In Focus: Toon praying Pope helps keep Saints at bay
Nick Pope has proved to be one of high-flying Newcastle’s most inspired signings of recent times.
Since his £10million arrival from Burnley last summer, the 30-year-old goalkeeper has been at the heart of the Magpies’ rock-solid defensive structure under Eddie Howe, collecting a Premier League-high 12 clean sheets in 20 games this term.
As the Geordies prepare to face Southampton in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final, we turn the spotlight on the in-form England international.
After Burnley’s six-year spell in the top flight came to an end last season, plenty of clubs readied themselves for a scrap to secure the Clarets' star custodian.
Despite the Lancashire outfit spending much of their time in the Premier League fighting against relegation, Pope firmly established himself as one of the divisions finest shot-stoppers.
Installed as No1 in the 2017-18 season, the former Ipswich youngster collected 46 clean sheets in 141 top-flight appearances for Burnley and was a key reason why Sean Dyche’s men were able to punch above their weight for so long.
For a keeper with such proven quality, it seemed a given that the 10-cap Three Lions international would secure a move once relegation was confirmed.
Newcastle quickly swooped despite having Martin Dubravka and Karl Darlow on their books, but the £10m outlay is already looking like money well spent.
Much has been made of Newcastle’s stunning ascent to third in the Premier League table this season and while attackers have caught the eye, their watertight defence has been their foundation.
Alongside the impressive 12 clean sheets they have picked up, the Magpies have only conceded 11 league goals all season.
In an astonishing recent run, none of the last nine opponents the Newcastle keeper has faced in all competitions have managed to score — a shut-out lasting more than 13 hours.
Of course, the superb centre-back pairing of Fabian Schar and Sven Botman deserve plenty of the plaudits for that record too.
The fact that Pope’s 51 saves this term rank him only 13th among Premier League goalkeepers is a marker of the way the Toon backline are working as a unit.
Interestingly, he ranks highest among his top-flight counterparts for sweeper keeper regains (20), a facet of his game which is not always appreciated alongside his shot-stopping.
The Geordies have won 10 of their 20 Premier League games this season, drawing nine and losing only once — with several instances of their stopper earning his side points when they might not have been at their best.
Six of the Toon’s nine draws have been goalless stalemates, with the latest one coming at Crystal Palace last Saturday in what was a prime example of the value their goalkeeper has brought to the Tynesiders.
The visitors were unable to breach Vincente Guaita's goal as they dominated for large periods and, as a result, Pope was rarely called into action.
But when a loose ball fell to Jean-Philippe Mateta late in the game, the Magpies man was alert as ever as he pulled off a stunning save to prevent what looked like a certain goal for the Eagles striker.
After the game, Howe said: "Today’s save is probably one of the best I’ve seen him make.
"[It’s a] top, top save. He had nothing to do apart from that one moment, and I think that’s the sign of a great goalkeeper."
While an unlikely pursuit of Champions League football remains well and truly alive, the focus tonight will be on helping to end Newcastle’s nearly 68-year-long wait for a trophy.
A two-legged Carabao Cup tie with Southampton stands in the way of their first major final since 1999, with the first of those clashes coming at St Mary's this evening.
Having saved three penalties in their shootout win over Palace in the third round, Pope is well aware of what is at stake for the Toon Army.
On the North East club's desperation for silverware, he said: "You are reminded before every cup game. You realise the stature of this club and they have had a great team down the years without winning things.
"You think of [Bobby] Robson, [Alan] Shearer, [Faustino] Asprilla. They have not quite got over the line and it is driving the dressing room to put this right.
"I have only been here six months and even I know that. It is something to look forward to.
"To have that challenge. We have a long way to go so we are not getting ahead of ourselves but it is great to have that carrot and to have exciting things to chase rather than fighting off relegation. The players and fans want to win a trophy. That is part of the ambition."
Ironically, the struggling Saints were the last team to score past Pope with a late consolation in a 4-1 win for the Magpies last November.
But given the form the Newcastle stopper is in, a repeat will take some doing with the prospect of cup glory on the horizon.