15:00 (BST), Saturday 21st October, St James’ Park Stadium (Newcastle, England)
With events off the pitch once again dominating the headlines around Newcastle United, Rafael Benitez needs to ensure that his squad are able to keep their focus on the task at hand. Only one defeat from the last six league games has seen them strengthen their position in the Premier League but it’s now three games without a victory for the Magpies as they’ve found themselves unable to get a result over the line.
Roy Hodgson and Palace were always going to end the miserable run of form which has blighted their season so far. However, nobody quite expected it to end in the way it did. Palace need to bring themselves back to reality now as they aim to double their points and lift themselves off the Premier League’s bottom.
Last Time Out
Southampton 2-2 Newcastle United (Premier League)
A highly entertaining game of football played out last Sunday afternoon as both teams did enough to win but came away with a draw instead. Both Isaac Hayden and Ayoze Pérez made the most of Fraser Forster’s bad run of form, the latter of whom scoring almost directly after the Saints had equalised in a madcap start to the second half.
As United began to control the pace of the game, an away win appeared to be within their grasp. Florian Lejeune who had, perhaps surprisingly, started ahead of Ciaran Clark made more than a solid reintroduction back into the squad. However, his only mistake of the game proved costly: needlessly bundling into Shane Long, he conceded a penalty and a share of the points.
Crystal Palace 2-1 Chelsea (Premier League)
The Eagles secured their first goals and first points of the season when they played last year’s champions at home last weekend. Using Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend in a central partnership rather than as the marauding wingers, Hodgson was able to play with his favoured 4-4-2 formation. It was a move that clearly paid dividends with Chelsea unable to deal with Zaha’s directness in particular.
While the Blues pushed hard for a late equaliser, Mamadou Sakho raised many eyebrows when he audaciously back-heeled a clearance off the goal-line. Whether it was a stroke of genius or just plain foolish nobody quite knew. Luckily for him, his team they got away with it to claim a seismic win in the league.
Paul Dummett (hamstring) and Massadio Haidara (knee) are the only two long-term worries for Rafael Benitez, although Dwight Gayle could sit alongside them this weekend as he nurses a calf injury.
As a manager who like to freshen things up in his team, Benitez may make some changes in personnel with Mikel Merino the most likely to return to the team. He could see himself partnered with Jonjo Shelvey from the start for the first time this season.
Crystal Palace Lineup
With Christian Benteke (knee) and Connor Wickham (knee) both still missing, Roy Hodgson may elect to play the same team who were victorious over Chelsea as a way of strengthening the players bond. This would mean another start for Julian Speroni in goal ahead of the out-of-form Wayne Hennessey.
Key Battle: Florian Lejeune vs Wilfried Zaha
Despite not having an actual striker to call upon this weekend, Palace take comfort from the fact that Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend can prove a serious threat to Newcastle’s back-line. While Zaha does indeed possess the skills to change a game, he also has a history of inconsistency which has slowly been ironed out since his time at Manchester United which many consider to have been a failure. With the weight of the fans expectations on his shoulders this weekend, it will be a real test for him to deliver when his club need him the most.
Florian Lejeune could well be the player employed by Benitez to marshal Zaha’s raids. Having arrived on Tyneside with high expectations, his start in the Premiership was cut short by a crude tackle from behind by Harry Kane that left him injured for several weeks. Rafa Benitez then took the risk of breaking up one of the Premiership’s strongest defensive pairings to play him alongside Jamaal Lascelles last weekend, something which suggests that Benitez has seen something that he likes in his new summer recruit.
A New Dynamic Duo
Mikel Merino and Jonjo Shelvey have yet to start a competitive game together but this weekend could see that change. Rafael Benitez commented at the start of the season that he thought there was definite potential there for a good partnership but that the timing then wasn’t right.
With Merino now integrated into the team and having made his loan move a permanent deal, he seems to be a player who Benitez expects to grow with the club. Shelvey was left out of several games following an inexcusable sending off in the opening weekend against Spurs. After being made to fight his way back into the team, though, there’s hope that a lesson may have been learned. With Merion and Shelvey playing together, it remains to be seen what can happen.
Parties and Funerals
Roy Hodgson has pulled up his seat at the Premier League table again and it feels much better with him here for company. He’s an affable and amiable character who can cut to the quick with some fantastic quotes. In the build-up to this weekend, he compared managing in the Premier League as “a constant succession of parties and funerals.” What he said behind closed doors about Sakho’s back-heel is anyone’s guess. But with this kind of person in charge of the team, how could Palace possibly fail to dig themselves out of trouble?
Prediction: Newcastle United 2-0 Crystal Palace
While Newcastle have not won in the last three games, they look to be a well-organised side that are capable of taking on the Premiership with well-placed confidence. Palace too will have received an injection of confidence following their first win but playing away from home and, with a lot still riding on their results, it remains a tricky fixture.
Rafa Benitez will have done his homework and if he can keep Wilfried Zaha quiet for the afternoon, it could be a win to put the focus of the headlines back on the team rather than the club.
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