After a week full of takeover talk following Mike Ashley’s ‘up for sale’ announcement on Monday, it would have been easy to forget we even have a game to play at St James’ Park this weekend!
It’s been a bit of a manic week off the pitch and, as Benitez has stressed in his odd appearance in the media, I’m hoping this doesn’t distract us on the pitch in what is an important game with Crystal Palace. It sounds like Staveley WON’T be present in the stands to take in this one, but that might be just as well to keep distractions to a minimum.
Now to the game itself. Last weekend’s performance at Southampton was a funny one. We scored two goals on the road (having netted just once in three away outings prior), looked organised and hard to beat as ever, also seeing some promising performances, with Lejeune looking good and Perez and Hayden putting in some improved performances. On the flip side, the two goals we conceded were cheap and it was a game we were frustrated to come away with just a point from – although this just shows how far we’ve already come this season if we’re leaving St Mary’s disappointed to have only gotten a draw!
Still, any point on the road is a decent one when you’re a newly promoted side whose first objective is survival, and that the result will do little to deter our momentum going into this one.
Now to our opponents – Crystal Palace. A week ago today, not only had they failed to register a single point in the league, but they were still awaiting their first goal of the season!
The mood in Roy Hodgson’s camp is likely to have changed dramatically since then however, thanks to a real turn up for the books from them last Saturday. They put in an unexpected but much needed performance against reigning Champions Chelsea in a 2-1 win at Selhurst Park and they’ll be heading into this one with a spring in their step as a result. Well, you’d think so anyway, but football isn’t always as simple as that.
Yes they’ll have added belief and they’ll be looking to replicate last weekend’s performance, but this is a team that have lost their last 4 away games by an aggregate score of 11-0 – which suggests huge improvements are still required from them away from Selhurst Park.
I would also argue that their win against Chelsea could in fact have a positive effect on our approach to the game. Benitez would’ve been wary of complacency even if Chelsea had stuffed them 5-0, but the fact they won has probably made the players (and some of our fans) sit up and take note, eradicating any complacency we may have shown otherwise.
Hopefully both us fans on the terraces and our players on the pitch can take Palace seriously and really get into them and up for this one. Given they are still rock bottom, it may, to some, look like a game we’ll turn up and win because we’re ‘organised’, ‘hard working’ and have started well, but the likes of Wilfred Zaha and Andros Townsend will have something to say about that if we stand off and don’t compete.
We need to get right behind the lads here. With tough games to come after our ‘winnable’ looking next three, this is a big chance to turn our solid start into a sensational one.
There’s some difficult decisions for Rafa to make ahead of this one. He rested both Ciaran Clark and Mikel Merino at Southampton last week, and the two that came in – Florian Lejeune and Isaac Hayden – were arguably our two best performers that day.
Given how good he’s been, I fully expect Merino to return – seeing Hayden potentially miss out – but I see Lejeune keeping his place in the side.
He really impressed me at Southampton and even though he made a costly error to concede the penalty, he generally cut a composed and calm figure who has a lot to offer us at the back.
He’s a ball player, a reader of the game and a big unit who’ll win headers in both boxes and has the potential to become one of our most important players. Big claims for a player who only played his first full competitive game for us last weekend I know, but I see him being a big part of Rafa’s plans.
Does that mean Clark misses out? Possibly not. He has been a big player for us over the past 12 months and hasn’t done much wrong this season, making me wonder if he *might* be used at left-back in an attempt to cope with the dangerous Wilfried Zaha?
Manquillo has done a steady job in the last two games, but my only criticism of his is his tendency to have the odd lapse positionally. Fortunately, Mo Salah didn’t punish this in our last home outing, but Zaha could well.
It may be a mismatch in terms of pace if Clark was given the task of marking Zaha from left-back, but this is a position he’s played in several times before and his superior defensive awareness to that of Manquillo’s, combined with the fact he actually is left-footed, may just be Rafa’s attempt to help us cope with that threat?
Aside from that I don’t see any other potential changes that Rafa would make.
Hopefully Yedlin can repeat the superb performance he put in against Liverpool last time out at St James’, with the American speedster likely to be marking the returning Andros Townsend. That being said, Andros might be just as much marking him if Yedlin gets motoring down that right hand side with Matt Ritchie!
Lascelles hasn’t been heading in winners recently but, perhaps more crucially, he’s continued to look rock solid defensively, so hopefully he can keep that up. That being said, Palace will be unable to be play with a recognised striker with Benteke and Whickham both injured, meaning the skipper won’t have a big man to mark (which he seems to like). Instead he must cope with the slightly more elusive and floating threats of Townsend, Zaha and Loftus-Cheek – the sort of tricky players he sometimes struggled with last season.
It’d be tough on Hayden if he was dropped after his solid display at Southampton, but the exciting combo of Merino and Shelvey was tested in our last home game and seemed to work well, so you’d think the slightly more attack minded pair would start at home to bottom of the league Palace – a team we’ll be going out to beat.
Atsu and Ritchie are nailed on starters out wide, with Murphy or Aarons being nowhere to be seen after promising pre-seasons, whilst Perez will be in the number 10 role once again.
He was better against Southampton, scoring a goal that epitomises his efforts in the team, but I still want to see more from him. On occasion he still wanted a bit too much time on the ball for my liking and tended to lose it cheaply or fall short with the final pass, but the goal will give him a confidence boost and one he deserves given how hard he’s worked for the team this season.
Joselu didn’t get much up top at St Mary’s, but did score in his last game at St James’ and hopefully he can take confidence from that going into this one.
Gayle is missing with a calf injury, meaning Aleksandar Mitrovic looks likely to earn a place back on the substitutes bench for the first time since returning from suspension. There’ll be calls for him to start, and I would like to see him handed his chance sooner rather than later, but I don’t see it happening until he wins back Rafa’s trust – a battle he’s clearly losing thus far.
As we know with the first two in particular, the likes of Andros Towsend, Yohan Cabaye and Ruben Loftus Cheek are capable players, possessing quality we’ll have to be wary of, but their biggest threat is undoubtedly the returning Wilfried Zaha.
Prior to last weekend, Palace have generally looked pretty all over the place in just about every department, so it’s no coincidence that their first win and first goals of the season came on Zaha’s return to the side last weekend.
He has power, pace to burn and the trickery to beat his man at ease – having showed all of those traits in his brilliant goal against Chelsea last time out. He’s an explosive talent capable of causing havoc and whoever starts at left-back is likely to have a real tough task on their hands to contain him.
In defence, Mamadou Sakho could be one to target. A good defender and fierce competitor, but also one who has it in him to look like Bambi on ice on the ball, meaning Perez and Joselu must do their utmost to put pressure on him. Centre-back partner Scott Dann will be one to watch from corners, being a defender who often chips in with a few set piece goals each season.
Left-back Patrick Van Aanholt – who spent a brief spell with us on loan in 2010 – is a dangerous full-back offensively, but lacks defensive instincts. Hopefully Matt Ritchie and DeAndre Yedlin can exploit that.
At right-back, Joel Ward is a big lad but lacks pace. Atsu needs to run at him.
For an inside look into Sunday’s opposition, see this weeks edition of ‘The Oppostion Opinion’ where we’ve gained the thoughts of Palace fan Stuart ahead of the game.
Newcastle (9th – 11 pts) – Last 5 in the league – Won: 2 / Drawn: 2 / Lost: 1
Crystal Palace (20th – 3 pts) – Last 5 in the league / Won: 1 / Drawn: 0 / Lost: 4
Dwight Gayle has been ruled out of this one with a ‘little problem’ in his calf, meaning Aleksandar Mitrovic will more than likely return to the squad via the bench.
Mikel Merino should return after being rested last time out, but it remains to be seen if Florian Lejeune will keep his place ahead of Ciaran Clark at centre-back.
Paul Dummett is out once again, whilst Massaido Haidara has returned to training – not that I’m expecting him to be back in the fold anytime soon.
Palace welcome back Wayne Hennessey (calf) and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (ineligible) after they missed out last weekend.
Roy Hodgson’s only other absentees are striking duo Christian Benteke and Connor Wickham (knee ligament) – meaning Zaha and Townsend may be forced to operate up front again.
Newcastle United XI – (4-2-3-1) – Elliot – Yedlin, Lascelles, Lejeune, Clark – Shelvey, Merino – Ritchie, Perez , Atsu – Joselu
Crystal Palace XI (4-2-3-1) – Speroni – Ward , Dann, Sakho, Van Aanholt – Cabaye, Milivojevic – Townsend, Loftus Cheek, Schlupp – Zaha
Aside from our despicable capitulation at Selhurst Park under Alan Pardew in 2015, we’ve generally done well against Palace over the years.
Here’s hoping that trend continues!
A big game for me, this. We’ve started well, but the focus still must be staying up and beating Palace would put us 11 points clear of them, providing a another big step in the right direction and a reassuring indicator that we are better than our potential relegation rivals.
It will be interesting to see how we cope on the pitch after so many distractions off it this week and whether or not Crystal Palace can replicate the sort of performance they put in against Chelsea last time out.
Taming Wilfried Zaha will be a big test, but I hope to see us show a little more going forward at the other end of the pitch against a side who’ve shipped more goals in their last two away games than we have all season.
A game I’m quietly quite wary of here, but I’m hopeful that we can stay focused and grind out another good result. I’ll go for a closely contested match and narrow win.
Prediction: Newcastle 2-1 Crystal Palace
Howay the lads!