Three points are precious for both teams as relegation-haunted Newcastle entertain Champions League-chasing Arsenal on Saturday evening...
St James' Park, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Despite being a boyhood Sunderland fan, Phil Brown is likely to be willing their arch-rivals Newcastle United to beat Arsenal this weekend, after emerging from his Hull City side's FA Cup exit at the hands of the Gunners as the north London club's fiercest critic. Arsenal will look to move on from their tetchy 2-1 victory over the Tigers - and its acrimonious, still-simmering aftermath - by extending their unbeaten run in the Premier League to 16 games when they take on Newcastle United on Tyneside.
Differing Objectives: Staying In the Top Four, Or Out Of The Bottom Three
The incentive to claim all three points will be particularly strong as the Gunners last week replaced Aston Villa in the top four, reclaiming fourth place much sooner than had seemed likely just a couple of weeks ago. Arsenal's improved form has coincided with Villa's downturn, and Arsene Wenger's side will be determined to maintain the advantage now that they have wrestled their fate back into their own hands. Indeed, Arsenal are defending the only unbeaten Premier League record in 2009, while Newcastle have won just once this calendar year, and are only out of the relegation zone by virtue of goal difference.
That may may make unwelcome reading for the struggling Magpies, but they will not be in the least concerned about Arsenal's agenda given their own battle to avoid a calamitous relegation. They will be just as determined to take the three points on offer on Saturday evening to help propel them away from the danger zone, as Arsenal will be to stay in front of Villa.
Coincidentally, Newcastle's most recent outing was also against Brown's Hull City. Like the Gunners, the Toon came back at the Tigers to secure a result, though in their case they had to make do with a 1-1 draw, Steven Taylor equalising Geovanni's early opener shortly before half-time in what the Newcastle central defender described as his most important goal for the club. Taylor also insisted this week that the Magpies now have no option but to take risks if they are to preserve their top-flight status. If that means taking the game to Arsenal, it could suit the Gunners' counter-attacking style, so caretaker manager Chris Hughton will be anxious to ensure his team don't present their visitors with too many opportunities to hit them on the break.
Hughton has led Newcastle to five points from a possible 15 since taking up the reins in a temporary capacity from Joe Kinnear, who is recuperating following heart surgery. In fact the Magpies haven't won in a Premier League match since their 3-2 victory at West Bromwich Albion on February 7, Hughton’s first in charge, so they will be striving to halt a winless run of four games that has kept them embroiled in the relegation scrap.
Hughton is being assisted by Colin Calderwood, and the pair are, like Kinnear, former Tottenham Hotspur defenders, with extra incentive to get a result against their old north London enemy Arsenal. They find themselves on the front line following a series of events that began with former Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan leaving the club on a point of principle regarding control of transfer market activity. Keegan had got Newcastle off to an unbeaten start until he took his team to the Emirates on August 30 for what proved to be his last game in charge of the club. They were soundly beaten 3-0, with Robin van Persie scoring twice and Denilson once.
Indeed, that result made it a hat-trick of 3-0 victories for the Gunners in their last three meeting with the Magpies, but all of those games (which included an FA Cup fourth round tie in January 2008) were at the Emirates. Five of their last seven League and Cup trips to St James’ Park have ended in draws, including their most recent, on 5 December 2007; Emmanuel Adebayor's stunning fourth-minute opener was cancelled out by Steven Taylor's equaliser on the hour mark, when Sam Allardyce was still manager at Gallowgate. The other two clashes both finished 1-0, with a win for each team.
There's Pressure....And Then There's Pressure
Given their predicament, Newcastle might have preferred different opponents than improving Arsenal, especially as they host Chelsea in their next game after the Gunners. Contemplating the pressure of that tough double-header, Hughton conceded that if his team can't beat the two Champions League quarter-finalists, they must at least produce good performances against them.
"From our point of view, there are two things. One is the result and the other is the performance - and you can gain something from both," Hughton told journalists this week. When you're playing the top four, it's always going to be tough because they're all great sides. But it's down to us now. We know what we've got to do. We'll be positive."
Meanwhile, Hughton's boss Kinnear continues his convalescence at home, where a neighbour and friend is Arsene Wenger, who sent the Magpies' boss a letter of support after his admission to hospital. This week the Frenchman said Kinnear's illness was a wake-up call to others about the stress involved in managing at the top level.
Wenger told Arsenal's official website, "It makes you realise that the pressure is there. Sometimes you are so used to dealing with the pressure you do not realise [it is there] any more, and maybe that is not a completely normal state. I live so long with that now that I am addicted to it, and would miss it if I did not have it. Of course you have to be lucky and have health, that your body resists that. There is an addiction [to pressure] because it is all linked to the pleasure of the games, the hype. You live with that for years."
The Toon, in 16th, are one of three teams on 29 points - but the lowest of that trio, Stoke City, are in a relegation berth, so victory for the Geordies is imperative. However, they've managed only one win in 13 games in all competitions, (11 of those in the Premier League), and kept just one clean sheet in their last 12 top-flight encounters.
14 Mar (Premier League) v Hull City (A) DREW 1-1
04 Mar (Premier League) v Man Utd (H) LOST 1-2
01 Mar (Premier League) v Bolton (A) LOST 0-1
22 Feb (Premier League) v Everton (H) DREW 0-0
07 Feb (Premier League) v West Brom (A) WON 3-2
The Gunners are now level on points with Aston Villa and occupying the coveted fourth Champions League spot, though only on goal difference, so they can't afford a slip-up. They are unbeaten in 15 Premier League games, currently the longest run without defeat in the division, going back to their 3-0 loss at Manchester City on November 22. Their win over Hull in an FA Cup quarter-final on Tuesday means they have suffered just one defeat in 20 in all competitions - at Roma in the Champions League, though they eventually triumphed on penalties and will now meet Villarreal in the quarter-finals of Europe's top club competition.
They've also kept clean sheets in five of their last six league games, conceding just one goal in those encounters. Indeed, Arsenal have let in only three Premier League goals in 2009, fewer than any other club, and have hit seven goals in their last two League games, after failing to score in the previous four. Nevertheless, they are 14 points down on their haul at the same stage last season, when they topped the table.
17 Mar (FA Cup) v Hull City (H) WON 2-1
14 Mar (Premier League) v Blackburn (H) WON 4-0
11 Mar (Champions League)v Roma (A) LOST 0-1, DREW 1-1 agg, WON 7-6 on pens
08 Mar (FA Cup) v Burnley (H) WON 3-0
03 Mar (Premier League) v West Brom (A) WON 3-1
Chris Hughton has Habib Beye back in contention, the Senegalese defender having been in full training since last week after recovering from ankle ligament damage which sidelined him for three months. He will probably feature at some stage, at the expense of Fabrizio Coloccini, Ryan Taylor or Sebastien Bassong.
Hughton told Newcastle's official website, "For the rest of the lads to see someone of the quality of Habib Beye back in the squad gives everyone a lift. It's a big bonus to have him back."
Midfielder Kevin Nolan goes straight back into the squad after completing a three-match suspension, and should start.
Xisco could also be back, but the Arsenal game has come around too soon for Danny Guthrie, who will not feature. There was speculation that Guthrie might have been in line for a midfield role after Alan Smith and Geremi both disappointed in recent games.
Australian striker Mark Viduka suffered a "minor reccurrence" of an Achilles injury earlier this month and missed the games against Manchester United and Hull City, and will probably have to sit out Saturday's clash as well.
Meanwhile, Hughton hopes to have midfielder Joey Barton available for the final five games of the season, the 26-year-old not having played since suffering a fractured metatarsal during the 2-1 defeat at his former club Manchester City in January.
Squad: Harper, Forster, Beye, Steven Taylor, Ryan Taylor, Coloccini, Bassong, Jose Enrique, Smith, Butt, Geremi, Nolan, Gutierrez, Owen, Ameobi, Martins, Duff, Lovenkrands, Edgar, Carroll
Last Starting XI (v Hull City): Harper, Steven Taylor, Coloccini, Bassong, Jose Enrique, Smith (Ryan Taylor 75), Butt, Geremi, Gutierrez, Owen (Ameobi 73), Martins.
Subs Not Used: Forster, Duff, Lovenkrands, Edgar, Carroll.
Arsene Wenger could well make several changes to the team that beat Hull in midweek, with Manuel Almunia almost certain to return in goal, and Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure, Denilson and Samir Nasri likely to start.
Mikael Silvestre was on the bench in midweek after 10 weeks out recovering from a thigh problem, and could be among the substitutes again. Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor are pushing to be fit again before the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Villarreal, but are unlikely to be risked at Newcastle. However, the Spaniard, Arsenal's captain, could be back to face Manchester City in a fortnight.
Wenger explained in his pre-match press conference, "Cesc should be fit in two weeks. He is back in full training now and during the international break he has two weeks to sharpen up. Normally, he should be available again against Manchester City."
Striker Eduardo is back in the squad heading to the North East and may feature, but Theo Walcott injured a knee in training and will miss the trip. Tomas Rosicky, whose last game was against Newcastle 14 months ago, is not yet ready to return.
Squad: Almunia, Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy, Nasri, Denilson, Song, Arshavin, Van Persie, Fabianski, Djourou, Gibbs, Ramsey, Vela, Bendtner, Eboue, Diaby, Silvestre, Eduardo.
Last Starting XI (v Hull City): Arsenal: Fabianski, Sagna, Gallas, Djourou, Gibbs, Walcott (Eboue 82), Song Billong (Bendtner 64), Diaby, Vela (Nasri 64), Van Persie, Arshavin.
Subs Not Used: Mannone, Toure, Denilson, Silvestre.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kevin Nolan is free from suspension and raring to face Arsenal, having used the enforced lay-off to shake off a niggling ankle problem. The midfielder and former Bolton captain has made three appearances for the Magpies since his January transfer, and was unbeaten until his reckless tackle on Victor Anichebe saw him red-carded. Nolan put his hands up after that tackle and issued a fulsome apology, but will be looking to get in the Arsenal players' faces on Saturday evening, having featured in several Bolton teams that ruffled and frustrated the Gunners previously. It will also be a landmark for the Liverpudlian, who will be making his 300th career league appearance.
Robin van Persie's equalising goal against Hull was the Dutch striker's 16th of the season for the Gunners in all competitions, and as well as being Arsenal's top Premier League scorer with nine goals this term, he is also the leading scorer among the club's current squad, with 59 goals to his credit - one more than Emmanuel Adebayor. Van Persie opened his account this season with a brace against Newcastle, one from the penalty spot. Againt Hull he converted a cute cut-back in the area by Andrey Arshavin, and the skilful Russian playmaker - who got off the mark with a superb goal against Blackburn last week - is another whom the Magpies will be keeping a close eye on.
Newcastle are the Premier League's draw specialists, 11 of their 29 matches having finished all-square; while Arsenal have featured in 10 draws of their own, including five away from home. That might point to another draw on Saturday, especially as this fixture also has a recent tradition of tied outcomes. But neither side can settle for a single point and both will be going all out for victory because of their respective situations. The omens are against Newcastle, who have won only one of their last 18 league and cup meetings with Arsenal, that being when Nolberto Solano scored the only goal of the game in this corresponding fixture on 10 December 2005. In contrast, Arsenal have lost just once against North East clubs in 16 games against them. The Londoners have also scored 23 goals in 14 games away from home, making their attack the third strongest on the road in the league, while Newcastle have conceded 22 at St James' Park, making their defence the joint third weakest at home. With Arsenal having recaptured their Champions League berth, their determination to keep it may prove just too strong for the Magpies.
Newcastle United 0-1 Arsenal
Graham Lister, Goal.com