This afternoon, Chelsea will look to heap more pressure on Alan Pardew and his misfiring Newcastle while also avenging their defeat at St. James Park early this season. This match takes on great importance for both teams, as Chelsea will know if they have a chance to at least share top of the table honors should Arsenal falter at Anfield in the lunchtime kickoff and Newcastle will look to rebound from the disastrous derby defeat to Sunderland last Saturday.
This match, however, takes place at Stamford Bridge, where Jose Mourinho has restored the fortress-like aura, and Pardew comes in with a team that seems to be struggling to find that little bit of inspiration needed to keep their 10-point distance between them and the relegation fight. Given the nature of the league this year, any prolonged loss of form for the Magpies, and that gap could easily be erased. It is imperative that they stop the rot soon, and what better jump-start could there be than to end Mourinho’s league unbeaten streak at home.
Meanwhile, Chelsea will enter flying high with confidence after Monday night’s victory over Manchester City. Chelsea entered that contest with the best defence in the league and left the Etihad having kept another clean sheet. More importantly, for all of City’s stylish play, they were second-best on the night as the Blues continually carved them open swiftly on the counter. This match, however, will be a much different test, especially given the lack of attacking thrust that Newcastle are displaying at the moment.
Four Tyne-Wear Derbies in two years; no wins for Newcastle.
This might be the greatest indictment of where Newcastle are at the moment. After a great start to December, rattling off wins and draws without defeat, once the holiday period began, they’ve failed to replicate that form, having won just once since their 5-1 Boxing Day victory over Stoke. Even more worrying for their supporters, this season, Sunderland have convincingly beaten them twice in derbies, and in the most recent edition, seemed to suck the fight right out of the Magpies in the process.
This is the major question coming into this game; can Newcastle regain their mojo and get back on the winning track, or does that derby defeat start to rattle the confidence of the team and the supporters?
Personally, I think the biggest worry for Newcastle is that they could be on the end of another beating. I’m sure Pardew isn’t looking forward to facing a team that’s starting to resemble the Mourinho teams of old. They may not get beaten by 3, 4, or 5 goals, but it might be just as damaging if they’re not even in the game for any of the 90 minutes.
For Chelsea, they must make sure that happens. Last week, I saw a team whose heads all went down after Adam Johnson scored the second goal for Sunderland in the first half. From that point on, it looked like the life was just sucked out of them and they didn’t show enough fight to get it back. If Chelsea took notes, early goals could rip their heart out and make it easier on all of our nerves.
Oh, Loic Remy, why did you have to try a head-butt?
After the Norwich match, most Newcastle supporters must have screamed and facepalmed at the same time when Remy was sent off. So far this season, he’s been the sole source of their goals, especially with Papiss Cisse and Yoan Gouffran out and the departure of Yohan Cabaye to PSG. In the absence of Remy, the Amoebi’s have been playing up front with youngster Luuk de Jong coming in on loan from Borussia Monchengladbach.
While great hold-up players, neither Sammy nor Shola are particularly prolific goal scorers. In fact, if you factor in all the players that Newcastle will be missing, the rest of the team has scored just 7 goals amongst all of them. That tells the whole tale of how dependent they are on just a handful of players to score their goals, and all of them will be missing from the lineup on Saturday.
The one player who remains that is capable of magic is Hatem Ben Arfa.
The problem is that Ben Arfa has also been largely anonymous this season in both goals scored and assists. With the departure of Cabaye, the onus is now on him to create chances because he’s far and away the most creative player in that squad. If you look at the midfield, none of Moussa Sissoko, Cheick Tiote, or Vurnon Anita possess the vision of Cabaye or Ben Arfa, though Sissoko is probably the most effective of the bunch.
That leaves Ben Arfa to do a lot of the work in creating goals, and now scoring them, and I’m not sure he’s up to it. When he came into the Premier League, he showed flashes of the ability that had him labelled as the next great French attacking midfielder, but his inconsistency of performances has always been more prevalent than his great talent, and that’s becoming magnified this season, especially now.
The most effective means of beating Newcastle in their current state is to press the midfield and the chances will come.
If Sunderland showed the league anything last week, it’s that the Newcastle midfield is in disarray with a lot of redundant players who can win a ball but can’t pass it when under duress. Sunderland stayed nice and compact and harried Tiote and Anita, who are very similar players, and neither could play a pass under pressure. That led to a number of good counterattacking chances for Sunderland, either from poor forward passes from the midfield or midfielders just dallying on the ball too long.
Tiote is most likely absent from this match, so it’s likely that Sylvain Marveaux, who came in for Tiote on Saturday, may get a start. If he does, Sissoko will most likely come to the middle alongside Anita, and you still have the same problems. The only difference is that you’ll most likely have Marveaux and Ben Arfa playing on the wings, meaning that they’ll also be responsible for watching whatever combination of wide players play, since everyone, including Mohamed Salah, is fit.
Once the match starts, Pardew has really no way to change the style of the match with the options available to him.
When you look at whatever bench Newcastle put out, there is no one there that will scream “match winner.” In fact, with all the injuries, there’s a chance that Gabriel Obertan could make an appearance, which would be his fourth in the league. That says all you need to know about their squad depth, which is possibly why Joe Kinnear finds himself out of a job.
The fact is that after the spending spree on players last January, Newcastle have done no business to bring in players in the last two transfer windows, and they’ve lost perhaps their best player; a man they had no ready replacement for. Given that they managed to dodge relegation last year after the Europa League exposed their thin squad, you would think that some holes would have been plugged. Instead, they sit 8th in the table, which isn’t bad, but in a situation where a lot of their major contributors are injured or suspended and the team lacks overall punch without them.
It will be interesting to see how they fair later today, especially given that should they lose, tough questions will be asked about the state of this team going forward.