wolves defence and his devastating pace was on show
After Isak’s goal, Newcastle brimmed with confidence and created a whole host of big chances
Bruno Guimaraes cracked a header against the bar as they threatened to overwhelm Wolves
Such escapes have a habit of liberating the beneficiaries and from then until the break Newcastle produced their best league performance of 2023.
They were in front on 26 minutes when Kieran Trippier delivered a free-kick from the right and Isak, stepping away from Jonny, flashed a header into the bottom corner from 12 yards.
Both sides then traded chances – Bruno Guimaraes hit the bar and Daniel Podence the post at opposite ends – before a slip by Trippier allowed Hee-chan to slot into an empty net within 60 seconds of coming on.
It took Almiron slightly longer to make his impact – he had been on the pitch for 10 minutes – but it was ultimately far more telling.
The hosts seemed back to their best in the first half as they carved open Wolves with ease
Wolves were unfortunate not to win a penalty when Nick Pope appeared to trip Raul Jimenez
Daniel Podence also cracked one against the post in an end-to-end encounter at points