Newcastle’s biggest away match since 1996? Well, perhaps.
There is an argument for the 1998 and 1999 FA Cup finals, of course, for Newcastle supporters have waited an awful long time for silverware. Yet the relative contentment around the club at that time made defeat upsetting and frustrating, but not catastrophic.
There is an argument too for the final day of the 2008/09 season when Newcastle were relegated at Villa Park. Yet even that felt different, because surviving relegation would only have been a short-term postponement of an inevitable conclusion. Newcastle had collected a group of overpaid but under-performing senior players, managed by an astonishing array of coaches. That season, Kevin Keegan, Chris Hughton, Joe Kinnear, Colin Calderwood, John Carver and Alan Shearer all took charge of at least one match.
Now, there is a far more urgent reason to avoid the drop. Relegation to the Championship would surely mean the end of Rafa Benitez’s time at the club but, conversely, survival would make his departure highly unlikely. Speak to any Newcastle fan, and they will wax lyrical about the impact Benitez has had on the club and its players. Keep him next season, and avoiding relegation would not be the likely ceiling on ambition. Newcastle really could be a feel-good club again.
It’s all just a case of history repeated, with Villa Park again the scene for Newcastle’s last attempts at staying up. Victory on Saturday would put Newcastle at least one point away from danger ahead of Sunderland’s midweek game in hand. Should results go their way, Benitez’s side could even be safe before the final day. Go badly, and Newcastle will be virtually relegated by the worst team in the Premier League.
The positive spin: Sunderland’s survival is still in their own hands with three games remaining. They face three clubs between now and the end of the season who have almost nothing to play for. Sunderland have shown in previous seasons how powerful the will to survive can be. Sunderland have only lost one of their last eight league games.
The negative spin: Sunderland have still not grasped their chance to survive, despite neither Norwich nor Newcastle pulling clear. Sam Allardyce’s side have won one of their last eight league games at the most important time of the season. That run includes failure to beat Newcastle, Crystal Palace, West Brom and Stoke. If this is the Great Escape, they’re taking their time over the opening credits.
The reality: Now is the time for Allardyce to demonstrate the attributes that prompted his appointment back in October. After taking 29 points from 27 league games in charge, Allardyce’s team must now sprint down the final straight. Five or more points would surely be sufficient to beat the drop, but Sunderland have only managed nine in their last nine. The time is now.
He’s scored 39% of Sunderland’s league goals this season and taken 28% of all their shots on target. Since the beginning of the year, those figures rise to 56% and 33%. Defoe isn’t just the heartbeat of this Sunderland survival bid, he’s every organ in the body.
Becoming the forgotten team in the Premier League’s relegation battle, Norwich will be all-but confirmed as this season’s second relegated team should they lose to Manchester United on Saturday lunchtime. No better time to complete a first league double over United since 1989/90.
Alex Neil’s side have taken eight points from their last 15 matches. Sympathy is all very well, but performances have simply not been of the quality required to survive. The canary down the mine is beginning to cough and splutter.
If the latest news/rumour/well-leaked information is true, Louis van Gaal is winning the battle to stay in charge of Manchester United next season. Poor Neil Custis is going to be a shell of a man, hungrily licking the salt from the last Ryvita in the packet. Maybe it’s time to stop all that pound-for-pound nonsense?
This really could be a good weekend for Van Gaal, too. If his United side can brush aside Norwich, United’s manager can put on his Arsenal shirt for Sunday’s late game. Anything other than a City win would leave United’s top-four hopes in their own hands. Wednesday’s fixture against West Ham would be close to a Champions League shoot out. Another year of this?
It was Joe Hart that issued the necessary call-to-arms after the limp, lifeless Champions League exit to Real Madrid:
“Roll on Sunday. I’m looking forward to it. We go again to cement our place in the Champions League. It is important for the club and for me personally. Nights like Wednesday are amazing and I want to keep them coming.”
Fighting talk from Manchester City’s best player in the Bernabeu, but Hart’s words fail to change the mood. It feels like the whole club is going through the motions, and a top-four place is still very much at stake.
Fail to beat Arsenal on Sunday, and Pellegrini’s side lose their grip on a Champions League qualifying spot. That’s almost unthinkable given Pep Guardiola’s arrival and the money spent on this squad. Never before has Guardiola experienced a Champions League-less season. Time to nip those worries in the bud.
To repeat the fact from Winners and Losers, should West Ham win their remaining three league fixtures and Manchester City lose to either Arsenal or Swansea, the job is complete. They will finish in the top four in Slaven Bilic’s first season in charge.
The first part of that unlikely combination comes at Upton Park against Swansea on Saturday, with no room for error or complacency. The last time West Ham lost at home in the league was August 22. Every other professional football team in the country has lost at home since.
Ryan Mason and Tom Carroll
With Mousa Dembele and Dele Alli suspended, there is suddenly an awful lot of space in the middle of Tottenham’s midfield. Step forward one or both of Tom Carroll and Ryan Mason to fill their boots. Good luck, fellas.
Actually, Tottenham’s final two games could be crucial for Mason and Carroll. Friend of the site Adam Bate wrote an excellent piece for Sky Sports in which he pointed out that Spurs had won only two of the ten league games in which either player had started this season. The obvious implication is that with greater strength in depth Mauricio Pochettino’s side could have won the league. The flipside is that a couple of injuries to key players could easily have seen Spurs fall out of the top four.
With Pochettino presumably intent on improving his squad this summer, both Carroll and Mason will be aware that their places are under threat. At 23 and 24 respectively, neither have enough youth to persuade their manager to place hopeful faith in their improvement.
The likelihood is that only one of pair will stay at White Hart Lane beyond this summer. The next two games are an extended probation hearing for both players.