Friday, February 1, 2013

Newcastle's French impetus pose a huge threat to stuttering Chelsea

Newcastle host Chelsea at St. James Park this Saturday, in what is certainly the most intriguing clash of the day. A few weeks ago, this game would have been considered an away banker by Rafa Benitez's men, as Chelsea had been relentless away from home, and Newcastle were in free-fall with no wins in nine games, along with an injury-ravaged squad resulting in a crippling loss of confidence on Tyneside.

However, the last round of fixtures have resulted in a dramatic turnaround of momentum leading up to this fixture. Chelsea looked set to continue their impressive away record under Benitez since losing to West Ham at Upton Park. Up 2-0 against Reading in a match they completely dominated, they somehow contrived to throw away the win, by letting the Royals (more specifically Adam Le Fondre) score two equalizing goals after the 87th minute. The Chelsea players wore a shell-shocked and ultimately demoralizing look on their faces at the final whistle.

Meanwhile Alan Pardew's men boosted by the arrival of some shrewd bargains from Ligue Un, got a new lease of life by winning 2-1 against an admittedly poor Aston Villa. With the Demba Ba transfer now behind them, the Magpies finally reverted Papiss Cisse to his preferred central striking position. With the willing and talented Yoan Gouffran an ideal foil on the wing, and the impressive Moussa Sissoko probing from midfield along with creative fulcrum Yohan Cabaye, Newcastle looked close to last season's potent attacking team, especially in the first half. Once the new signings, in particular Sissoko and Mathieu Debuchy get completely settled in, Newcastle can genuinely aspire towards a very strong close to the season.

A confident Newcastle buoyed by an excited Toon Army can certainly cause Chelsea plenty of problems. It will be interesting to see the midfield battle between Newcastle's trio of Cabaye, Sissoko and Gutierrez and Chelsea's myriad of inter-changing midfielders. Benitez will probably have Ramires and Frank Lampard at the base of midfield, with the triumvirate of Juan Mata, Oscar and either Marko Marin or Ryan Bertrand supporting Fernando Torres. It seems despite clear evidence of Demba Ba's impact, Benitez remains stubborn in his selection of his compatriot in the starting line-up. In fact, one could easily assume Benitez having a pre-planned rigid explanation in the form of not pressurizing Ba in front of fans who might be hostile to him, considering how much they idolized him recently.

Ideally Chelsea should have too much tactical sophistication and experience to see out this game, but recent trends involving these two teams have defied logic. Just when Chelsea seemed to be gathering some sort of steam under Benitez, they have thrown away unexpected points. In the opposite direction, just as Newcastle seemed to be destined for a season-long relegation battle, they now have the impetus provided by new players to make a renewed push for a top ten position. With so much at stake, and both sides vulnerable and exciting in equal measure, it is simply a match that is too close to call.