Saturday sees Newcastle face Aston Villa in a crucial Premiership survival contest at the very ground which saw the Magpies related from the top flight in 2010.
Many will be expecting a relatively straight forward victory for Newcastle considering their recent form and the fact that Villa have been so poor this season. Rafa Benitez though, is far too experienced to assume that three invaluable points will be gift-wrapped and offered up for Newcastle to gleefully accept and take back to Tyneside.
Villa’s predicament means that they simply have nothing to lose. Already relegated with the crowd fully focussed on venting frustration at their ownership, the players have the freedom to perform without expectation. In fact, they are expected to lose. It is a bizarre situation that Newcastle will have to handle with defiant determination and controlled professionalism. Benitez is just the man for that kind of proposition and he has let his side know exactly what he expects of them.
Benitez will be prepared for the task at hand, make no mistake. Janmaat is available again at right back but is no longer a certain starter following the form of Anita who could well keep his place in the side. He may well field an unchanged side, which Rafa rarely did at Liverpool and Chelsea but he seems to see the value of consistency when results have gone so well in a relegation fight. The time for rotation and experimentation is not exactly now. Rafa must go with what he trusts. That is one of the reasons why it wasn’t exactly a shock to see Obertan and Marveaux leave the party early. With absolutely no chance of involvement in the final two fixtures, the French flops were given the opportunity to seek employment elsewhere.
If Newcastle are to survive, a victory is essential. The noises coming out of the squad are so much more positive than earlier in the season. The players seem to be united at last and there is a sense of togetherness that has been so dearly lacking for a number of seasons. The fans are up for it too with a considerable upturn in performances allowing fans to dream of a survival which seemed so unlikely five games ago.
Wins for Chelsea and Man United would certainly help ease the nerves too, but first and foremost, Newcastle must do the business at Villa.
In Rafa we trust!