After years of misery on Tyneside, the Toon Army could be enjoying a five-day run of euphoria if Newcastle United can pull off a second shock scoreline Saturday at Wembley against a Tottenham Hotspur squad trying to stay on the fringes of the Premier League title race.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Magpies (6-6-12) are in the heat of the relegation scrap but helped themselves in huge fashion Tuesday with a 2-1 stunner over reigning Premier League champions Manchester City at St James’ Park, throwing a spanner into the race as the Citizens fell five points off Liverpool’s pace.
Three points did not seem in the offering after Newcastle conceded to Sergio Aguero 24 seconds after the opening whistle, and they caught a break just after the quarter-hour when Paul Tierney ruled out a second when he adjudged Kevin De Bruyne’s free kick that Aguero finished to have been taken too soon.
But Rafa Benitez’s charges worked their way back into the match. Salomon Rondon pulled the Magpies level on 66 minutes before Matt Ritchie converted a penalty 10 minutes from time after Sean Longstaff was fouled by Fernandinho.
“It’s up there at the top – it’s the best bar none I think,” said Longstaff – who has come up through the ranks to take on an integral midfield role – to the club’s official website. “The night didn’t start well, but if you’re going to concede a goal, concede it in the first minute so you’ve still got another 89 to get a couple back.
“Look, it’s an unbelievable night. I can’t really put it into words. I think towards the end I could hear the fans singing my name and I stopped, just looked around and took it all in.”
The good times continued ahead of Thursday’s January window close as Newcastle finally – finally – broke the club record for a transfer established back in 2005 at £16.8 million when they signed Michael Owen. Embattled owner Mike Ashley opened the pursestrings and laid out £21 million for Paraguay international Miguel Almiron, who helped American side Atlanta United win the MLS Cup this past fall.
Almiron is a pacy attacking midfielder who should slot in straightaway underneath Rondon and form a potent offensive triangle with Ayoze Perez in a 4-2-3-1 formation, or in central midfield if Benitez opts to go four across there.
“We were following Miguel Almirón for a while, and we saw a player with some pace in attack, who can play behind the striker,” Benitez told NUFC TV about Almiron, who had 13 goals and 16 assists in 37 matches with Atlanta United this term. “We have someone who can score goals and give assists. We know that MLS is a different challenge to the Premier League, but he has the potential to do what we are expecting, and what we need.
“From talking to the lad, you can tell that he is really focussed and wants to do well. He wants to be successful and he wants to help the team, to score goals and give assists if it is possible.”
The Almiron signing may also be a sign Ashley – who is reportedly trying to sell the team – wants to sign Benitez to a contract extension since the Spaniard’s deal runs out at season’s end. The two had been at an impasse for much of January, with Benitez not committing to a deal until he got reinforcements for the relegation scrap and Ashley not willing spend the money unless Benitez committed to the long haul.
While Ashley and Newcastle finally spent money, Tottenham (18-0-6) went in the other direction for the second straight transfer window. As a result, Spurs became the first team in Premier League history not to add any players in back-to-back windows as club chairman Daniel Levy opted to stand pat as his club tries to overcome a seven-point gap to Liverpool for their first league title since 1961.
The controversial move will be bandied about in London and England, as Spurs are also in the Champions League knockout round for the second straight year. But they are without injured superstars Harry Kane and Dele Alli until at least March with ankle and hamstring injuries, respectively, which would rule them out of at least the first leg of their round of 16 tie versus Borussia Dortmund.
The Lilywhites were rescued late by Heung-Min Son and Fernando Llorente, who both scored in the final 10 minutes of their 2-1 win over Watford on Wednesday. Son was a surprise inclusion to a degree, quickly returning from the United Arab Emirates after South Korea was eliminated in the Asian Cup. He was in the first XI and continued his blistering form with his eighth goal in his last nine matches for the north London club in all competitions.
“I was following the (cup) games when I was away, of course I was disappointed we were knocked out in the semi-final (of the Carabao Cup) and then the FA Cup as well,” Son told the club’s official website. “I came back, we won, it’s exciting and I love to be back here, to see the fans, my team-mates and the win means so much to me. I’m very happy to be back.”
Llorente’s match-winner three minutes from time was his second goal in his last three games.
Spurs are seeking their second straight double over Newcastle after a 2-1 win at St James’ Park to open the season. All three goals came in the first 18 minutes as Jan Vertonghen scored in the eighth minute for Spurs, only to have Joselu equalise three minutes later.
Alli’s goal on 18 minutes, though, stood as the match-winner. Whether it is White Hart Lane or Wembley, Newcastle have been a tough out for the London outfit, who snapped a three-match home losing streak to the Magpies in league play with a 1-0 victory in last season’s corresponding fixture.
Per Bet365, Spurs are 2/5 favourites to claim all three points to continue their firm grip on third place, while Newcastle are 7/1 underdogs to claim a second straight win over a Big Six side. The odds of the teams sharing the points are 7/2.
It is a narrow spread on the over/under, with 4/5 odds of the sides going over 2.5 goals in contrast to even money for a result under that threshold. There are 3/4 odds on at least one clean sheet being recorded, considered slightly more likely than the even money for both teams getting at least one goal.
After leading Tottenham’s fightback against Watford, Son leads the line for first goal-scorer options at 15/4, with Llorente second at 4/1. Lucas Moura is a 9/2 pick while Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela are both 11/2 options. Rondon is the pick of the litter for the Magpies at 11/1 to make it 0-1, followed by Ayoze Perez and Joselu at 12/1. Ritchie is a ways back of his teammates at 18/1.
To score over the course of the 90 minutes, Son is an 11/10 option while Llorente is a 6/5 choice. Moura checks in at 11/8, once more ahead of Eriksen and Lamela — both of whom are 7/4. Lilywhites reserves Kazaiah Sterling offers a 2/1 return and Georges Nkoudou is an 11/4 pick. Rondon is a 7/2 pick as Newcastle’s top option, with Perez and Joselu 4/1 and Ritchie a 6/1 selection.
The expectation is that Almiron will be on the 18-man roster for this game and potentially get a run-out in the last half-hour depending on how the match plays out. About the only worry for this signing since it seems to dovetail with everything Benitez wanted is the expectations that will be placed upon the Paraguay international.
At the very least, he is expected to be instrumental in keeping Newcastle above the drop and in the top flight for next season. In the bigger picture, one wonders about the future of Jonjo Shelvey with Almiron’s arrival, or whether even Perez could be made expendable if the South American delivers on the promise he showed in Major League Soccer.
But those arguments are weeks and months away. In the immediate short term, there is this match, one where even a draw can be called a bonus after their shock win over Manchester City. That it came with arguably Benitez and their supporters’ backs to the wall as the hue and cry over Ashley’s management (or mismanagement) made it all the sweeter. Now the challenge is to avoid a two steps forward, one step back moment this match offers.
On the other side are Spurs, who almost appear to be giving manager Mauricio Pochettino every excuse possible to walk away from this side at season’s end. From the eternal delays of moving back into White Hart Lane to not spending in two consecutive transfer windows with a team that is still in contention for a Premier League title, it has the feel of Levy playing a game of chicken he does not care if he wins or loses.
Son again emerged as an unsung hero of this side, shaking off the fatigue of the Asian Cup to deliver another timely goal. Llorente has finally shown what he can do with regular playing time, and the challenge for the Lilywhites is to at least hold their ground until Kane and Alli return. There is still plenty of pop on offence behind the pair with Lucas Moura, Christian Eriksen and even Erik Lamela, it’s a matter of staying the course and keeping pressure on City and Liverpool.
While both teams had huge victories, momentum appears to be on the Spurs side more. It is a team grinding out results, and that is vital in a match like this one since Benitez will set up to frustrate with a five-man back. This has the feel of a match decided in the final quarter-hour, with Spurs possessing enough quality and depth to deliver a Toon heartbreak.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 1, Newcastle United 0.