Date: 11th March 2009 at 8:39am
Written by:

Newcastle United face a stern test to hold onto their Premier League status ahead of the weekend’s do-or-die clash against newcomers Hull City. Phil Brown’s side are a formidable foe for stand-in manager Chris Hughton’s boys, and the former Spurs-man will have to repeat his antics against Manchester United if the Magpies are to have any chance of keeping their name in the topflight.

The encouraging signs are there, with a triple injury boost coming earlier in the week, and more good news expected in the days to come. Nicky Butt, Damien Duff, and Michael Owen are all back in contention for the much-anticipated encounter against The Tigers – a match likened to a ‘cup final’ by Owen due to its adverse subsequent impact on the Black & White’s season.

The St. James’ Park outfit have been sub-par in recent weeks, with only one worthwhile showing at home to league leaders Manchester United. Against a very strong Red Devils side, the Magpies locked horns, and produced one of the best halves of football the league has seen so far.

How did United take the game to the Old Trafford club?

Team Selection: Hughton redeemed himself for the substitution of Obafemi Martins in the match against Bolton Wanderers by giving the pacey Nigerian a place on the starting line-up. His partner — Danish speedster Peter Lovenkrands. The duo combined well, and there appeared to be at least a faint murmur of understanding between them, something Shola Ameobi does not have with any of United’s first-team strikers. Young Andy Carroll came on late in the second-half, but was highly ineffective. Being a local lad, and having height are two advantages the youth has, but one must also take the negatives — no pace, no intelligence, no movement. It is best that he be used sparingly until the end of the season, and not disturb what appears to be a worthwhile partnership between Martins, and Lovenkrands. With Michael Owen also coming back, Coach Chris has a tough call to make.

Work-rate: For the first-time in the season, every player on the pitch seemed to genuinely care about each other, and more importantly the team. Anyone under pressure received support from a teammate. Attacks were swiftly extinguished with combined marking, and while some may question the ability of Geremi, and Alan Smith at the heart of the United midfield, their work-rate was fantastic. Nicky Butt was sorely missed – simply due to his stamina, and defensive experience, but the real work-horse was Argentine winger Jonas Gutierrez. His stamina, dedication, and heart proved to be a major plus for the team, and one of the fundamental catalysts which lifted spirits on and off the pitch for the Magpies.

Tactics: Most of the Toon attacks came on the break, but that does not mean the team only stuck to one form of offense. Martins, Lovenkrands, and Gutierrez used their formidable pace, and intelligence to make well-poised runs – each possessing the ability to beat the first defender. Instead of sitting back, Smith, and Geremi joined the party up top, with Jose Enrique also providing width down the left flank which took the Red Devils off-guard. This attacking intent was missing for much of the season for team, and it is this that may save the Magpies’ season. Positivity is what Hughton and his staff have to focus on. Playing negative football, and implementing Kinnear’s longball tactics should be avoided. If not for the results, then for the sanctity of football. A message to Coach Chris, ‘Please don’t eradicate the fun out of the beautiful game.’ The fans want to see their side scare defenses, not be intimidated to stay in its own half. Let’s adhere to the saying, ‘Offense is the best form of defense.’

Central defensive partnership: Sebastien Bassong, and Fabricio Coloccini have forged a commendable partnership at the heart of the Toon defense, and it is their understanding, and superior communication that stabilised an otherwise leaky backline. Jose Enrique is finally coming through, and his coordination with Jonas Gutierrez has raised a few eyebrows in the last few months. Steven Taylor remains the weakest link in the current side, and one hopes that when Habib Beye returns from injury in the next two weeks, Taylor will find a warm place on the bench to rest his bumbling self.

Cause for concern

However, there are a few concerns that keep popping up at the head of the queue every time the Magpies prepare for a match.

Finishing: Every striker on the United roster has endured some injury or another this season, and none have exhibited the level of sharpness needed from a topflight striker. Obafemi Martins has been infamous in his finishing in the last two matches, and Peter Lovenkrands missed an absolute sitter against Everton which may have won the Toon the match. One must not even bring Shola Ameobi into this argument due to his one-goal-every-ten-chances ratio, or even young Andy Carroll who misses too many before scoring. Michael Owen comes as a welcome addition after returning from injury but he is expected to at least take a week or two to settle in, and rediscover his predatory instincts.

Set-pieces: Ryan Taylor has simply not lived up to his reputation as a premier set-piece taker. He is yet to score for the Toon even after being presented ample opportunity from various spots around opponent penalty areas, but to no avail. A staggering 76% of his corners have hit the first man, or have evaded his teammates – making nothing of worthwhile opportunities to score. If not Taylor, then who? Once Danny Guthrie returns, one can hope for better delivery. Joey Barton, and Kevin Nolan are options as well, but Damien Duff should be told to stay as far as away from the corner flag as possible. Possibly in a joint-tie with Geremi as the worst corner-taker of the team, Duff’s delivery seems to always be to the ball boys behind the opponent goal post. No teammate ever gets a whiff of the ball, and the result is always a goal-kick.

Distribution: Steve Harper’s distribution skills are questionable, at best. His sense of direction, and his awareness are in need of improvement, as close inspection revealed that his clearances, and goal kicks rarely, if ever, falls to the feet of a teammate. Harper is too slow, and does not spot a pass as effectively as former Magpie Shay Given used to. One can only hope that Harper works hard and improves this aspect of his game.

Right-Flank: Steven and Ryan Taylor, the dynamically ineffective duo need to be told to shake-off their mediocrity and step-up. As a fullback, Steven Taylor is as effective as a detergent on rust. He does not work well with his partner on the flank, has zero understanding with the central midfield, and often mistimes his runs. Aside from shoddy defensive judgment, Ryan and Steven also share questionable decision-making as a professional trait.

The answer is not Damien Duff, nor is it Jonas Gutierrez, as both players have exhibited their best performances playing on the left wing. Peter Lovenkrands, another left-footed player, is the most likely candidate, with the Dane showing flashes of his brilliance in recent weeks.

Final thoughts: With a tough set of fixtures awaiting the Toon, the performance against Manchester United will serve as a model to build upon. A win at Hull City will put the Magpies back on the survival trail, and with an available 30 points still up for grabs, if a winning streak can be instigated, as Glenn Roeder did in his final season in charge, United can consider themselves saved. Positivity, and belief is the fuel that should drive the club from now till the end of the season.

It is not impossible, nor is it improbable – if only the fans get behind the team, and the staff plug-in the inherent holes in the team. With the players the club has, and the way the side has shown grit and resilience in the past two seasons to stay up, Newcastle United FC is in fact ‘too good to go down.’

Seriously, could you bank on this side to go down?

Man Utd formation - No injuries