Almiron the emblem of Newcastle’s rise after Grealish jibe

Bleary-eyed and with a croaky voice, Jack Grealish was deep into Manchester City’s Premier League title parade when he was asked by teammate Bernardo Silva what the big factor was in the team’s final-day comeback win over Aston Villa.

Grealish took his time, then took aim at a fellow professional who hadn’t even played in the match at Etihad Stadium a day earlier.

The turning point, apparently, was the substitution of the ineffective City winger Riyad Mahrez, who — in Grealish’s words — had been “playing like Almiron.”

It amounted to an unprovoked jibe at Miguel Almiron, the Newcastle forward who moved to English soccer in January 2019 as a star of Major League Soccer but had become something of a figure of fun — not on the grounds of his ability but seemingly because of his poor scoring rate for the northeastern team.

Maybe he has used that attack by Grealish as some sort of motivation because, five months later, the hard-working Almiron is Newcastle’s top scorer and in many ways the unlikely emblem of the Saudi-owned team’s rise this season as a growing threat to the established order in the Premier League.

Take away Erling Haaland, and Almiron might be the form player in the league, having scored five goals in his last five games to sit tied for fifth place in the scoring chart with six. Only Haaland, Harry Kane, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ivan Toney have more.

Confidence is oozing out of the Paraguay international. Take, for instance, his most recent goal — in the 2-1 win at Tottenham on Sunday — when he held off one would-be tackler on the right wing, drifted in and then out past another, then shaped his body to plant a low shot under goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

Almiron peeled away with a now-customary wide grin on his face.

His six goals in 12 games compares favorably to a total of nine goals in his first three-and-a-half seasons at Newcastle.

So, Newcastle manager Eddie Howe was asked, is Grealish to blame for Almiron’s scoring upswing?

“I don’t think Miggy is motivated by anything other than trying to be his best for Newcastle and for the supporters, who absolutely love him and rightly so,” Howe said. “For me, he’s given me everything from Day 1, very committed to the team. He’s a real team player and he’s getting the recognition that he deserves. You can’t underestimate the quality of the goals that he’s delivered for us.”

Howe noted, in managerial jargon, that the “technical delivery” in what Almiron has been asked to do has “definitely gone up a level.” That might be a nod to Almiron’s positioning higher up the field on the right of a three-man forward line, possibly due to having an elite right back in Kieran Trippier behind him and, in general, a much better standard of players — mainly in defense and midfield.

Tellingly, Almiron had only one shot on target in the penalty area last season. This season, he is spending much more time nearer goal and — given he has no assists so far — appears to be tasked with getting on the end of chances, more than creating them.

That creative burden invariably falls on players like the mercurial Allan Saint-Maximin, Brazil center midfielder Bruno Guimaraes and Trippier, who provides most of the delivery and chance creation from the right.

Privately, Almiron might get a kick from the fact he is easily outpacing Grealish, who has only one goal in all competitions despite being in an all-star attack at City and English soccer’s most expensive player at $139 million.

Having the richest owners in soccer — Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has an 80% share of the club — means Newcastle is likely to spend heavily in most transfer windows now. So far, the major signings have been striker Alexander Isak and Guimaraes, along with a focus on strengthening the defense in the form of Trippier, Netherlands center back Sven Botman and England goalkeeper Nick Pope.

The time will likely come when the club will bring in more high-profile attacking players, putting Almiron’s place at risk.

For now, he is undroppable, surely a fixture on the right wing even when Isak and Saint-Maximin regain fitness after their current injuries.

Aston Villa visits St. James’ Park on Saturday, with Newcastle in fourth place and making a quicker-than-expected charge for Champions League qualification.

A year ago, the team was in the relegation zone, with Almiron typically a substitute. Now, he is a guaranteed starter in a team shooting for Europe.

“Before the season started, we were feeling more ambitious than before,” Almiron said. “We have great players and I think we will be fighting for a trophy this season.”

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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