This really is the definition of a six pointer. Win and we’ll go 9 points clear of bottom of the league Swansea, but go the other way and they’ll be just 3 points behind us all of a sudden.
These are the sort of games we’ll have to start winning at St James’ Park if we’re planning to avoid a stressful end to the season whereby relegation could look a real possibility.
Fortunately, we’ll be coming into this one with some much needed momentum. Our last league outing at home was a frustrating goalless draw with Brighton, but league wins at West Ham and Stoke either side of that and a much needed home win over Luton in the FA Cup last week sees us come into this one in good stead.
The frustrating thing is, Ashley’s incompetence off the field has threatened to see us lose some of the momentum we’ve recently gained ON the pitch because of his actions (or lack of them) OFF the pitch. The takeover appears to be stagnating and Rafa STILL doesn’t know his budget. A win today will put what matters into perspective – results on the pitch and 3 points closer to that magical 40 point mark – however another bad result at home in the league will send 52,000 away from St James’ feeling pretty concerned on several fronts.
A final point. Our home form and Swansea’s away form suggests something just might have to give today. We’ve won just one of our last SEVEN in the league at St James’ Park and Swansea have won just one of their last seven away from home. It’s worth noting that their one win did actually come in their last away game in the league – a late comeback in Carvalhal’s first game in charge – so it’ll be interesting to see if they slip into old habits today or actually show signs of newfound belief under the former Sheffield Wednesday boss (who did the double over Rafa last season for what it’s worth).
It’s a huge day at the bottom. West Brom (19th – 16pts) host Brighton (12th – 23pts) in a similar six pointer, as well as Watford vs Southampton in a battle of the free-fallers, Palace vs Burnley and Huddersfield vs West Ham – so there’ll be plenty of our ‘relegation rivals’ picking up points in some way or another.
Anyhow, all we can do is focus on ourselves and it’s in our hands to get the job done against the league’s lowest scorers in Swansea.
In net, Rafa has some big decisions to make. It seems obvious that he’d go with Darlow again after his match-winning performance in the away win at Stoke last time out, but this is the same goalkeeper who did cost us in recent home defeats to Leicester and Everton. Elliot is back in contention and is, for me, a safer pair of hands and a stronger character to deal with the St James’ Park crowd, but I couldn’t blame Benitez if he gave Darlow the nod again.
In defence, Lascelles is fortunately fit after being subbed off early against Luton as a precaution. He’ll partner Clark with Lejeune still out. In the full-back areas it I imagine we’ll see Dummett down the left (Rafa’s trusted lieutenant when fit and our only ‘natural’ left-back – even though he’s technically a centre-half!) and Yedlin down the right. The latter has picked up recently so hopefully we’ll see another switched on performance from the American. He just needs to watch for those diagonal balls over his head which he constantly seems to misread.
For me there’s only three players who should be in contention to start in the middle of the park. Merino, Shelvey and Diame. The latter may seem like a surprising suggestion, especially at home, but Mo’s put in several long overdue shifts across the festive period, putting himself about and making use of his presence in midfield. That being said, I’d like to see Shelvey and Merino start. The Spaniard has the legs and the tenacity to keep us competitive in the middle, whilst Jonjo is the sort who could be up for this one to get one over his former employers. Also, if you can’t get the best out of Jonjo Shelvey (or even trust him to start) against the side bottom of the league then it’s a bit of a concern. One player I don’t want to see starting in the middle is Isaac Hayden. I honestly can’t remember the last time he played well at St James’.
Out wide it’s a funny one. Murphy and Atsu have carried a far bigger threat in recent weeks than the industrious but ineffective Matt Ritchie. He’s huffing and puffing, but very little is coming off for the man that made us tick last season. Should he be dropped? It’s debatable, with character and commitment (which he has) likely to be so important in these sort of six pointers, however he hasn’t been showing that flair and spark that Murphy and Atsu have shown they’re capable of.
One man who looks set to start is Perez. He was a nuisance and scored the winner in a false 9 role at Stoke and followed that with two against Luton last weekend. His brace in the FA Cup wasn’t pretty, and his all round play was actually pretty poor all game, but it’s 3 goals in a week for him the Spaniard – a stat in itself that should give him confidence for this one.
With Mitrovic out and seemingly irrelevant when it comes to Rafa’s plans, It’ll then be Joselu or Gayle who plays alongside/ahead of him. Personally, I’d quite like to see Gayle and Perez tried together to help us become a little more dynamic and elusive in attack, but I imagine he’ll favour Joselu. He does put in 110%, challenge for every ball and do a lot of the dirty work so many overlook. That being said, goals in games and I’d back Gayle over him to find the net if given a game changing chance.
Ones to watch. A strange one to mention first, but Swansea fans tell me that goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianksi has been their stand out player this season. That perhaps sums up what sort of season they’re having, but let’s hope he doesn’t pull off a blinder to keep us out.
Tammy Abraham is an obvious one to mention (although he is a doubt). He’s got good movement, is a smart finisher and above all else, he was set to sign for us over the summer at one stage, so it’d be typical to see him bag to show Benitez just what he missed out on.
Centre-back Alfie Mawson will be one to watch from set pieces, and Wilfried Bony up top, with the Ivorian striker seemingly past his best, but still a powerful striker and clinical finisher on his day.
Remember how bad on-loan ‘wonderkid’ Renato Sanches was on his debut against us at the Liberty earlier on in the season? Will be interesting to see how he gets on if fit enough to start.
Newcastle – 13th (22 pts) – Last 5 in the league – Won: 2 / Drawn: 1 / Lost: 2
Swansea – 20th (16 pts) – Last 5 in the league – Won: 1 / Drawn: 1 / Lost: 3
Lascelles has been passed fit after limping off early against Luton last weekend, but Lejeune, Mitrovic and Gamez have all been ruled out by Rafa once again.
Elliot and Mbemba are back in contention after recovering from knocks.
For the visitors, Tammy Abraham (hip) and Renato Sanches (hamstring) are doubts.
Right-back Kyle Naughton is suspended and back up option Angel Rangel is out with a calf issue.
Predicted NUFC XI – (4-2-3-1) – Darlow – Yedlin, Lascelles, Clark, Dummett – Merino, Shelvey – Ritchie, Perez, Atsu– Joselu
Predicted Swansea XI – (4-1-3-2) – Fabianski – Naughton, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson – Mesa – Clucas, Sanches, Carroll – Ayew, Bony.
It’s been a mixed bag across our last five meetings, but we’ve had the upper hand in recent encounters, with September’s 1-0 win at the Liberty giving us a chance to do the double over them today.
This is a massive game for both sides. A must win for them and a game that could have serious impact on our season moving forward. Win and we could be starting to steer clear of a few relegation candidates, but failure to do so and we’re dragged back into the thick of it.
With that in mind, I think both sides will be playing to win. By that I mean I don’t see either side being happy to sit back, keep it level and hope to nick it at the end. I think we might just see a more open game and a team that suggests Rafa is going for the win. He’ll know the importance of keeping fans happy and positive during this time of uncertainty and a home win in the league would be a huge step towards doing that.
I think they’ll be up for it, but they’re bottom of the league for a reason and I’m hoping (and believing) that we’ll take confidence from recent wins and keep the ball rolling with a slender victory here.
Prediction: Newcastle 2-1 Swansea
Howay the lads!