PL Preview: Chelsea v Newcastle

"You can have the top stars to bring the attention, you can have the best stadium, you can have the best facilities, you can have the most beautiful project in terms of marketing and all this kind of thing. But if you don't win, all the work these people are doing is forgotten."

- Jose Mourinho

There is war, there is peace, and there are things in between that define the nuance of a man's character. For a season that has endured as many setbacks as ours, it bears repeating that we stand firmly on the precipice of success. The margins, however, are razor-thin. Tomorrow presents yet another opportunity to claim an ounce of respect and perhaps take another gentle step in the direction of redemption. Left for dead months ago by many, this Chelsea squad continues to confound logic. More, after the jump:

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This way lads

And so it goes that we've reached the climax of our season- the remaining matches that will ultimately determine our final resting place for the campaign. Under Andre's stewardship, it appeared we were heading to the Championship. Listless performances, poor tactical decisions, and a general malaise set up shop in and around the grounds. Things could not have been worse for the young Portuguese manager and in turn, he was promptly relieved of his duties and replaced by second-in-command Roberto Di Matteo (a man who many and all have come to universally respect for his years spent in a blue shirt). Managing expectations is one of the hardest jobs to handle, and it was Roberto's first charge to attempt to downplay the likelihood of this Chelsea squad's ability to rise from the ashes and achieve some semblance of self respect. But they won his first match, and his second, third, fourth, and so on. The list of accomplishments under Bobby's guidance is not only tremendous, but special. Victories on the continent culminating in a trip to Munich for the final have sealed his lore among Chelsea loyalists as the best 'interim' manager we've had [1]. Should he manage to triumph in both his Cup undertakings, he will have undoubtedly done enough for a permanent seat at the table. Until then, Roberto and Company have the continued business of finishing the season on a high note, with three League matches remaining, and nine crucial points hanging in the balance. On to the specifics:

Who: Newcastle United F.C. (est. 1892)
What: Barclays Premier League, Round 36
When: Wednesday, 2 May, 7:30pm local time (2:30pm EST)
Where: Stamford Bridge (41,837)
How: Fox Soccer Channel (DirecTV 619, Dish Network 406)

Why: As stated above, nine points are all that remain to claim. Newcastle's weekend failure has opened up a possibility for us to steal a beat on them for the fourth and final Champions League slot [2]. A win tomorrow puts the club in pole position to determine it's own destiny. Newcastle still have a match against Manchester City and one with Everton before the year is complete. Tottenham have technically the easier schedule, with trips to Bolton, the hapless Aston Villa, and a curtain closer against a surging Fulham. Lest we forget, Arsenal, who if we win tomorrow are only two points above us, have Norwich City and West Brom. A reminder, we face Liverpool twice in four days, and close the season against Blackburn. It's obvious that something has to give- however. Draws will serve none of these clubs any advantage, and it remains to be seem who will have the collective mettle to rise above the pack and claim the fourth place berth in the CL next year.

Them: I have nothing but a tremendous amount of respect for Alan Pardew. He's done an absolutely incredible job of bringing Newcastle back to the summit, and his work in the transfer market has been beyond noteworthy- it should serve as the blueprint for all those working with smaller budgets [3]. That said, their success has brought about a certain sense of accomplishment and ultimately, a larger-than-life egoism that not all players have embraced. There exist a number of humble players in their stable, but the manager appears to have embraced this sense of confidence and in turn, is using it to attempt to motivate his players. Scanning his remarks from the pre-match press conference, Pardew offered up this salient gem of a jab in the direction of Chelsea and Roberto:

"One thing I do know is he has the luxury of picking from 22 internationals, and every one of them is a good one. So it isn't that tough to do as well as they've done I feel."

Obviously, this quote came on the heels of a prompt from one of the assembled journalists who asked whether Pardew was impressed with Di Matteo's record since taking the reigns. Clearly Alan feels that the job itself is a simple as a season of Football Manager. Or, he feels that a squad of our caliber should automatically be succeeding regardless of who's commanding the ship. I would remind Mr. Pardew of a certain Andre Villas Boas who recently tried to adapt a similar strategy, only to find himself gainfully unemployed [4]. Certainly, Pardew is entitled to his opinion on the matter, and though we might take umbrage with the tone of his comments, he's of the belief that our squad is, at least on paper, more impressive than his. It would be unwise, however, to attempt to diminish the accomplishments of Newcastle this term- despite their recent no-show against a firing-on-all-cylinders Wigan outfit that fancy their chances against Barcelona.

The greater narrative on Newcastle's season of success has less to do, in my eyes, with on-the-pitch endeavors as it has to do with off-field dealings. David Conn at The Guardian has written a brilliant article that echoes these ideas, further highlighting the internal changes that have helped to resurrect a once mighty franchise. In short, there were three distinct moments in the last two years that have come to define Newcastle's future- relegation, the sale of Andy Carroll, and finally, the name-change of St. James' Park. In all three instances, it could have spiraled into a destructive tailspin- but fortune was on their side. Relegation, in essence, was the reality-check Mike Ashley and company needed to understand that the product on the pitch was of a poor quality. Selling Andy Carroll as he was showing promise could have turned the fan-base completely against the regime, but it wasn't the case. Changing the name of one of the most hallowed grounds in the country for profit should have been the nail-in-the-coffin, but remarkably, the club has weathered the storm. Seemingly, Newcastle and it's hierarchy are riding the wave of luck after a few years of misfortune. Nobody can blame them for their glee, therefore, at having come so far in such a short space of time.

Tactically speaking, Newcastle tend to take a 4-4-2 shape, with Ba and Cisse partnering up-top to form a lethal combination. But it hasn't been the best of stretches for Ba- with his dry-spell now stretching to 11 matches (while Cisse has scored in all 11). Hatem Ben Arfa has been moved into a more central role, with Obertan preferred on the flank. This has helped open-up Newcastle's play, as the skill and technical abilities Ben Arfa can claim have benefitted him in a playmaking role. While plenty of credit is delivered to the Magpies fleet of attacking players, not enough credit is given to the defensive unit, including Tim Krul. Without his services in between the sticks, I severely doubt Newcastle would have much to cheer for this year. He has been fantastic throughout, and has shown tremendous progress and potential as the first-choice keeper. Danny Simpson and Yohan Cabaye may well miss the match with knocks picked-up during the Wigan drubbing, but both will undertake late fitness tests to determine their availability. Should Cabaye fail to heal, Pardew will likely call on the services of Tiote, that bruising man-child of a midfielder [5].

Us: You know, doing good living better. Chelsea will profit from the return of Branislav Ivanovic after seeing out his three-match domestic ban, while Gary Cahill and David Luiz continue to miss action with their respective hamstring injuries, and doubts remain over Mikel's availability. Earlier today, it was reported that both Luiz and Cahill have returned to light-training, and are rehabbing with an eye on the Champions League final. But if not, there's always Jose Bosingwa, who apparently has found his one true calling as a center back [6]. Despite being light in the resources region defensively, Chelsea had a routine exercise on Saturday to stretch their legs, and in the process left QPR for dead. Fernando got himself a hat-trick. Danny Sturridge scored within 48 seconds. John Terry rose to the occasion and scored a header, and celebrated with dignity. Even Florent Malouda got in on the act- it was one of those bizarre afternoons that comes about every season in which we turn on the style and look so incredibly composed across the park that you have to wonder why we don't perform to that level of excellence all the time.

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We are in the midst of Carlo's classic 'good moment'. Our domestic form might fail to deceive, but across competitions we've been dramatically better than anyone would want to admit. With a cast of players finding their best form at the right time, it would appear that Chelsea are favored to triumph tomorrow. Naturally, speculation is rife that Roberto will rotate his squad to keep players fresh for the challenge of Saturday's FA Cup final- I would venture that's simply not the case. Considering how effortless our QPR match was, the majority of the players will be fit and firing for tomorrow. As for guessing how the squad is aligned, I'll posit the following lineup and temper it with the notion that no matter how many times I do this exercise, I always manage to get one of my player choices wrong. So, without much ado:

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A strong starting eleven, with Ramires dropping into the central role to partner Frank. Consecutive starts for Daniel and Fernando after their impressive performances over the weekend, while Mata roams the middle looking to create chances. Against Newcastle earlier this season, Mata created four goal-scoring opportunities in his central role. Noticeably missing are Obi Mikel (down to his uncertainty) and Didier (who will get some extra rest before taking his place on the throne for the final). Last time we played Newcastle, it was a Didier Drogba header, a missed Frank Lampard penalty, and two late goals from Kalou and Sturridge to see us through- you'll recall it was also a match in which Alan Pardew was left fuming after David Luiz looked to have fouled Demba Ba early on. It could have been a red card, but a harsh one at that. Nevertheless, there's some history here, and a touch of bad blood brewing between the two sides. Both clubs are desperate to hang onto points, and neither benefit from a draw. The expectation, therefore, is an open match with both sides looking to create and take chances in front of goal.

Fun Facts

  • Chelsea are unbeaten in their last six Premier League matches (W3, D3). They last went seven without losing during a 10-match unbeaten streak from February to April 2011.
  • The Blues have not conceded a goal in the first half of their last 10 league matches, stretching back to the 2-0 defeat at Everton on February 11.
  • They are unbeaten in all seven home league matches in 2012 - their last home defeat was at the hands of Aston Villa on New Year's Eve.
  • Ashley Cole is set to make his 250th start for Chelsea.
  • Newcastle have won six of their last seven Premier League matches - but lost against Wigan last weekend.
  • The Magpies have not won in their last seven league visits to London. They have lost on their last three, including visits to Fulham and Tottenham, where they conceded five goals each time. Their last victory in the capital was 1-0 at Arsenal in November 2010.
  • Newcastle have kept 14 clean sheets in the Premier League this season - only Manchester United and Manchester City have had more.
  • Their last 14 league goals have been scored by three different players - Papiss Cisse (nine), Hatem Ben Arfa (three) and Yohan Cabaye (two).
  • Chelsea are unbeaten in their last nine Premier League matches against Newcastle since a 1-0 away defeat in May 2006 when Titus Bramble scored the goal against a Chelsea side that had already won the title.
  • Newcastle have not won on their last 18 league visits to Stamford Bridge since a 3-1 victory in November 1986. However, the Magpies did win an extraordinary Carling Cup tie 4-3 at Chelsea in September 2010.

Prediction:

Chelsea to edge this. Fernando continues his scintillating form with a brace, Ivanovic nods in a header, Newcastle fail to score. Three points heading into the weekend, and life continues to get better for Roberto.

Carefree.


1. Almost. Avram took us to the dance but ultimately watched us crumble on penalties. Guus got us to the FA Cup final and won some silverware. So, it has to rank currently as Guus, Roberto, then Avram. Return

2. Both Newcastle and Tottenham are even on points (62) and have played the same amount of matches as we have. A win tomorrow would guarantee us fifth place, and depending on Spurs outing at The Reebok, could potentially put us in fourth- two points adrift of Arsenal. Return

3. A brief history on Newcastle's spending this year sees a total capital outlay of £23.4 million, minus £9.8 million on player sales, bringing the net spending for the season to £13.6 million. Players purchased under this window include: Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse, Davide Santon, and Gabriel Obertan. The prior season, the club spent £10.25 million to secure Hatem Ben Arfa but profited tremendously from the sale of Andy Carroll. A textbook example of how to sell your assets at the highest possible value to bring in valuable role-players at cut-prices. Return

4. In the end, Andre walked away with roughly £9 million for his troubles. So, you know, not exactly the worst thing to happen to him. Return

5. Think Michael Essien, before the successive knee injuries robbed him of any semblance of ability to run. For the record, this story needs further investigating. Someone needs to ask the question of why Essien was cleared to play for Ghana twice, and incurred lasting damage to his knee under their watch. How is this not being asked? Return

6. Wouldn't you know it, just as the season is ending and Bosingwa is out of contract does he abruptly start playing well. Classic case of a player gunning for a fresh deal. We call this 'Ruben Patterson' disease where I'm from. Return

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