Friday, 2 March 2012

Newcastle Vs Sunderland: Who has the better team?

Newcastle host Sunderland on Sunday afternoon in what will be the 146th Tyne Wear Derby. The form book can often be thrown out of the window when it comes to these sorts of games, but out of the 2 top North East teams, who is stronger?
Newcastle had a flying start to the season managing 11 games without defeat, before finally falling at the hands of Man City. At our peak, we sat in 3rd and up until recently looked like we could pose a serious threat to the top 4. Since our defeat at the Etihad, our form has lacked any real consistency, picking up back to back wins only twice, and winning only 5 of a possible 14. Victories against the likes of Manchester United have shown that when on form, we have the quality to threaten, whilst heavy defeats to Fulham, Norwich and Tottenham illustrate that defensively we can be very poor when rattled. Currently sitting in 6th but with tough games against Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and City still to come, hanging on to 7th place and with it, European qualification, would be a massive achievement for a team that was in the Championship 2 seasons ago.
Sunderland meanwhile, have fared rather oppositely. After an appalling start to the season under Steve Bruce, they sat in 16th place, just 2 points above the drop zone when he was sacked in November. Since Martin O’Neill’s arrival, they have looked a different team, winning 7 of their last 12, including a famous 1-0 against Manchester City. In doing so, Sunderland have climbed from relegation candidates, to European contenders, now sitting in 9th place. Poor recent performances against both Arsenal, and most recently West Brom, have led to suggestions that O'Neills honeymoon is over, though it is unlikely that any of the players will be keen for a repeat of the 4-0 drubbing they received last weekend.
Player-Wise, Newcastle have shown that quality can be bought on a budget, with Davide Santon and Yohan Cabaye both impressing in their first seasons of English football. It is Demba Ba, however, who has surprised the most. With his 16 goals for the season, he his only bettered by Wayne Rooney and Arsenal frontman Robin Van Persie. Signing on a free in the summer, Ba has proved to be excellent value for Newcastle and has alerted some of Europe’s top clubs. The addition of Papiss Cisse in January saw us strengthen the front line further. As to whether his big money move from Germany will pay off is yet to be seen, but with a good record for Bundesliga basement boys, Freiberg, he certainly looks promising.
For Sunderland, much investment was made in the summer, as the likes of Seb Larsson, Conor Wickham, Nicklas Bendtner, John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Craig Gardner all joined, in attempt to take Sunderland from perennial mid-tablers, to top 6 European contenders. After several injuries, they have been forced to play much of the season with attacking midfielder Stephane Sessegnon as their solitary forward, although the return of an in-form Fraizer Campbell in recent weeks has increased their chances in front of goal. James Mclean was another new signing in the summer, tipped to only play a role in the reserves this year. However, after a string of good performances it appears that the Mackems may have unearthed a gem, with the young Irish winger showing promising ability in his opening 10 games for the club.
If pushed, I would probably be biased and say Newcastle are the better team. Strength in depth is somewhat of an issue for both teams, with each side looking stretched at times throughout the campaign.  Currently, Sunderland have the better form, although home advantage and a habit of winning over the neighbours may aid Newcastle in attempting to extend our unbeaten run against the Mackems at St James’ Park, stretching back to 2001.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Why Ashley won't invest in January

January has rolled round again, which for football fans means only one thing- the transfer window. It’s well documented that for big clubs, the transfer window is a time in which they can strengthen their teams and attempt to improve before the title race begins in earnest in the second half of the season. For smaller clubs however-and with Ashley’s chequebook seemingly glued tight I’m classing Newcastle as one- January is nothing but a time of panic. Players who have performed well are attracting the attention of bigger clubs, whilst managers and scouts desperately try to bring in cover should their star men choose to leave for bigger things.

After a strong start to the season, Newcastle have plenty of players in the shop window, and with many of the league’s elite browsing for reinforcements, it would be no surprise if, as with last January, Newcastle ended the month big player lighter. Cheick Tiote, Tim Krul and Fabricio Coloccini are the three names his time round that have been heavily linked with moves away from St James’ and with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United supposedly interested, it would be hard to see Newcastle turning down offers, should they come in.

After a strong start to the season, Newcastle have struggled of late, winning only 5 points from a possible 24 since of defeat at Manchester City. After showing very impressive early form, the thought of European football next year looked a very realistic possibility, but after this poor run of form, achieving is looking somewhat more difficult.

The question now is whether Ashley is going to fully back the team, through heavy investment in an attempt to maintain our European ambitions; or whether he is quite happy to have Newcastle sitting in mid-table, floating in mediocrity-not going to get relegated, but at the same time with no real chance of anything higher than average.

From his point of view, I could see why both views might be attractive. Think about it- if he were to put a substantial amount of money into the club for transfers- say £50m- the result could go either way. Either the team would be strengthened and as a result strengthen out grip on 7th and even pull back ground on the teams above, or the investment could go to waste and Newcastle could continue to lose ground on those around us.

Look at Villa under Martin O’Neill a few years ago. They spent a huge amount of money, buying some of England’s best youngsters in an attempt to break the big four. In his four years there he guided them to three consecutive 6th placed finishes, but could grab that elusive top four spot. He left under a dark cloud after rows with Randy Lerner, over guess what- Lack of transfer funds.

Granted the big four has now become more of a big 6, but the point still stands. To me, at the moment, Ashley sees us as safe- we aren’t going to set the world on fire any time soon, but we also won’t get relegated. He could risk pouring in millions of his own money, but for what? At the moment we sit seventh, and with all of the 6 teams above  spending considerably every year, it would only be an investment of 100’s of millions, rather than 10’s, that would ever see us break into that top 6.

As it is, I think Ashley is more than happy for us to continue as we are- mediocrity. He has an incredible scout in Graham Carr, who has the canny knack of finding players for a few million that later down that line multiply in value. For Ashley, the system works. It Tiote were to be sold this transfer window for example, the replacement- if there was a replacement- would more than likely cost between 3 and 5 million- less than quarter of what Tiote is worth if you believe the papers. It’s a much lower risk scheme than used to be in operation when Shepherd was in charge. If a player that cost a couple of million is a flop, then he can probably be sent back to Europe for a couple of hundred thousand less than what he was bought for, and the club move on to other targets. If united were to pay £10m+ on a player and he flops- it loses the club millions.
Quotes from Pardew and co. are already somewhat starting to mirror the Summer, with Llambias saying on the radio in November that a striker was needed in January. Since then, Steven Taylor’s injury has meant that the priority is now a centre back, but surely if the MD wants a striker then Newcastle get a striker, right? Well according to Pardew, not.  The likelihood is then, that we will see one player come in in January, perhaps two should Chelsea or United come knocking for Tiote, but we almost definitely won’t see the likes of Samba of Giroud arriving.

From Ashley’s point of view the gamble probably isn’t worth taking.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Newcastle Vs Norwich Match Preview

After 3 weeks of writing about what we could hope for against the 3 best teams in England, I thought I would have to find a different avenue this week. Hoping is ok against the big boys, but obviously after our difficult run of ‘hoping’, I was fully expecting a strong Newcastle team to bounce back in style.

It’s not so clear cut as that anymore though, with our squad seemingly crumbling as we enter one of the busiest periods on the footballing calendar.

This week we face Norwich, a team that like ourselves, are somewhat over performing and proving the critics wrong, currently sitting in a comfortable 11th position. With 3 wins, 2 draws and 2 defeats at home, they haven’t exactly made Carrow Road a fortress, but they have managed to surprise a few, only being narrowly defeated by an in form Arsenal, and ensuring the great unwashed left with nothing except red faces.

At home they have taken points off Sunderland, Swansea and QPR, whilst drawing against Stoke and Blackburn, bar Stoke, all bottom half teams. Their two defeats have come at the hands of Arsenal and West Brom.

Newcastle make the long trip to Norfolk this weekend with players seemingly dropping like flies. Steven Taylor is out for the rest of the season, while Coloccini’s thigh problem makes him doubtful, although speaking on Wednesday night, he would not rule himself out. Mike Williamson appears to be still some weeks off full fitness, which leaves us worryingly short at the back. Numerous ideas have been thrown about, some suggesting Davide Santon should play at centre back, a position he has played at for Italy U21’s. Pardew seems to prefer to use Perch rather than youngster Kadar, and despite much criticism in the past, the ex-forest man performed quite well under testing circumstances when he was called upon last week. Beyond that there isn’t a lot to choose from, with the likes of Remie Streete, Jeff Henderson and Stephen Folan all untested at the top level.

In midfield Danny Guthrie is out for around a month, whilst Cheik Tiote has still not returned-to me it all seems a bit dodgy. At first he was meant to be back for the City game, then the United game, and now it looks like it will be mid-December at the earliest. Murmurings in the week suggested he could be off in January, with some saying Chelsea have already agreed a £20 million fee. If true it’s disappointing, but not entirely surprising.  In his absence it seems Dan Gosling is poised to start alongside Yohan Cabaye. Gutierrez will be back from suspension, which will hopefully give Ryan Taylor the much needed defensive cover that was lacking against Chelsea. Marveaux remains out, so Obertan looks set to continue on the right.

Ironically, it is upfront, the position in which we tried and failed to bring in cover over the summer, that we are strongest, with all 3 first choice players; Ba, Best and Ben Arfa all fit. Shola came on last week and looked strong, but it seems that Pardew sees him as an impact sub, rather than 1st XI material.

After lacking many goals recently, it’s important that we get back to winning ways. Looking back on both the City and Chelsea game, we could have easily scored 2 or 3 in each game. It’s important that we don’t look back on every game with this sort of attitude, and instead become more clinical in front of goal. Our latest poor run of form has seen us slip down into a perhaps more realistic 6th place, with Fulham defeating Liverpool on Monday the only thing that stopped us dropping to 7th. The gap between us and our realistic contenders for 7th place- ie; Stoke, Villa, Everton – is currently 8 points. If we can keep that gap intact or even stretch it going into Christmas it will signal a very positive 1st half of the season.

Even with injury, our squad is good enough to get something against Norwich. They have looked good this season, but it is our games against the mid-table teams that really count, and if we want to be sat in the top 7 come the end of the season, its games like these that need to be won.


Tuesday, 29 November 2011

What can Newcastle hope for against Chelsea?

I’ve kind of being trying to do a weekly article lately, voicing my hopes and concerns for the upcoming match. I have already done City and United, so let’s give Chelsea a whirl.

The London club are the last of the ‘First real tests’ that we face, after a hard few weeks in competition with the League’s finest. Against City we were somewhat unfortunate, whilst luck was definitely on our side as we battened down the hatches and came away with a point against United.

I would say that Chelsea are definitely the weakest of the 3 teams to face us recently. City have quality in abundance, whilst United, although not firing on all cylinders are still extremely threatening, especially at home. With Chelsea it seems a bit different. Their team is very much in a transitional period, with their big name players that Abramovich assembled into the title winning sides of 2005 and 2006, coming to the end of their careers. Look through their line up in their defeat to Liverpool last week and you quickly realise just how old their team is:

Cech(29), Ivanovic(27), Ashley Cole(30), David Luiz(24), Terry(30), Ramires(24), Lampard(33), Mikel(24), Malouda(31), Mata(23), Drogba(33).
Average Age- 28

Compare that with Newcastle’s team for their game against City:
Krul(23), Simpson(24), Coloccini(29), Saylor(25), Raylor(27), Sammy(19), Cabaye(25), Guthrie(24), Gutierrez(28), Ba(26), Ben Arfa(24)
Average Age-24.9

Obviously, the likes of David Luiz and Mata have been purchased recently, but the core of the team from previous title winning seasons (Terry, Lampard, Drogba) will not be together for much longer.

For me, this is why Chelsea are not up there with United and City. Whereas United are in a transitional period and have begun the process of buying replacements, Chelsea are left with a team, that at its core is the same team from around 2004. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Obviously, the great teams assemble a quality squad and keep the majority of it for years, but for Chelsea, the end is nearing for their core players, and as yet, they haven’t managed to replace them.

Looking through Chelsea’s team, you can see they have been weak in a number of key areas so far this season. Defensively, it is well documented that playing the high line as they have been doing doesn’t seem to be effective. This is illustrated by the fact that they have conceded 17 goals, and that they have already lost 4 games.
In goal is another place I feel Chelsea are weak. 4 or 5 years ago many would have considered Petr Cech to be one of the best ‘keepers around, but over the past few years there are a number of times where he has looked alarmingly average. Just take Leverkusen’s winner in the Champion’s league last week:

To me, a keeper of so called ‘world-class- quality should save that, whereas Cech kind of crouches and reaches, as if pretending to try to get it, but not really. A world class keeper can save you points, as Tim Krul did on Saturday, but a poor keeper can easily have the opposite effect, costing you heavily. I’m not saying I think Cech is a bad keeper, he isn’t, but he definitely isn’t what he once was, and I would like to think some way off our very own Dutch magician.

Offensively, the addition of Juan Mata appears to have improved them greatly. With Drogba not as heavily relied on as in previous years, Torres has begun to show glimpses of a return to form, although his best still seems a long way away. It is in Daniel Sturridge, however, that Chelsea really seem to have found their long term striker. At only 22 he is still not at his best, but last year began to hit form, whilst on loan at Bolton. While with the Trotters he bagged 8 goals in 12 appeaances, and since re-joining Chelsea has continued the form, with 7 goals in 14 appearances.

The public perception of the Chelsea one seems to be that out of our most recent matches, It is definitely the one in which we have the most chance of a win, by their own standards Chelsea have been poor this season, and with our home form consisting of 4 wins and 2 draws, points are definitely for the taking.

Last time out, Chelsea beat Wolves comfortably, running out 3-0 winners against Stamford bridge, but prior to that, defeats in Germany against Bayer Leverkusen, and at home to Liverpool had piled the pressure on Andre Villas Boas, who to me looks more and more like Roy Hodgson with every defeat.

If we avoid defeat it will signal a very impressive few weeks for the team, who despite losing their unbeaten record, have illustrated that our unbeaten run wasn’t a flash in the pan and can look to kick on with upcoming fixtures against Norwich, Swansea and West Brom.

What can Newcastle hope for against United?

After feeling upbeat and positive about our prospects against City, I wrote an article about our chances that many of you may have read. Perhaps next time I should write less from the heart and more from the head.  I’m going to try again, this time with our upcoming match against Man United.

I have to be honest; I was disappointed with the City score. On another day we could have had four or five- but if you don’t take your chances against top class opposition, you’re always likely to finish on the wrong end of the result. It’s definitely a match we can learn from though. On another day, we wouldn’t have given away two penalties, and a few more of our shots might have found the back of Joe Hart’s net.

Ironically, after the defeat to city, I heard more positive praise from pundits than I have done for any of our previous matches this season. Dan Walker, presenter of Football Focus commented on twitter that he was impressed with us, whilst even Paul Merson struggled to criticise us, saying that we played ‘very well’ and that prior to City scoring their first, they were ‘running out of ideas’.

After a few days to move on and forget about the result, I feel that we played relatively well in places. As mentioned, we could have had at least one goal before City scored, which would have made the game and entirely different prospect. As it was, two bits of poor defending from a usually solid Ryan Taylor gifted City a comfortable lead, and from then on we were always chasing the game, something which is pretty hard to do against the league leaders.

For me it’s only positive from here. We have played the team, who on current form, are the best in the league by a mile. We can go into the match against united knowing that again, we’re expected to get beat, but that if we win, it will be massive for the team, and be an illustration of just how good we can be.

I think more NUFC fans are hopeful of a win this week than last. Against City, we did pretty well to keep the game competitive in my opinion, against a team who are streets ahead of us financially, and on the pitch. This week the outlook is somewhat better. Our squad still seems positive, so much so that Yohan ‘dreamboat’ Cabaye gave an interview claiming Newcastle will go into the game with United ‘playing for a win’.
I feel the game against United is a game we could definitely get something from. Really get something from, not like last weeks ‘I feel we give City a shock’, but really take more than we are expected to against the perennial title challengers.

Following their draw against Benfica in mid-week, they will be looking to bounce back in the league well. They best Swansea away last week, but only narrowly, and with Rooney and Welbeck doubtful, their ability to freely score goals is dramatically compromised.  It’s in midfield however, where I feel that we can really prosper. United have looked poor in the middle fo the park so far this season, lacking the drive or guile of previous seasons in which the likes of Paul Scholes have controlled the game. They have been a much better midfield side with Tom Cleverley included, but with him out injured, the door really is ajar for Newcastle to come in and steal something, especially with the hope that Cheick Tiote will be fit again and ready to rekindle his midfield partnership with Cabaye.

United have looked quite poor in my opinion for the last few weeks. I say poor, obviously they have to  have been pretty good to be sitting in 2nd place. But for United, they don’t seem to have that usual spark Fergie’s teams normally have. As I have already said, it’s well documented how poor their midfield has looked this season, and with our midfield arguably being one of the best in the league 12 games in, we have a real chance of going to Old Trafford and coming away with something.

I really hope we can get something. To me, this match is more of a test than last week. We were always likely to be on the wrong end of a hammering from City, if you were to believe the pundits, but it never really happened. Yes we lost, but it wasn’t the battering many had predicted. This week we face the red half of Manchester who look far inferior to their neighbours, so it’s not impossible we could go there and surprise a few.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

What can Newcastle hope for against City?

When the two remaining unbeaten clubs in the Premier League meet on Saturday, many will be expecting only one outcome. After City’s incredible early season form, which has seen them brush aside the likes of Spurs, Aston Villa and, famously, Manchester United, it would be perhaps fair to envisage only a win for the League leaders. What stands in their way however is a Newcastle side high on confidence. Without a league defeat since the 1st May, Newcastle have without doubt surprised many, but even the most ardent Newcastle fan would surely be foolish to expect anything other than a defeat at the Etihad. Well, perhaps. Perhaps we might lose our unbeaten run, but then again, perhaps City will get a shock.

Speaking to the Manchester Evening News on Tuesday, ex Mag and Citizen Antoine Sibierski believes City should not take Newcastle lightly. ‘People say Newcastle are the shock team but I knew they would do well – they have so many French players… you can’t underestimate Newcastle – they are on a good run and have great team spirit, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they got a result.’ It’s clear from this that he thinks Newcastle will put up a good fight, something which perhaps the rest of the media disagree with. With Paddy Power, Newcastle are 9/1 to win, odds which you would normally associate with a top Vs bottom clash, not a 1st Vs 3rd. Fount of all knowledge and moustachioed match of the day man Mark Lawrenson will, no doubt have us to get beat by 3 or 4 in his weekly predictions, but whilst those who know best may have us on a hiding to nothing, things might not be so clear cut. When the two sides meet on Saturday, it will be the league’s top scorers, against the league’s meanest defence, so to predict Newcastle to ship 3 or 4, may be forgetting that Newcastle appear to be a changed team. Last year, perhaps it would be acceptable to expect a mauling at the hands of one of the big 4, but that was the Newcastle of old. Having only conceded 8 goals in the league this season, and with only 3 or those coming away from home, it surely is not inconceivable that we could go to Manchester and frustrate City.

There is a high chance that we will go there and get beat, but I still feel that we have a better chance than many might suggest. I read something the other day about our position. We are now well over a quarter of the way through the season, and we currently sit in 3rd, 1 point behind Manchester United, and 6 behind City, yet we are still 250/1 to win the league. If it was Liverpool in our position, would they be considered title contenders? The answer for me would be yes, so why aren’t we? I’m not saying we are going to win the title- I don’t think we will be anywhere near- but at this moment in time, still unbeaten and sitting in 3rd, we are surely should be taken seriously. Our run was tipped to end at the hands of Spurs, and then again at the Britannia, but so far, it’s still going and there’s no reason why it should end this weekend.

Come Saturday evening, it is probable that there will only be one team left in the league left unbeaten, and whilst most would suggest that Lineker and co will be drooling over multiple goals from the likes of Aguero and Dzeko, it’s not all that unlikely that they could be sat there starting the take Newcastle a little bit more seriously.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Can Newcastle be the best of the rest?

Newcastle's 2-1 win over Everton on Saturday extended their unbeaten run this season and yet again disproved the opinions of many, who thought we might come unstuck against the Toffees. United currently sit in 2nd place in the league, although that will soon become 3rd, assuming Manchester United get an expected win against the great unwashed. Since 4 or 5 games in, so called pundits have tipped our unbeaten streak to come to an end, but so far we have proved them all wrong, managing over a quarter of the season without tasting defeat. The question is though, just how far can Newcastle go?

For a few weeks now, people have beginning to sit up and take notice of Newcastle. Our early season form surprised many, but led to most suggesting we 'hadn't played anyone yet'. Despite this being highly insulting to the teams we have played, I feel it is incorrect. Last season Newcastle finished 12th. Teams that finished around us include Stoke, West Brom, Sunderland, Fulham and Everton. So far from those teams we have beaten all of these, except West Brom who were are yet to play. What I'm triying to say is that for me, it doesn't matter that we haven't played 'anyone' as the teams we need to beat are the ones who were in and around us last year. If we do this, which we have, then it shows a marked improvement on last year, and can only point to a higher finishing position come May.

Since our win over Stoke last week, the experts have started to take note. Stoke hadn't lost at the Britannia all season, so for Newcastle to go there and win so comfortably was a warning to others to take United seriously. People are now beginning to wonder if we could finish in the top four, having occupied a Champions League spot for five or 6 weeks. For me, Newcastle won't finish fourth. I don't want to put a dampener on it, but we simply don't have as much strength in depth that the bigger teams have. Take City for example. Their bench for the 6-1 annihilation of rivals United was as follows: Pantilimon, Zabaleta, Kolarov, K Toure, Nasri, De Jong, Dzeko. Apart from 'keeper Pantilimon, and perhaps Zabaleta, I would argue that all 5 other players would walk into every team in the league. It's the same for the other teams at the right end of the League. Chelsea, Manchester United  and Tottenham all arguably have enough quality players to field 2 or 3 teams capable of doing well in the Premier League. Newcastle don't really have this luxury. An injury to someone such as Demba Ba, or Coloccini and very suddenly our team is heavily weakened.

I do feel however, that Newcastle can be the best of the rest. Take off say, both Manchester clubs and Chelsea, and I feel Newcastle can finish in the chasing pack slightly behind them, with the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs. Anywhere between 4th and 8th is a realistic aim for us. Even if you say that the 6 mentioned teams finish above us, that leaves us in 7th; hardly a bad position. If we are to do that, we need to beat the teams below us, which is when the suggestion that we haven't played anyone again is shown to be rubbish. Assuming finishing top 6 is beyond us, then the team we need to be beating to finish 7th are the teams who will finish 8th downwards, ie; Stoke, Fulham, Everton, Sunderland, Blackburn, Wolves, Wigan, QPR; all of whom we have taken points off. If you look at it that way, we have played 'someone'. We have played the most important games. The mentioned teams will also get beaten more often than not against the likes of Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea, etc, so even if we do lose our first game in a fortnight's time at City, it doesn't matter too much. We aren't competing against City, we are competing against the teams who will be the best of the rest, who hopefully come May, we will be leading.