43 years and 360 days ago, a match was played at St. James' Park with nearly the same stakes on the line as there will be between Newcastle United and Manchester City on Sunday. On that day, the likes of Bob Moncur and manager Joe Harvey were unable to turn back City and the Citizens' second top-flight championship was assured by their 4-3 triumph at St. James' Park.
While Manchester City will walk into St. James' Park with another opportunity to all but clinch their third top flight championship (while nothing should ever be assumed, you would have to favor Manchester City very heavily over relegation threatened Queens Park Rangers) this Newcastle United squad have the added motivation of European placement to throw into the mix as well. By now, the race for the really guaranteed Champions League spot left available has been thrown wide open through Arsenal's 3-3 draw with Norwich City, leaving them only 2 points above both Tottenham and the Magpies. With the (notable) exception of Spurs, this squad improbably has direct control over their chances for Champions League qualification. It will take 6 points from their last two matches* (and Spurs to drop points somewhere in their last two matches against suddenly looking over their shoulder Aston Villa and Fulham). . . and it starts tomorrow.
There have been days in which there was absolutely no love lost between Newcastle and Manchester United. Although that hatred has softened a bit, perhaps, in sections of the support base, I do not think that there would be anyone with mixed feelings about throwing Sir Alex a lifeline for this year's Premier League title if it meant keeping Champions League football squarely in the hands of their beloved Toon. Let's take the jump and look at the task at hand.
*With Arsenal's slip up against Norwich, if Newcastle do take all 6 points remaining, they would finish no lower than 4th. If Chelsea then lose the CL final, we would be in.
- St. James' Park (and nearly 50,000 screaming Geordies): Newcastle United have been very, very good at home this year. They have lost only twice all year long at St. James' (West Brom and Chelsea were the only clubs to come away with 3 points) and have not lost at home since December. With the news that Arsenal have dropped points v. Norwich, I think it's fair to expect that St. James' is going to be as close to it's level best as it's been since the Sir Bobby Robson years. The atmosphere will be buzzing and we can be assured of one thing- the stage will not be too big for the nearly 50,000 Geordies that will be packed in at St. James' Park tomorrow.
- Manchester City's Away Form: City are third in the form table with regard to away fixtures, so hoping that they will struggle because they are away from the Etihad is perhaps a little bit foolish. Not only that, they have not lost in their last four visits to St. James' Park and have won 3 out of those 4 matches. Although this squad rarely seems to need a reminder (and certainly won't with the league leaders coming to town), this means that this match cannot be won on atmosphere alone.
Cheik Tiote and the Holding Company: In previewing the reverse fixture this season (THUNDERDOME™!), I said this:
- Whomever ends up patrolling the central mid has to break up the passing lanes and not let City knock the ball around at the midfield stripe. Many of their goals this year have come after bouncing the ball around midfield a little before it springs out to one wing or the other. Whether it's Cheik, Danny, Yohan, Dan or Mehdi, it will be essential to not allow this build-up phase to happen smoothly.
If you recall the match, it was very painful to watch as we conceded large amounts of possession early on as City moved the ball easily and the locus of their attack shifted closer and closer to the Newcastle penalty area. Inevitably, City were able to break through, scoring two quick goals at the end of the first half, and that was essentially that. The newly minted idea of Cheik Tiote and Jonas as a holding midfield pair is going to be crucial. I tell you again- if we let them move the ball so easily through the midfield we don't stand a chance.
- Don't Concede Penalties! That having been said, it is worth noting that Manchester City only scored once from the run of play in the match at the Etihad. Their opener and their third goal were both penalties, so even though it sounds common sense, here is the thing- don't foul them in the box. If we can not concede penalties (which you are always going to favor the likes of David Silva and Kun Aguero even if Tim Krul is awesome) and improve our ability (or lack thereof) to break up City's build-up play... Maybe there's a chance there.
Don't Rely On The Counter Too Much: With the arrival of Papiss Cisse and the formation switch to accommodate Hatem Ben Arfa, you may have noticed the arrival of a staggeringly beautiful ability to attack on the counter with venom. It is something that early season Newcastle was desperately missing despite it's awesomeness. Here is the problem that this presents, however: We have seen Alan Pardew take that new found ability and adopt a "bring it at us all you would like, but we're going to sting you on the other end and ha ha we win again" tactic that has worked sometimes and not other times. I'm here to tell you right now: if this is the meat of our tactic against City, we're sunk.
Newcastle United FC
Currently: 5th place, 19-8-9, 65 pts
Possible: Guthrie (calf), Simpson (ankle), Tiote (7 stitches to his head from a filthy elbow by Jon Obi Mikel - let's be serious. Tiote's in, but just in case something goes wrong, this is a CYA)
Projected XI: Krul | Simpson, Williamson, Coloccini, Santon | Tiote, Jonas | Cabaye | Ben Arfa, Cisse, Ba
Projected Subs: Elliot, Raylor, Perch, Ferguson, Obertan, Marveaux, Ameobi
Currently: 1st place, 26-5-5, 83 pts
Out: Owen Hargreaves (calf) (seriously... does this even really count anymore?)
Possible: Joe Hart (foot)
Projected XI: Hart | Zabaleta, Lescott, Kompany, Clichy | Yaya Toure, Barry | Silva, Tevez, Nasri | Aguero
Projected subs: Pantilimon, Kolarov, Richards, de Jong, Milner, Balotelli, Dzeko
Joe Hart has a little foot thing that he'll have a test on before the match, but I doubt that anyone is expecting him to not play. Further I have to wonder if Mancini will favor de Jong in the middle to start over Gareth Barry. There is absolutely nothing form-wise to suggest this move, but Mancini has shown great interest in engaging in the mind games of football (specifically as it comes to Sir Alex Ferguson)... I don't think that there's any way that Pardew leaves HBA out of the starting lineup and I could easily see de Jong out there with instructions to clatter into HBA early and often. (Kind of like the tactic employed by the scum in the last match in which Clattermole should have been sent off at the very beginning of the match). Let's hope that this is something that Mancini has ruled out... but hey- he is trying to win a Championship. Every little string pulled could matter.
Interestingly, and for you conspiracy theorists out there, renowned Manchester United referee Howard Webb will be in the center for the match that may most directly influence Manchester United's title fate. I'm not sayin... I'm just sayin.
What Is Certainly Not Going To Happen
I think that conventional wisdom is going to start the truck to take the trophy across town in Manchester. I'm having a hard time figuring this one, though. City really should win this one. There are no cup finals or Champions League finals to consider for City... just the League. We will get a full-strength and focused Manchester City side. My head tells me that we lose this one. My heart tells me that this team has something... and it might be enough something to pull this one out. I can't be letting my heart run things around this joint, however.
Newcastle United 1 (Cisse, on a rather ordinary tap in from close range) - 2 (Aguero, Tevez) Manchester City