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Newcastle United v Athletic Bilbao - Pre-Season Friendly

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Newcastle 2-1 Athletic Bilbao: Two-goal tally for a great finale!

Callum and Allan bag a couple in the last action before getting down to serious business

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

There is this thing they say about facing minnows in the preseason so players build the correct and proper morale ahead of the upcoming campaign. Yeah, right. That better mean Newcastle is in for a rough one after defeating the eight-best teams of last season’s Serie A (Atalanta) on Friday and La Liga (Athletic Bilbao) on Saturday just ahead of their first Premier League clash against newly-promoted Nott Forest.

Imagine going from beating a Europa League quarterfinalist and a Spanish Cup semifinalist to having to play a meaningless game against Notting Forest that is already in the books in most betting houses out in the free world. It is what happens when you go from defending a forward line made of the likes of Duvan Zapata or Iñaki Williams, to having to stop one full of second-tier names you never heard of before you read the projected lineups report.

That must be the vibes around St. James’ Park with just a week to go before the EPL gets rolling. Nothing crazy, though, considering the Magpies played two games in less than 24 hours and came out of the doubleheader with a positive 2-0 win-loss record while at it. Using two completely different eleven-man squads, mind you.

It’s funny that Eddie Howe used two different elevens in the couple of SJP games the club organized, splitting them into two very discernible units each made of either the starting defenders or the starting attackers. With Joelinton out and ineligible for Friday’s game after his red-card action against Benfica, Howe was handed the order of decisions in a platter: defense first, offense second.

That’s why Newcastle offered a XI comprised, mainly, of Pope, Targett, Trippier, Burn, and Schar. See the similarities? GK + D-Men, with a pinch of Sean Longstaff and Miguel Almirón to keep things working slightly higher up the pitch. And that’s why Howe did a 180º for the back-end game of the doubleheader by fielding the starting players from the midfield up: Joelinton, Willock, Saint-Maximin, Bruno, and Wilson—in this case with a pinch of D on Botman and Krafth.

There is no doubt about what Newcastle is doing next, how the team will shape, and barring little changes here or there, what the starting squad and reserves will be ahead of the fresh campaign. The bet: Pope, Targett, Tripps, Burn/Botman/Schar, Joelinton, Bruno, Longstaff/Willock, ASM, Miggy, Wilson. That’s it. A couple of rotational options in the center of the defense and the middle of the pitch, but nothing more than that. And unless a legitimate forward/winger arrives, not even Wood factors into the striker equation to rotate with Callum—barring an injury sustained by the English lad.

The Magpies didn’t put six past Athletic—sorry, Sevilla—but they truly played a magnificent game against another strong team, perhaps now more in name than actual talent. Even then, though, we’re talking about a Spanish side loaded with serious internationally capped talent, managed by a renowned man and two-time La Liga champ in Ernesto Valverde.

Nothing could save the Vasque side, though, as not even five minutes into the game and with some fans still trying to find their seats with their lunch sandwich in hand the first goal arrived, courtesy of Collum Wilson.

ASM got the ball in the opposition half, danced with it, dribbled past his main cover man to the right, pulled off the hesi to deal with the second defender arriving at his position, dumped the ball on Matt Ritchie, and the latter did the trick of fooling a couple of men in just a two-inch square to leave Wilson in position to hit the rock to the back of the net with a soft left.

Bruno is feeling more comfortable at the pivot every passing day and every time he breathes some of the healthy Tyneside air. Joelinton knows no boundaries. Willock is a magician only in the need of fixing his very capable magic wand. And Emil Krafth is double Tripps size but can always disguise as a phenomenal overlapping right wing-back.

I’m happy for the lads that attended yesterday’s match because they got to watch something that was never going to happen on Friday: long balls to a forward capable of controlling those passes with soft touches, dribbling past defenders not looking like he’s in crutches and combining quickly to then run in spaces providing chances. Quite pleasing, it always is.

With the halftime didn’t come the changes as was the case in the game against Atalanta. It wasn’t until the 70th minute that Pauly D left the field, with the trio of Bruno/ASM/Wilson leaving as late as in the 90th round already to make way for Matty Longstaff and the debutants Lucas De Bolle and Santi Muñoz. Gotta keep those fresh bodies going, folks.

You know what was good coming off the halftime (no) show? Bruno to Joelinton to Allan for the second goal. That’s what.

It took 10 minutes, yes, but once the clock hit fifty-four Allan Saint-Maximan got the chance of getting his name on the scoreboard and he didn’t miss it. Bruno lifted the ball softly to fellow Brazilian Joelinton close to the left sideline. Joelinton right-foot-kicked it ahead to ASM, who authoritatively beat the offside trap—not really that far from the midfield chalk—and put himself in position to finish with a right pass to the goal and clearly past Athletic's goalie.

The best of it all was the celebration but the strike was warmingly nice, and we ain’t here to lie about that.

It sucked to watch another header hit into the Magpies net, but I guess the Geordie Faithful could live with that for now if the goals keep falling on their side of the scoreboard—let alone if reinforcements arrive to bolster an already banging offense. Also, it was brute Raul Garcia connecting with the ball. Alas. Dubby could do more, but so could Nick Pope a few days ago and he didn’t do so, either. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.

For 25 more minutes, the game entered its dying part and slowly but surely approached its final act, and with it this preseason nadir, having us waiting one more year full of real football—including a World Cup smacked right in the middle of it, somehow—until next summer, transfer rumors, and meaningless games arrive in our telly again.

Now, for real this time: the next game is on Saturday (3pm UK / 10am ET) Premier League clash against Nottingham Forest. And you won’t want to miss that one, folks.

Howay the Lads!

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