Saturday, August 18, 2012

Newcastle United vs. Tottenham Hotspur preview

Newcastle were the true Cinderella story of last season. Under manager Alan Pardew's shrewd leadership, and the goalscoring prowess of Senegalese duo Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cisse, Newcastle finished the season in a stunning fifth place, with the possibility of qualifying for the Champions League alive till the last day of the campaign.

How Newcastle improve on that is a huge challenge that awaits Pardew this season. In the face of increased competition, and improvements expected from both Chelsea and Liverpool in the new campaign, Newcastle would do well to finish seventh.

Gone are the days when Newcastle would spend lavish transfer fees. The new system now has chief scout Graham Carr scouring some bargains from the continent. Newcastle seem to have done well for themselves assembling a team without falling prey to the disease of buying overpriced British players.

The trend has continued this summer with the signings of Romain Amalfitano and Vurnon Anita. Who you may ask? Many asked the same questions of Yohan Cabaye last season, and Cheick Tiote the year before that. Another positive for Pardew in pre-season has been the form of Sylvain Marveaux. If the French winger can put an injury-plagued first season behind him, he provides Newcastle with a genuine creative alternative to Hatem Ben Arfa. Danny Guthrie filled in admirably in midfield when needed last season, however his loss is tempered by the fact that Dan Gosling is an even better alternative now that he is finally completely fit.

Ba and Cisse will be expected to prolific again, though Pardew will have to come up with a system where the two can fit in together easily without disrupting the flow of the team. At the back, Fabricio Coloccini will continue to lead from the front, though its questionable if Steven Taylor can return to his peak form after a long injury. Davide Santon should could continue to get better this year, with Danny Simpson or Ryan Taylor adequately taking care of the right-back position.

Tottenham are yet another example of a team being an unknown quantity going into the new season. Harry Redknapp's self-effacing reign has come to an end, and in his place comes Andre Villas-Boas, the young manager who got booted out by Chelsea's band of grumpy old men for introducing new ideas at Stamford Bridge.

Despite the British media's love for Redknapp, the two most important departures for Spurs in the close season have been that of Ledley King to retirement, and the soon to be completed transfer of Luka Modric to Real Madrid. In King's place Spurs have Michael Dawson, Younes Kaboul and Sebastian Bassong. However the best of the bunch could well be the stylish Jan Vertonghen, a ball-playing centre-back who will feel right at home with Villas-Boas' preference for a deep line.

Replacing Modric is an altogether different challenge. The Croatian schemer has the midfield intelligence that is probably surpassed only by the Spanish masters. Many experts seem to be excited by the prospect of Joao Moutinho coming in as a replacement. While there is no doubt that Moutinho is a good player, he is by no means the kind of midfielder who can set the tempo of a game and dictate play with short and long passes. Neither is Raul Miereles the right man.

The solution might be closer than most Spurs fans realize. Tom Huddlestone might just be the right fit, with his excellent vision and the rare ability to always look like he has time on the ball. If Huddlestone is back to full fitness, he might feature a lot under Villas-Boas.

Gylfi Sigurdsson is a decent buy for Tottenham, although the pressure he is going to face at White Hart Lane will be significantly higher than at the Liberty Stadium. The one area where Tottenham have a glaring deficiency is in their forwards. Jermaine Defoe is currently the only striker, and whether he can fulfil a lone striker's responsibility is open to debate. It is of course possible that Villas-Boas is not as concerned about this situation because of his belief in tactical variations.

It may seem odd to many, but Spurs could be ideally suited to playing a false nine. A front six comprising off Scott Parker, Tom Huddlestone, Sandro, Gareth Bale, Rafael Van Der Vaart and Gylfi Sigurdsson doesn't sound so bad despite the absence of a striker. After all, both Van Der Vaart and Bale played as auxiliary forwards next to Emmanuel Adebayor last year with success.

While it is highly like that Spurs will sign a forward before the transfer deadline, Andres Villas-Boas might just succeed trying innovative tactical ideas with a squad shorn of egos and featuring players that are likely to be receptive towards a new vision at White Hart Lane.

Prediction: Probably the toughest match to call on the opening weekend, how the teams will line up is a complete mystery to many. It could be a game where two top 8 teams just feel each other out on the opening day of the season, although a repeat of the classic 2-2 of last season is just as likely.