Match Preview: Newcastle United FC vs. Blackburn Rovers FC

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 17: Leon Best of Newcastle United celebrates scoring a goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Newcastle United at Villa Park on September 17, 2011 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Newcastle will try to extend their unbeaten streak to start the season as they host the Blackburn Rovers on Saturday.  Last time these two teams played, Newcastle was coming off their epic comeback against Arsenal, and though they dominated possession, they could only manage to achieve a scoreless draw.  The affair was a frustrating one as Peter Lovenkrands hit the woodwork and several other players missed chances.  This week, Blackburn are coming off their own comeback against the Gunners, while Newcastle are trying to build on an improbable run of good form.  This is a match preview.

Newcastle United FC

Currently: 4th place, 2-3-0, 9 pts

Out: Davide Santon (knee), Haris Vuckic (hand), Mike Williamson (ankle/arm), Alan Smith (hamstring)

Questionable: Shola Ameobi (shoulder)

Projected XI: Krul | Simpson, STaylor, Coloccini, RTaylor | Obertan, Tiote, Cabaye, Jonas | Ben Arfa | Best

Projected Subs: Elliot, Ferguson, Marveaux, Abeid, Sammy, Lovenkrands, Ba

Blackburn Rovers

Currently: 16th place, 1-1-3, 4 pts

Out: David Dunn (calf), Ryan Nelsen (knee)

Questionable: None

Projected XI: Robinson | Salgado, Samba, Dann, Givet | Nzonzi, Lowe | Rochina, Formica, Hoilett | Yakubu

Projected Subs: Bunn, Olsson, Pedersen, Vukcevic, Petrovic, Goodwillie, Roberts

Match Official: Martin Atkinson

The Opponent

Blackburn earned their first win of the season last week with a shocker over Arsenal, then followed that up with a fairly comfortable victory over Leyton Orient in the League Cup.  If you're an optimist, you see a team (and manager) that isn't under a ton of pressure to gain three points.  Of course, it's just as easy to view the Rovers as a team that are finding their groove and rounding into form, especially as they return several players (David Goodwillie, Morten Gamst Pedersen, and Michael Salgado) from injury.  Blackburn play a 4-2-3-1 and are capable of patiently absorbing pressure before unleashing a counter-attack.  They have defeated Newcastle 6 out of the last 7 times they played them (including the last five times they visited St James' Park).

Selection

The fine play of Hatem Ben Arfa and Sylvain Marveaux (among others) in the mid-week League Cup clash with Nottingham Forest has given Alan Pardew plenty to think about when it comes to selection.  With Davide Santon still out with his not-as-bad-as-first-thought knee injury, the back five (including Tim Krul) will remain unchanged.  What happens with the rest of the formation is just about anybody's guess.  Louise Taylor of The Guardian is reporting that the 4-2-3-1 is Pardew's preferred set-up, and while I would support that 100%, we simply haven't seen that put it into practice in a game situation.  If Hatem Ben Arfa is to play, and there's no guarantee that he will, apparently, a 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1 seems more likely.  Of course, the squad that drew with Aston Villa away may very well remain unchanged.  I tend to believe that Pardew wastes no (more) time getting Ben Arfa back into the saddle, leaving only one man up top.  Leon Best, with his impressive scoring record, will get the nod, despite Peter Lovenkrands' protests to the contrary.  Meanwhile, Jonas Gutierrez should retain his spot over Sylvain Marveaux until further notice, while the rest of the midfield has performed admirably enough that their spots should not be in danger.

Developments

As mentioned above, the big story will be Hatem Ben Arfa's return (or lack thereof).  If he does play, all eyes will be on how Alan Pardew uses him.  Will he play the #10 role?  After all, it's already been emblazoned on his shirt.  I'm also excited to see what, if any, kind of chemistry he has with his fellow Frenchmen.  In any case, we shouldn't be disappointed if/when Ben Arfa only plays a partial game.  Finally, there's some sort of irony involved (I'm almost certain irony isn't the right term here, but everybody else misuses it, so...) as Martin Atkinson will take his place in the center of the pitch.  As you may recall, Atkinson was the official in charge when Nigel De Jong went all Nigel De Jong last October, and since Atkinson saw the incident and chose to do nothing, De Jong didn't even receive a slap on the wrist from the FA.

Expectations

Newcastle are a heavy betting favorite to gain three points this week, which seems right.  Since the mood around Tyneside has shifted from unchecked, abject fury toward something called Hope, a victory is all that will be accepted.  Indeed, a loss or even a draw will expose all of this optimism for a flimsy house of cards, while a win would continue to solidify the notion that, at the very least, the Magpies stand above the also-rans of the Premier League.  I get uncomfortable when Newcastle supporters talk about contending for Europe as if it's a given that we'll still be in this same spot 8 months from now, not to mention what the team's standing could be when the January transfer window comes around.  There are still far too many holes to fill (and matches to play, by the way) to speak that way with any kind of confidence whatsoever.  Whatever happened to enjoying a good start to the season?  Having said that, though, I'm going to be very upset if the Toon aren't on top of the scoreline tomorrow.

Keys to Victory

  1. Stay away from the long ball. Shola Ameobi has been the most consistent winner of aerial balls for Newcastle.  Think about that for a second.  Now, realize that Shola is out for this match and that Chris Samba will eat any forward that dares to enter his turf, and the decision to play a more patient attacking style is an easy one.  Speaking of which...
  2. Newcastle must be more patient than Blackburn.  Blackburn's efficient 4-2-3-1 allows them to patiently absorb pressure and then unleash a counter-attack.  In fact, the Rovers have only won the possession battle once so far this season, and last week they achieved their win over the Gunners with a paltry possession percentage of just 31.2.  That's a testament to their quick-strike ability, and Newcastle must be aware of that.  The chances will come; the midfielders just need to make sure they work to make them quality chances.
  3. Gabriel Obertan must play a complete game.  Last week, Obertoon completely undressed the Villa defense, taking them on nine times and finding success on five occasions.  Once he was clear, though, he whiffed on every single one of his crosses.  If he and Cabaye can continue to provide creativity in the attacking third (Just imagine this team when Hatem Ben Arfa rounds into form. I'm physically drooling right now.) and actually finish the job, this team will score goals.  Buckets of them.

Fearless Predictions

  • Scott Dann will tackle Hatem Ben Arfa early on, and the Toon Army will let him know about it for the rest of the match.  The resulting timidity from the Rovers whenever Ben Arfa is on the ball will be the key to unlocking the defense and HBA will create at least 4 chances.
  • David Hoilett will score on a breakaway.  After the game, Tim Krul will call the goal "lucky."
  • Cheik Tiote will play the game of his life.
  • NUFC 3, BRFC 1
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