On Tuesday, The Magpies will play host to table-toppers Manchester United in a rematch of the very first game of the season, which Newcastle lost 3-0. Follow the jump for this week's match preview, including CHN's Keys to Victory.
Newcastle United FC
9th place, 39 points, 10-9-13
Injured (Out): Hatem Ben Arfa, Dan Gosling, Alan Smith, Leon Best
Injured (Questionable): Steve Harper, Shola Ameobi
Questionable (Non-injury): Stephen Ireland
Projected XI: Harper | Simpson, Williamson, Coloccini, Jose Enrique | Barton, Tiote, Ireland, Jonás | Lovenkrands, Ameobi
Manchester United FC
1st place, 69 points, 20-9-3
Injured (Out): Owen Hargreaves, Anders Lindegaard
Injured (Questionable): Darren Fletcher
Suspended: Paul Scholes
Projected XI: van der Sar | O'Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra | Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Nani | Chicharito, Rooney
Match Official: Lee Probert
In these match previews, we generally spend a good deal of space managing expectations. One team is up here; the other is down there. One can reasonably expect Team A to beat Team B. You don't need to be told what this week's expectations are. One of these teams is having April conversations about whether or not they can be considered safe, and the other was recently denied a treble, though a Premier League and UEFA Champions League double is a very realistic possibility. Let's just say that any positive result for Newcastle would have to be considered a coup and move on from there.
Now, is a positive result attainable? Well, yes. Allow me a brief second to grasp at straws in the name of finding reasons for optimism. While it is true that the Red Devils are on the verge of running away with the Premier League title (with a win here on Tuesday possibly clinching it, for all intents and purposes), they're not invincible. The team has lost three times after all, one of those a recent fall to Wolverhampton, which should tell you that Man Utd is entirely capable of overlooking a team from time to time. Another reason for optimism: When these two squads met each other way back in August, the end result (3-0) didn't look good. The Toon actually played Man Utd close that day as neither team looked particularly dominant. The difference-maker in my eyes was Paul Scholes, who will not be available on Tuesday due to a red card suspension. I'll grant that neither team is the same as they were in August, but I did acknowledge that I was grasping at straws...
There is legitimate reason to hope that Newcastle can at least play better than they have recently, especially if you take the cynical view that things can't get much worse after last week. The personnel expected to return is a huge part of that. For starters,
Our Lord and Saviour defensive midfielder Cheik Tiote is back from suspension. Just about everybody on the pitch the last two games did their best to overcompensate for his absence, and it will be nice to see Joey Barton, for example, play in his own area instead of trying to cover for Danny Guthrie. Shola Ameobi is also expected to return from his knee injury, which of course means that there will be at least one competent striker on the field. Finally, at one point Stephen Ireland was expected to make his debut for the club, but it now appears that he may not due to some rather unfortunate circumstances. (Lee Ryder, The Chronicle)
On the other hand, Steve Harper may not be available. I want to emphasize the uncertainty here. I have not seen any stories or even tweets from beat or national writers on this front, but this BBC Sport preview of the match says that Harper received an unspecified injection in his knee, making him doubtful. Even if this ends up being true, there's no reason for panic. Tim Krul has filled in admirably this season. In fact, goaltender seems to be the one position where the team can afford an injury due to their depth.
CHN Keys to Victory
1. Cheik Tiote must be Cheik Tiote (without all of the fouls)
Wayne Rooney has returned from his suspension, so any hope that the Toon Army is harboring regarding the opponent's collective level of fatigue is moot in this case. Rooney will sit behind Chicharito, which tends to open up space as opposing defenses struggle defending depth while the wingers cover the width of the field. Newcastle actually matches up quite well with this system because Cheik Tiote can shut down that entire area, but he must not pick up any early fouls or Alan Pardew will certainly instruct him to back off.
2. Keep the ball on the left side of the field
Newcastle doesn't usually need to be told to do this. The pairing of Jonás Gutiérrez and Jose Enrique Sanchez is an obvious strength, and Pardew will be smart to try to exploit John O'Shea, whom they abused last time around (albeit with no goals to show for it). Meanwhile, NUFC will want to avoid leaving Danny Simpson alone on an island with Nani on the other side.
3. Pardew needs to watch his strikers closely
The striker corps for Newcastle is incredibly inconsistent, to put it mildly. Any one of them have been known to disappear for long stretches of time, perhaps even whole matches. Pardew has been free in substituting ineffective players, but often it comes too late in the match to have any effect. I'm advocating for a quick trigger finger. If Peter Lovenkrands or Shola Ameobi (assuming they start) show any signs of ineffectiveness early on, he would do best to replace them. Man Utd has 12 clean sheets this year, and if the Toon don't have their best two up front, they will undoubtedly be part of the 13th.
Prediction: Manchester United 1, Newcastle United 0