Newcastle United all-but confirmed their Premier League safety with a 3-1 win over Southampton.
Ayoze Perez scored twice in four first-half minutes to give Newcastle United control of the game before Mario Lemina pulled a goal back after 60 minutes.
However, the win was confirmed when Perez completed his hat-trick five minutes from time to move the Magpies 10 points clear of Cardiff City who have four games left to play.
But who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Ayoze Perez
Since the end of the January transfer window, Newcastle United have been largely wonderful, with Miguel Almiron’s arrival causing something to click in attack.
One player to benefit massively from this is Ayoze Perez, who is once again looking a danger for Rafael Benitez and continues to pull his side up the table.
Ayozé Pérez is the seventh Spanish player to score a Premier League hat-trick:
🇪🇸 Fernando Torres (4)
🇪🇸 Ayoze Pérez
🇪🇸 Diego Costa
🇪🇸 Jordi Gómez
🇪🇸 Santi Cazorla
🇪🇸 Álvaro Morata
🇪🇸 Gerard Deulofeu
Bienvenido al club. pic.twitter.com/ouq8PLZFNg
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 20, 2019
Newcastle dominated the early stages of the game against Southampton, pressing high and forcing their opponents into needless mistakes around their own area, but the home side could not take advantage of their opportunities.
That was until Perez took control, picking up on a loose ball following a good tackle in midfield, driving into the box before firing across goal into the bottom left corner of the net. And less than five minutes later, the Spaniard had another.
His second was more about his team-mates with good work from Salomon Rondon but Perez had the determination to run to the far box to get onto the end of his partner’s cross, coming in behind Ryan Bertrand to double the lead.
And as Southampton threatened to spoil the party late on, Perez completed his hat-trick with a smart header five minutes from time, wrong-footing Angus Gunn.
It was the eighth goal Perez has been involved in in his past seven league games at St James’ Park, scoring seven and assisting another.
Loser: James Ward-Prowse
Looking to all-but secure their Premier League safety, Ralph Hasenhuttl lined up with a five-man defence utilising James Ward-Prowse at wing-back.
But the Englishman had a game to forget, seriously struggling against Newcastle, and was fortunate not to be sent off midway through the first half.
23' – The Magpies – and almost all of those inside St. James' Park – are then left furious, as Ward-Prowse clatters into Almirón in the midst of a swift United counter and only sees yellow as a result. 0-0. #NUFC
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) April 20, 2019
Following a failed Southampton corner, Newcastle were looking to break through Almiron and Rondon with only Ward-Prowse to oppose them. Almiron knocked the ball past Ward-Prowse inside the Newcastle half and looked set to start a two-man onslaught on Angus Gunn. But then Ward-Prowse blocked him with the most-tactical of all fouls.
The Newcastle fans, players and staff were calling for, and possibly expected, a red card but Anthony Taylor only deemed it worthy of a yellow.
This moment was coupled with Ward-Prowse’s struggles in front of goal, dallying on the ball too much when Southampton needed him to be clinical as they pushed for a way back into the match.
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Winner: Salomon Rondon
Like Perez, Rondon has been buoyed by the January arrival of Almiron, but the Venezuelan has seen his improvements come from a more selfless perspective.
Salomón Rondón is the first Newcastle player to provide 6+ assists in a Premier League season since Moussa Sissoko in 2015/16 (7).
A brilliant cross for Perez. 👏 https://t.co/aWHQW4b1uz
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 20, 2019
Despite being the preferred striker, with a fluid front three, Rondon often finds himself drifting out wide – which some may dislike as it means he cannot hurt defences with his obvious aerial abilities.
But instead, the striker has shown everyone his abilities with the ball on the floor, building an understanding with his attacking team-mates. This was shown in the first half against Southampton as Rondon worked the ball well out wide before sending a delightful defence-evading ball into the box for Perez to fire home at the far post.
It brought up Rondon’s sixth Premier League assist of the season, becoming the first Newcastle United player to reach that number since Moussa Sissoko managed seven in 2015/16. It also saw Rondon’s total league goal involvement for the season reach 15 – his best ever tally.
Loser: Miguel Almiron
His name has been mentioned once or twice already but the impact Almiron has had on Newcastle since signing in January cannot be understated. Though he is yet to be directly involved in a goal, the Paraguayan has been vital in Newcastle’s attacks.
His understanding with Rondon and Perez has seen Newcastle create 105 chances since Almiron’s debut – the fourth highest amount in the Premier League that season, leading to 13 goals.
And that is why Almiron’s suspected hamstring injury, picked up in the second half against Southampton, will be so costly for Newcastle.
It came after a challenge from Oriol Romeu, for which the Spaniard was booked, with the Paraguayan leaving the pitch almost in tears. With only three weeks remaining, this could spell the end of Almiron’s first half-season in English football – a sad loss for Newcastle and the Premier League.
Winner: Rafael Benitez
Rafael Benitez has done a wonderful job at Newcastle despite the obvious restrictions put in place by the club’s management. Since breaking Newcastle’s transfer record in January, the Spaniard has overseen a change to exciting attacking football for the Magpies with positive play giving fans something to smile about on the pitch.
In the build up to the game against Southampton on Saturday, Benitez gave a fairly candid interview in which he outlined his plans for his own future as a manager.
“I like to – and I want to – compete for trophies,” he said.
“The best trophy is the Champions League, so I would like to have the possibility in the next 11 years to win the Champions League.”
Having already won the Champions League with Liverpool in 2005, in addition to the job he has done in transforming Newcastle, Benitez could be on the wish list for some of Europe’s bigger clubs this summer.
The downside of Benitez’s Champions League aspirations is that it may spell the end of his time at Newcastle.
There’s no denying Newcastle are a good club to manage, and were once genuine contenders for the Champions League places but those days are no more. Even Benitez would be unable to bring a Champions League return to St James’ Park unless drastic changes are made from the club’s board.
That means, for the Spaniard to fulfil his dreams, Benitez will likely have to leave Newcastle. And with his contract up this summer, the time for a split may be sooner than Newcastle will like.
Though Benitez will have grown to love Newcastle and their fans, the Spaniard will need some persuading by the owner that things will change for the positive and he can achieve his Champions League dreams at St James’ Park.
And the talks will be happening all while Benitez entertains possible new destinations across Europe.