Newcastle United look unstoppable – in the league and the cup.
Last night’s 6-0 EFL Cup win over 10-man Preston North End was every bit as convincing as the scoreline suggested.
In fact, Rafa Benitez’s side, the Championship leaders, should have won by an even greater margin.
Newcastle were dominant – from start to finish.
They played with power and panache.
It was convincing and compelling. And it’s hard to believe this team, this club, was at such a low ebb early this year.
The transformation since Benitez took charge in March has been remarkable.
And the crowd of 49,042 for a fourth round was as remarkable as the performance.
The last player off the pitch was Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored two of the goals. It was a memorable night for him – and those young fans who were visiting St James’s Park for the first time.
Mitrovic has started three games this season. Two of them have ended in 6-0 victories.
The gate at St James’s Park was just 860 short of the club record of 49,902 that watched a Wembley-bound Newcastle take on Tottenham hotspur in the home leg of a semi-final in 1976.
Newcastle had to abandon plans to open cash turnstiles given the demand for advance tickets.
In the 36 hours before the game, the number of tickets sold crept up and up and up.
The competition in its former guises has never been kind to United, yet the stadium was almost full.
Newcastle are one of the few clubs yet to play at the rebuilt Wembley. Could this be the year? Could it?
Benitez – who refused to look beyond this game in his pre-match Press conference – made seven changes for the tie, yet his starting XI still looked strong. Very strong.
Mitrovic was handed only his third start of the season, while Matz Sels, dropped last month, was recalled in goal.
Benitez, taking no chances, also named a strong bench.
Dwight Gayle, Jonjo Shelvey and Ayoze Perez were among the substitutes.
Preston manager Simon Grayson – whose side beat in-form Norwich City and Huddersfield Town last week – made nine changes and handed the captain’s armband to former United defender Paul Huntington.
United were skippered by Paul Dummett, who Benitez was unable to rest because of an injury to Achraf Lazaar.
Newcastle were dominant in the early stages, when there was a subdued atmosphere at St James’s Park, though Preston’s 1,250 travelling fans could be heard as Benitez’s team patiently probed and prodded their visitors.
There was also an occasional burst of pace from Christian Atsu.
St James’s Park came to life in the 16th minute when Isaac Hayden struck the post with a fine left-footed shot. Two minutes later, Grant Hanley forced a save with a header from a corner as United upped the pressure on Preston.
And that pressure soon told on Grayson’s team.
Matt Ritchie, surprisingly not rested by Benitez, delivered a 19th-minute free-kick on to the head of Mitrovic, who nodded the ball past Anders Lingegaard.
Things got worse for Preston, who simply didn’t get going.
Alan Browne was sent off for a reckless challenge on Jack Colback in the 27th minute. Browne, going for an aerial ball, led with his forearm and flattened the midfielder.
Referee Andrew Madley quickly pulled out a red card as Colback lay bleeding.
Colback, unable to continue, was replaced by Jonjo Shelvey five minutes after he left the field for treatment.
Newcastle pressed on, and Mohamed Diame scored a second in the 38th minute. The midfielder latched on to a loose ball and beat Lindegaard from 20 yards with a low shot.
Diame should have scored a third minutes later after Mitrovic rolled the ball to him, but he somehow missed the target.
It was a let-off for Preston, who were awful in the first half.
But their relief wouldn’t last long. An inch-perfect long ball from Shelvey led to a penalty for Ritchie, who was brought down by Bailey Wright.
Mitrovic wanted to take the spot kick, but Ritchie stuffed the ball up his shirt until it was time to place it on the penalty spot.
The winger smashed it past Lindegaard, who was having a night to forget thanks to his team-mates in front of him. A forgiving Mitrovic was one of the first to congratulate Ritchie.
And Lindegaard was soon picking the ball out of the net again, this time thanks to the boot of Mitrovic, who had chested a ball down and ran along the six-yard box before beating him with a right-footed effort.
Mitrovic took his shirt of in celebration and was not surprisingly booked by Madley.
Atsu hit the woodwork twice, but it was Diame who scored next.
The 29-year-old took the ball on the halfway line and beat Lindegaard from 30 yards.
Substitute Perez completed the rout in the 90th minute with shot from just inside the box.
Mitrovic did a jig as he left the pitch. He enjoyed the moment. So did those United fans who had travelled to St James’s Park.
United, however, will face a very different Preston team at Deepdale on Saturday in the Championship.
Newcastle: Sels, Yedlin, Mbemba, Hanley, Dummett (Anita 58), Ritchie (Perez 75), Hayden, Colback (Shelvey 32), Atsu, Diame, Mitrovic. Subs not used: Clark, Gayle, Gouffran, Darlow. Booked: Mitrovic. Goals: Mitrovic 19, 55, Diame 38, 87, Ritchie 53 pen, Perez 90
Preston: Lindegaard, Wright, Davies (Clarke 46), Huntington, Humphrey, Browne, Pringle (Gallagher 46), Grimshaw, Spurr, Doyle, Makienok (Johnson 63). Subs not used: Beckford, Maxwell, Hugill, Robinson. Sent Off: Browne (27). Booked: Doyle, Wright.
Ref: Andrew Madley (West Yorkshire).