Newcastle must be wary of Leicester amid anniversary celebrations
As the dark, gloomy clouds of Mike Ashley’s reign of terror at Newcastle United may be about to lift, fans are attempting to look at the bigger picture. Defeat to Chelsea on Saturday stretched the Magpies’ winless run to six games; in that time, they have slipped from a European place to dangerously hovering above the relegation battle. But, with Amanda Staveley still on the scene, the romantic idea of new ownership has been too strong to resist.
The reality, though, is that a deal is still a while off completion and conflicting reports are emerging with each passing day, changing the perception of how likely it is that Ashley will finally hand over the keys to St James’ Park. It is worth remembering both parties signed a non-disclosure agreement before negotiations commenced, so it is unlikely by definition that much information will make it to the public domain before anything is completed.
It is up for debate whether the distraction of speculation has helped or hindered Newcastle; while Rafa Benitez has maintained his professional approach on the training ground, the shift in focus may have reduced the pressure from the stands amid the slump, but it may also leave fans a bit short-sighted, especially if the worst should happen with the takeover.
Everything could change in the next week or so, for better or worse. Losing back-to-back home games against Leicester City and Everton would spell disaster; the three-place and four-point gap to the drop zone would surely dissolve and more questions would be asked of Benitez and his team. Win them, though, and they will surpass the 20-point target set to signify halfway to the end goal of Premier League survival in May.
Takeover talk will not be the only thing adding to the setting as Leicester head to St James’ Park on Saturday; it is the 125th anniversary of Newcastle United as a club, something they have been building up to all season. As fans gear up to wave Ashley goodbye, this will be a good opportunity to reminisce about the times when he wasn’t frustrating the growth of the club at seemingly every turn.
The celebration is happening on a particularly precarious day; nerves will be jangling after the last home game. Watford conquered a former fortress with ease, utilising their pace and energy to hit Newcastle where it hurt. Benitez’s men were lucky the scoreline looked mildly respectable at full time; it finished 3-0 but could have easily been five or six.
Claude Puel’s appointment at the King Power Stadium in October was heavily criticised by the small-minded set of pundits who believed he was standing in the way of British coaches by taking on an exciting project. Needless to say, they didn’t acknowledge he was replacing an Englishman, Craig Shakespeare, or that Sam Allardyce, David Moyes and Alan Pardew have predictably returned to the top flight since.
Puel has started well, too, organising a poor defence and getting a team now full of talented individuals playing to their strengths. He had a point to prove after being sacked by Southampton last season despite an eighth-placed finish and a cup final appearance. In the early stages of his Leicester reign, the questions about his style of play do not appear to be resurfacing.
Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez are in form at the same time, probably for the first time since they inspired the Foxes to that shock Premier League title win in 2015/16, and Demarai Gray is finally justifying his high praise, taking his first team opportunities with both hands. Puel has taken charge of six league games and has lost just one, to runaway leaders Manchester City, and they come into this game off the back of wins against Tottenham and a Burnley side punching above their weight this season.
There could hardly be a worse time to face Leicester. In the early weeks of the campaign, Newcastle relished their opponents attacking them directly because it allowed them to soak up pressure and win the game with transitions on the counter-attack.
Recently, teams with a lot of pace and players who like to run with the ball have been getting more joy in exploiting the lack of organisation. Bounemouth carved them open on numerous occasions, as did Watford; Eden Hazard reminded everyone just how devastating he can be last week, too.
Vardy, Mahrez and Gray will be licking their lips at the prospect of space opening up in this game and they won’t miss as much as the Hornets did two weeks ago. Things must improve defensively for Newcastle before they can think about grabbing a first win.
Crucially, though, Benitez’s side could be at full strength come Saturday. While Jacob Murphy has been much better in recent weeks, his inexperience showed again at Chelsea by way of his poor decision-making. Christian Atsu, who hasn’t featured in over a month, could be set to return and that would be a huge boost.
Jamaal Lascelles, club captain and catalyst of the defensive strength, which laid the foundations for the early season form, trained this week and hopes to be in contention at the weekend. With all options on the table, chances of a home win increase hugely; especially now Dwight Gayle appears to have found his rhythm again.
Either way, it will be a tough game for Newcastle. On the 125th anniversary, Rafa Benitez will not let the festivities take over. Instead, they must drive the team on to a win that would take the Magpies a long way in the short term.