Newcastle United: 3 games that could define their season
If Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle are to stay up this season, these are the games that could prove crucial.
Newcastle have had a very mixed season so far.
The North East giants recently achieved their best result this campaign, memorably toppling Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United at St. James Park in February.
Without that win, the Tynesiders would be in the Premier League relegation zone with losses to Huddesfield, Brighton and Bournemouth this season remaining fresh in the Geordie public’s memory.
No one expected Benitez’s men to pull up trees in their first season back in England’s top-flight, especially given a serious lack of investment from their much-maligned owner Mike Ashley.
However, Newcastle’s Spanish supremo Benitez will need his side to improve on recent performances against Liverpool and Bournemouth in three crucial upcoming fixtures, which will likely decide if the Magpies beat the drop.
These three crunch ties will likely define the course of their season. Who will Lascelles & Co. have to overcome to cement Newcastle’s Premier League status?
Southampton, St James Park – March 10th
This game is huge for both Southampton and Newcastle.
Saints sit a place below Benitez’s men in 17th with one point between the two teams. The South Coast side must improve their form if they are to stop their ‘sleepwalk towards relegation’ as Jeff Stelling put it on Sky’s Gillette Soccer Saturday.
A draw isn’t much good for either team and Mauricio Pellegrino will be desperate to pick up a win, in a sometimes pressure atmosphere for Newcastle players when things will don’t go to plan at St. James Park.
What’s more is that Southampton haven’t lost to Newcastle in seven fixtures dating back to 2013. If the Magpies are to harbour any hope of beating the drop, they must end their five-year hoodoo against Pelligrino’s men.
Southampton’s second-half performance last time out against Stoke showed promise: they could have bagged a late winner and looked dangerous with Manolo Gabbiadini’s introduction from the bench.
If the Argentine manager deploys the Italian from the start, Newcastle could find themselves in trouble.
Huddersfield, St James’ Park – March 31st
As things stand, Huddersfield sit a point above the Toon in 15th place.
As with the Southampton fixture, a draw won’t do much for either side due to the tight nature at the foot of the Premier League – six points separate Stoke in 19th and Bournemouth in 12th.
Benitez’s side have drawn a respectable eight games this season, displaying a sturdy, compact defensive unit. However, it’s crunch time and Newcastle have to win games from now on which will require greater attacking prowess.
David Wagner appears to have the beating of Rafa Benitez in the pair’s head-to-head battle, leading the Spaniard by two wins to one, most notably a 1-0 victory in the Terriers’ first ever Premier League fixture at the John Smith’s Stadium
Steve Mounie, Laurent Depoitre, Rajiv van La Parra and Aaron Mooy are David Wagner’s most notable attacking threats with 24 goals and five assists between them. Any potential Newcastle victory will likely be determined by whether they keep them quiet.
Leicester, King Power Stadium – April 7th
On paper, Newcastle’s clash with Leicester looks like the more difficult of the three. However, Claude Puel’s side are eighth in the league with 37 points from 29 games and nothing left to play for, which could swing the balance in Newcastle’s favour.
The impetus will be with the home side at the King Power Stadium, though, and this could also play into Newcastle’s hands – allowing Benitez’s side to sit back and counter Leicester with pace.
The 2016/17 Premier League winners have won their last five games against Newcastle in all competitions, conceding only two goals.
Newcastle will have to be defensively sound if they are to get anything out of the Leicester game, the Foxes still have the title winners Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez who share 25 goals and eight assists between them this season. For context, Dwight Gayle, Joselu and Ayoze Pérez 13 goals and six assists between them.