I've registered already how fascinating the relegation scrap is going to be this year. I feel it may rival last year's excitement, and last year was as exciting on the last day as any in recent memory (need a reminder and have 15 minutes? Check this out.) Following the disappointing result @Wigan on Saturday, Newcastle sit level on points with Spurs, four points behind Arsenal and one point ahead of Chelsea. Oh, and while this battle for position in Europe is going on, Newcastle have a chance to spoil the party for Manchester City who are looking to win their first title in 44 years. The excitement is not over in positions 1 and 2 even though they are well clear of the battle for 3-6. Don't forget that Chelsea still have the little matters of the FA Cup and the Champions League final to tend to as well. One match at a time, though, yes?
Trying to guess strategy for a Premier League club facing what Chelsea has in front of them is about as easy as picking the lottery... but if it were me, I would concede the league and put all my eggs in the Champions League final... but it may not be that easy... particularly as they are sitting 1 point away from the Champions League cut off with the goal differential tie breaker over both Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur. Roberto Di Matteo is pushing hard for the permanent appointment to the hot seat at Stamford Bridge, so I'm just going to go ahead and assume maximum effort on all fronts (perhaps the FA Cup final is where they yield a little bit as it only assures Europa League football and they are already locked in for at least that as it stands?).
A little peek into the form table shows a little something that your average Toon fan at large is not going to enjoy seeing at all. Chelsea sit 4th in the form table (although Newcastle do sit on the top of the same) and they are playing some of their best football of the year at this point. After Chelsea for Newcastle? Manchester City (3rd in the form table) and Everton (2nd in the form table). I can think of more ideal schedules for the run in, especially with that carrot of the Champions League dangling so tantalizingly close. Again, though... one match at a time. I know I get irritated at they hyperbole that managers and press use at the end of the season sometimes... but I think that it's not a stretch to say that Newcastle truly are facing 3 cup finals to end this season (at least so far as any Champions League hopes are concerned). 5 points after the jump!
1. Fernando Torres v. Newcastle defense: There are a lot of what-ifs and wherefores that make things such as squad makeup and tactics hard to predict in this match, but this fact remains: Fernando Torres has scored 4 goals in their last two matches. If he has truly made a return to his lethal self, the defensive brain fart that was Newcastle's match at Wigan is extremely troubling.
2. Double Demba v. Chelsea non-first choice defense pairing: David Luiz, he of the "deny a clear goal scoring opportunity as the last man and not get ejected" fame (or the winner of the "I want to be Coloccini Award"), is out for this match, as is Chelsea new boy Gary Cahill, who had been rounding into better form after a somewhat shaky start with the club. John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic will be available, however. In the first meeting between the teams, Newcastle managed 16 shots, but only 3 were on target and 9 of them were from outside the box. Chelsea also blocked 6 shots on that day. Although the defensive group for Chelsea may not be first choice, you cannot say that there's going to be an appreciable drop in quality, so Double Demba are going to have to find a way to use their respective tools to put some pressure on Petr Cech this time around.
3. Newcastle defensive communication: I think that everyone is well aware that we conceded 4 times v. Wigan this past weekend. I think that we all are well aware that we didn't need to concede 4 times. The communication between the defense and Tim Krul was atrocious, and Tim was nowhere near his shot stopping best. It was as if someone had put the Dutchman in slow mode. Two of the goals I feel Tim would have stopped on a day that wasn't this past Saturday. For whatever reason, he didn't. Repeatedly at the DW stadium it seemed like Krul, Williamson and Coloccini were not only not on the same page, it seemed like they weren't reading from the same book. If this continues, hopes in this match and for the Champions League are straight out the window.
4. The Numbers Are Bad: Newcastle United have not left Stamford Bridge with the full three points in their last 18 league matches in west London. Additionally, the Toon have not defeated Chelsea in the league since 2006 when one Mr. Titus Bramble earned the points at St. James' Park with his goal.
5. The Intangibles: While this entire season has been one giant overachievement and defiance of the doubters, it seems that when the doubters are at their mightiest is when the club have managed to turn in their greatest performances. Although Newcastle have won 6 of their last 7, a combination of the nature of the loss, the dealer of the loss and the #StretchOfDoomII has everyone writing off the lads' chances of anything higher than the Europa League. Perhaps it is best that way.
Newcastle United FC
Currently: 5th place, 18-8-9, 62 points
Out: Steven Taylor (achilles), Peter Lovenkrands (thigh), Sammy Ameobi (knee), Haris Vuckic (knee)
Probable: Danny Simpson (ankle)
Projected XI (4-4-2 with capability to slide to 4-3-3): Krul | Simpson, Williamson, Coloccini, Santon| Ben Arfa, Tiote, Cabaye, Jonas | Cisse, Ba
Projected Subs: Elliot, Perch, Raylor, Obertan, Marveaux, Shola, Best
Currently: 6th place, 17-10-8, 61 points
Out: Gary Cahill (hamstring), David Luiz (hamstring)
Projected XI (4-4-2): Cech | Boswinga, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole | Romeu, Malouda, Essien, Kalou | Sturridge, Torres
Projected subs: Turnbull, Hutchinson, Terry, Meireles, Ramiers, Mata, Drogba
What Will Certainly Not Happen
I would love to be more optimistic about our chances than I am. Chelsea have always looked the superior side in recent times when sharing the pitch with us... but perhaps these Wonder Mags have yet another surprise up their sleeves. I think we'll all tune in with absolutely 0 expectation, and as such nothing will be surprising.
Chelsea 4 (Torres, Torres, Ivanovic, Drogba) - 1 (Ba) Newcastle United