Date: 18th April 2016 at 3:55pm
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Granting the captain’s armband to cowardly Champions League chaser Moussa Sissoko didn’t appear the most obvious way for Rafa Benitez to muster some spirit from his hopeless Newcastle United.

And yet, for all the furore when the teams were announced at 2pm on Saturday afternoon, there were few detractors three hours later, three goals later, three points later.

Dead and buried last week, a win away from safety this; the mood on Tyneside swung dramatically with a win against Swansea City.

Despite the comprehensive score line, this was not a comfortable victory. Newcastle were holding on at 1-0, and not until the arrival of Aleksandar Mitrovic did they look likely to add to their tally – he duly created two more.

Like the team selection though, this was not a performance that needed to rely on flair and excitement, but grit and determination; attributes so often missing from this United side.

And while Sissoko, Andros Townsend and Gini Wijnaldum possess talent, international experience and lofty aspirations, this success relied heavily on less fashionable players, namely Jamaal Lascelles and Paul Dummett.

9 August 2015 - Barclays Premier League - Newcastle United v Southampton - Moussa Sissoko of Newcastle United - Photo: Marc Atkins / Offside.

Moussa Sissoko was the surprise choice as Newcastle United captain against Swansea. Photo: Marc Atkins/Offside.

A young English defender with huge potential, Lascelles had flattered to deceive for 16 appearances in black and white, until he stepped up at Southampton. Rather than delivering a display of his supposed quality in another dreary defeat, though, the former Nottingham Forest man chose to lift his head above the parapet after full-time, finally offering a voice of reason on behalf of more prestigious teammates.

“We need bigger characters on the pitch, players who care and who are going to get after each other,” he told the BBC. “We have lacked it this season and no matter how good you are, if you don’t have that fight and hunger and desire, it doesn’t matter.

“We had Steve McClaren, who is a great manager, and now we’ve got Rafa Benitez, who is a great manager, so it’s clearly not that. It’s the players and we have to take full responsibility. It’s ourselves who have to change and not the manager.

“We need to play with more heart. We’ve got flair players, tricky players, players with loads of talent, but we need more heart, we need more desire.”

Lascelles’ words were brave, but they were met with a positive reception by the Newcastle supporters, and he duly backed up his claims with a performance full of heart and full of desire.

His best game since joining the club, the 22-year-old netted the opener and then did more than most to keep Swansea from equalising. While many more established stars have cowered away, this relegation fight has seemingly been the making of Lascelles.

Dummett, meanwhile, is even less spectacular still. With a cautious approach and modest ball skills, he does not fit the bill as a modern full-back.

However, he is a natural left-back and can defend effectively, with results illustrating the team’s improvement when he’s on the pitch. United have taken 21 points from 18 games with the Welsh international present, and just seven from 15 without him.

Dummett’s critics point to a lack of balance in attack from his no-shows in the final third, but he in turn offers exactly that in defence. Rolando Aarons, Jack Colback and Vurnon Anita have shared the shift in his absence, each looking equally unfit for the part.

In a side with the talents of Sissoko, Townsend and Wijnaldum, steady influences are required in defence, and both Lascelles and Dummett look capable of that.

Not just that, but, if Newcastle are to retain any hopes of survival, they’ll need this pair to encourage their teammates to show the same grit, determination, heart and desire.

 
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