Follow the jump for this week's match preview.
On the surface, this match appears to be quite a challenge for Newcastle. The Toon have only gained the full three points once in their last 9 matches, and the Potters haven't lost at Britannia Stadium in 2011, taking 10 out of the last 12 possible points. Add in all of the injuries (Jonás Gutiérrez, Jose Enrique Sanchez, and Joey Barton are all questionable) and you've got a recipe for disaster.
Further cause for concern: the referee for this match is card-happy Lee Mason. Stoke loves to play a physical (and exceptionally boring to watch) brand of football, despite Tony Pulis' public protests to the contrary (The Spoiler), and the Magpies' two most physical (healthy) players are both 1 yellow card away from a two-match ban. Alan Pardew has already come out and said that he has instructed Cheik Tiote and Kevin Nolan not to play too conservatively (Luke Edwards, The Journal), but you can expect Pulis' side to force the issue, especially as he's labeled the game a "must-win." (Yahoo!)
Alan Pardew has expressed his desire to play a strong tactical game, even in the face of Stoke's long ball madness (Lee Ryder, The Chronicle), but I believe that to completely ignore that facet of the game would be a mistake, given this team's vulnerability to that very play (See: Damien Duff's goal at Craven Cottage). In particular, Pardew needs Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini to once again remember how to mark on set pieces and throw-ins. With Jose Enrique likely out, there are questions at left back, chief among them being, does Pards dare throw James Perch to the wolves after he scored an own goal the last time these two teams met? Jonás Gutiérrez has offered his services at the position (Lee Ryder, The Chronicle), and while I am actually optimistic that Jonás could hold his own back there, I don't see it happening as Pardew will not likely want to open one hole by plugging another, especially with Joey Barton likely out. I fully expect to see Danny Simpson on one side and Steven Taylor on the other, and it won't be a liability because Stoke won't be looking to punish the Toon with speed down the edges anyway.
In the midfield, Joey Barton's replacement will need to have the ability to show aggression and closing speed to keep the long passing to a minimum. Baby-face Shane Ferguson has done a fine job when called upon, but I like Danny Guthrie better for this particular job. Up front, I'd like to see Shola Ameobi, who showed creativity and fearlessness in his new Hannibal mask against Everton, paired with the in-form Leon Best.
Projected Lineup: Harper | STaylor, Williamson, Coloccini, Simpson | Guthrie, Nolan, Tiote, Jonás | Best, Ameobi
Three Keys to Victory
1) Frustrate Ricardo Fuller and Jonathan Walters
With John Carew out, Fuller and Walters will be looking for a confidence boost where they can get it. Williamson and Coloccini can make their jobs easier by playing a physical game with them early and getting into their heads.
2) Timely Substitutions
By this I mean that the Magpies must be on top of their fitness. The Potters haven't scored a goal in the first 15 minutes all season, and 78% of all their goals have come in the second half. The reason for this is simple: they wear their opposition out and strike when the iron is hot. Depth is obviously a problem going into this game for Newcastle, but if Alan Pardew can hatch a solid substitution plan and stick to it (a tall order, I do realize), he can minimize whatever damage might result from tired legs.
3) Stay on Lee Mason's Good Side
Again, we don't want Kevin Nolan or Cheik Tiote getting into any unnecessary trouble, but minimizing fouls is also important because the Potters are proficient at set pieces. Free kicks in the final third will be deadly in this game.
Prediction: SCFC 2, NUFC 0