By Juan Aguerrevere
Ayoze Perez' hat-trick kept Southampton in 16th place, leaving a 5-point gap from relegation-bound Cardiff.
Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez summoned the exact same line-up and formation that featured in last Friday's 1-0 win over Leicester (5-4-1).
Southampton’s Austrian manager, Ralph Hasenhuttl, tried to replicate last weekend's performance at St. Mary's. But Yan Valery’s illness and Jannik Vestergaard's injury forced the Austrian to modify the line-up. James Ward-Prowse was moved to the right-wingback position and Jack Stephens was introduced (3-4-2-1).
In the 7th minute, Miguel Almiron got the Newcastle machine rolling from both sides of the ball. His speed and aggression helped him steal a ball from Sims who lacked awareness near his box after a corner. The ball deflected off Almiron into Matt Ritchie's feet who miscued the shot wide.
Before the 10th minute mark, Magpie striker Salomón Rondon's sent a well-weighted volleyed pass into space for Almiron to chase. Almiron dribbled into the area and launched an unexpected left-footed shot surprising every soul in St. James' Park. Angus Gunn, Southampton’s 22 year old goalkeeper, who rose his right hand just in time to tip it over, wasn’t caught off guard.
Southampton struggled to get a grasp of the game. The Saints' first dangerous approach came in the 17th minute when Danny Ings broke through with a counter-attack but nothing came of it as Ings tried to share the ball prematurely. Hasenhuttl was visibly frustrated.
Referee Anthony Taylor was put to the test in the 23rd minute after a corner when the last man in defense, James Ward-Prowse blind-sided Almiron in Newcastle's half. Taylor immediately walked over to Ward-Prowse and lifted a yellow card. The controversial call caused a ruckus in Newcastle's home ground. First-team coach Mikel Antia was told to leave through the tunnel by Taylor for his inapproapriate behavior.
The atmosphere in the stadium transitioned from frantic to celebratory just 4 minutes after the controversial call.
Newcastle's high-pressing line of forwards led Maya Yoshida to force a pass to Pierre Hojbjerg in the middle of the pitch. Isaac Hayden read the play and lunged for a terrific interception leaving a loose ball for the forwards to collect. The man who scored last Friday's only and decisive goal against Leicester City, Ayoze Perez picked up the ball, dribbled forward leaving Yoshida tumbling and produced a ground-shot that deflected off the post and in. It was an early glimpse of what was to come from Perez.
Fast forward 4 minutes and Rondon chased a ball down the left flank. Perez did well to catch up to Ryan Bertrand while Rondon held the ball waiting for support in the area. Rondon sent a curling cross around Yoshida. Bertrand slowed his pace down at that very moment and the matador, Perez, made the best out of the situation by getting behind Bertrand and tipping the ball over a tumbling Gunn to double the lead.
Martin Duvravka stretched for his first save of the day in the 33rd minute. The shot came from Newcastle's own defender, Fabian Schaar while defending a corner.
Almiron closed the half with a slithery run in Southampton's box ending in dispossession.
The Saints began to show urgency early in the second half. Yoshida found himself in a good position to square a ball, but he showed why he's not an attacking player by producing a poor cross.
Ward-Prowse tested Dubravka in a free-kick from distance in the 53rd minute. But the Slovakian made the save look easy. Seconds later, Sung-Yueng Ki replied in the opposite half with a driven-low-shot from distance that left the far post shaking.
Things got interesting before the clock turned to the 60th minute when the Saints crafted a beautiful play where the ball never stopped moving. Eventually, the ball made its way to the top of the 18 and substitute Mario Lemina curled past Dubravka and in the lower corner of the goal. Southampton was back in it.
Tragedy struck in the 63rd minute when Almiron went down after an awkward challenge from Oriol Romeu. Almiron limped off toward the tunnel crying from pain coming from his hamstring. Rafa Benitez expressed concern that Almiron’s season might be over but said the injury is not serious.
Things looked as if they turned for the worst for Newcastle. Southampton kept pushing and Yoshida found himself in a goal-scoring opportunity again, but he was not able to control his shot ending off target.
The game turned into a back-and-forth contest. After a poorly cleared corner, James Ward-Prowse used his chest for a goal-line clearance denying Rondon's 10th goal of the season. But hope for was short-lived by the Saints.
In the 86th minute, Ritchie darted through the visitor's box and connected a diving header. Perez redirected Ritchie’s attempt at goal and caught Gunn diving the opposite way. Perez achieved a hat-trick, his first in 5 seasons wearing black and white.
Southampton remains 5 points clear from relegation zone.
Juan is a senior at the University of Florida. He is an aspiring sports writer, analyst, and commentator.