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Chelsea at Newcastle United: Game Preview

Shola Ameobi has ruined a Chelsea team's day once already this year. Let's not make it twice.
Shola Ameobi has ruined a Chelsea team's day once already this year. Let's not make it twice.

Time: 1:30 PM BST (5:30 AM PST), Sunday November 28th.

Location: St. James' Park, Newcastle.

Preamble: With any luck, going down 1-0 at Stamford Bridge to MSK Zilina will prove to have been the low point of the season. It hasn't been a great month for Chelsea fans - I can't think of a game that's gone particularly well, we've lost two senior members of the staff, and we've seen our lead at the top of the table slashed. And Frank Lampard is still injured. Newcastle must be counting their blessings that they get to face the champions at home on the back of such a dismal run of form, but they're in some hot water themselves - both of their first choice centre backs are missing through suspension and influential midfielder Joey Barton is serving the last game of his three match ban incurred for his infamous slapping incident a few weeks ago. With both teams severely weakened, Chelsea may be able to use the trip to the northeast to spark their season back to life.

Opposition: It's not the first time we've faced the Magpies this year. Last seasons' Championship champions have already put four goals past the Blues at Stamford Bridge in a match this September, but since it was the Carling Cup and Chelsea sent out a team so weak we cannot describe it within the roman alphabet, we're just going to pretend that never happened.

Newcastle, then, are best described as erratic. They have a Premier League calibre offence, one of the better midfields in the game when on, and a dangerous lone striker in Andy Carroll. They've beaten Arsenal at the Emirates, Everton (quite thoroughly) at Goodison Park, and they've also absolutely hammered Aston Villa at home, running out 6-0 victors over the men from Villa Park in the second week of the season. They've also lost to such luminaries as Blackpool and Blackburn, and are coming off a 5-1 thrashing against Bolton where they lost both Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini to three game suspensions. As a result of their tipsy turvy start to the season, they're sitting in 12th place - a poor position for them to be in considering the quality on their squad.

The man who's doing everything for them right now is Chiek Tiote, who's running a pass completion percentage that even John Obi Mikel would envy. The young Ivorian has modelled his game after our own Michael Essien, and his ability to win the ball and then play calm passes out of deep midfield has won him a lot of praise - as has his tireless running to track opposition danger players. Newcastle play a nominal 4-4-1-1, but second striker Kevin Nolan frequently drops deep enough to form a three-man central midfield, and when Joey Barton cuts in from the flank the team frequently finds itself dominating possession even against teams with more modern formations.

Barton won't be a factor in tomorrow's match, and Nolan may well find himself as a central midfielder behind the more forward-thinking Shola Ameobi, which would rather reduce Chelsea's burden in the middle of the pitch (although it will make life a little more difficult for the centre-back pairing). On the wings, expect Wayne Routledge and Jonas Gutierrez, neither of whom should pose too many difficulties for Ashley Cole or Jose Bosingwa on the attack but will harry Chelsea's fullback when they advance. Newcastle's centre back pairing is an obvious weakness, one which Didier Drogba will be looking to exploit - 24 year old Steven Taylor, recovering from a dislocated shoulder, looks set to start alongside old friend Sol Campbell. A fully fit Drogba should make fairly short work of this makeshift line, and it's vitally important for Chelsea's hopes of walking away with three points that the striker have a good game.

Chelsea: Still missing are England duo John Terry and Frank Lampard, and Michael Essien is also unavailable due to the unfortunate combination of a suspension and an injured toe. Yuri Zhirkov is still recovering from an injury sustained on international duty with Russia, and Josh McEachran is not expected to start in a Premier League match for quite some time, leaving Florent Malouda and Ramires to take the reins in the centre of the pitch. Branislav Ivanovic will fill the gap left in Terry's absence, allowing Jose Bosingwa to play at right back. Salomon Kalou will take Malouda's place as the left-sided forward.

Despite the obvious weakness in central midfield, Chelsea have more quality than their opposition in every area of the pitch. Ivanovic and Alex are both more than capable of dealing with Carroll and Ameobi, and with Petr Cech looking more than comfortable dealing with crosses this season the prospect of Newcastle bombarding the Chelsea box with long balls is rather less worrisome than it would have been last year. If Newcastle take the game to Chelsea, they've very likely to lose - which probably means a defensive shell that plays on the counterattack whenever possible, just like Birmingham last week.

Prediction: Two goals in the second half on Tuesday may have swung the pendulum of luck back Chelsea's way. If they play like they did against Birmingham, it'll be a comfortable win for the Blues, provided that fate is anything approaching fair. I'll tempt it by calling a 2-0 victory.

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