Under normal circumstances, this match preview would address a history of relative success against Newcastle with measured optimism. I’d point out our last result at St. James Park (2-2 draw that we should have won), and the fact that Newcastle tend to be in that mid-table pack that has been very much accessible to us in our Premier League years; a much bigger club, but one that tends to let its guard down when minnows like us turn up.
But we won’t discuss such things because these are not normal circumstances. While we’ve slumped to six consecutive defeats and half our supporters are calling for our manager’s head, Newcastle have enjoyed their best start to a season in years. They may not have the glamour of the Shearer, Ginola, Asprilla era, but they look something they haven’t in years — solid. They’ve uncharacteristically invested well, and while Alan Pardew is no rocket scientist he has created an organized, talented and competitive side. Getting rid of Andy Carroll and Joey Barton can’t have hurt the atmosphere in the locker room either — or at the very least halved the team’s collective criminal history. Midfield pair Tiote and Cabaye are one of the most underrated partnerships in the league, while Hatem Ben Arfa, Jonas Gutierrez and Gabriel Obertan offer pace and invention from the wings. Demba Ba has started to click up front after a slow start, and Leon Best, despite always looking thoroughly workmanlike, scores more frequently than our strikers do. The defense has been playing together for several years and you can tell. If anything, the only possible weak link — the player I would try to expose if I were Roberto — is rejuvenated ex-Wiganer Ryan Taylor, who is doing a job at left back. Steve Bruce used him as a left midfielder and it looks like Pardew has caught on as well. He may lack pace, but if you can keep him on the pitch long enough to take a few set pieces, he can win the match for you.
So while it is very possible Ryan will wreak havoc with his corners and free-kicks, there is at least hope that Victor Moses, and possibly even Hugo Rodallega if he’s down that wing, can get past him without too much fancy footwork and cause some problems.
I don’t anticipate any surprises in the lineup, but will breathe a huge sigh of relief if our strongest back four is finally restored, albeit nine games into the season. In midfield, I imagine Roberto will stick with McCarthy for his tackling ability, despite his poor attacking contributions of late, while Rodallega should be on the pitch from the start on the left wing. The bench too, should look strong. Crusat, Maloney and Sammon offer attacking options, while Dave Jones seems to have leapfrogged James McArthur in the pecking order. Hendry Thomas has been frozen out — a shame, because on his day he is the best tackler at the club. One of last weekend’s villains, Steve Gohouri is the most versatile defender available and worth a bench spot, although Van Aanholt really did little wrong in his appearances and could provide defensive cover. And the old Ronnie-Stam-for-Emmerson-Boyce-after-a-crap-first-half is a Martinez favorite, so he’ll probably be there. My best guess for the starting XI: Al-Habsi; Boyce, Caldwell, Alcaraz, Figueroa; Watson, Diame, McCarthy; Rodallega, Moses, Di Santo.
Results have been bad, but performances have largely been decent. The squad is finally fit. There is of course, plenty to lose, but three points in this forgiving league table would see us to mid-table. Unfortunately, no one else has beaten Newcastle this season and it’s a big ask away from home. But nothing much — except the eradication of mindless defensive mistakes — is expected. The stage is set for our boys to bounce back as they’ve done for us so many times in the past.
Heart says: Massive defensive performance, with a Victor Moses goal, 1-0 Latics.
Mind says: Early lead, eventually crumbling to sustained pressure. 2-1, Magpies.