Newcastle United faces a potential six-point relegation belter at St James’ Park on Saturday when they try to put some distance between themselves and the drop at the expense of last-place Huddersfield Town.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Magpies (6-7-13) are just one point clear of the bottom three with 12 matches remaining. They are one of six squads in a three-point band that separates 13th from 18th place in the table, though Rafa Benitez’s side does have the advantage of playing only two Big Six sides the rest of the way.
Newcastle went into the FA Cup break on a 1-1 draw at Wolverhampton, and while it was a point gained, it was also two points lost as they conceded at the death on a controversial goal by Wolves defender Willy Boly. Before embarking on warm-weather training in Spain, Benitez seethed over the perceived injustice against his goalkeeper as Boly landed with his hands on Dubravka’s shoulders after heading the ball into the net.
“In England they don’t understand the rules,” Benitez told The Times. “I can say many things but it will not change anything. I didn’t like the challenge at the end. You have to protect the keeper.”
Newcastle’s trip to Spain will provide the most benefit to recent record signing Miguel Almiron, who made his Magpies debut with a late runout versus Wolves. The Paraguay international, who came from MLS Cup winners Atlanta United in the U.S., cost £20 million as Benitez hopes he can inject some life to an attack that has totaled 22 goals – better than only Saturday’s opponents Huddersfield (14).
There is a chance he could get his first start in this match after getting extensive match time in Newcastle’s 1-1 exhibition draw with CSKA Moscow in Spain. Benitez also appeared to be preparing for his side to play more forward the rest of the term based on pushing wide backs Matt Ritchie and DeAndre Yedlin forward with the midfielders and keeping three at the back.
The break also came at an ideal time for Dubravka, whose performances in recent match have not been up to his early season standards. He also cost Newcastle a point after a late goal conceded to Spurs, but the former No. 1 for Sparta Prague appears ready to kick on for the run-in.
“If you worry about what has happened, you are not focused on your job on the pitch,” Dubravka said. “It can knock your confidence but I hope I did well enough in the previous games so I can build up my confidence again. If I look back, I’ve played well in many other games.”
The problem for Huddersfield Town (2-5-19) is they have not played well in hardly any game this term. The Terriers defied expectations by staying up after promotion last season, but a side practically bereft of offence would need to average more than a goal a game to match their total of 28 in 2017-18, and even that will likely not be enough to overcome the 14-point gap to safety.
The Terriers have dropped four on the bounce in league play and are winless in 14 overall (0-1-13) after a 2-1 loss at home to Arsenal before the FA Cup break. Huddersfield were unlucky not to have been awarded a first-half penalty down 1-0, but a goal right before intermission essentially sealed new coach Jan Siewert’s third loss in as many matches since taking over following David Wagner’s resignation last month.
“We have 12 games left and in each game there’s always a chance; that’s the way I look at it,” Siewert said at his Thursday press conference. “The important thing for me is that we take each game separately.
“As long as something is mathematically possible, I will fight for it. Everyone who is working here, every day I come here and enjoy working with everyone here, everyone deserves that we stay in the Premier League. We have to keep the fighting spirit.”
A small solace from the loss to Arsenal was Karlan Grant scoring Huddersfield’s first goal in any competition since Jan. 2 against Burnley, ending a 597-minute drought with his stoppage-time marker right before the final whistle.
Newcastle are seeking the double over Huddersfield after Salomon Rondon’s goal on 55 minutes separated the sides Dec. 15. The Magpies reportedly would have to give West Brom £16 million to make the Venezuelan international’s loan permanent, and how Newcastle deal with the striker could go a long way in determining if Benitez remains at St. James’ Park.
One of the things that immediately stands out is the fact Newcastle are playing a back four instead of five or a three-man back with wingers who don’t bomb forward. This is the real benefit of Almiron’s arrival for the Magpies, it gives Benitez flexibility he felt he did not have previously in terms of offence. It is apparent in keeping Ritchie on the wing but in a more forward role, and Almiron taking Perez’s spot as central playmaker underneath Rondon.
All things considered, though, this is a game Newcastle cannot afford to lose but also one it should have no business losing. Huddersfield are one of the few opponents — if any — the Magpies can claim to be superior to in attack, and their defence should be able to repel the Terriers’ new diamond look Siewert has opted for provided Dubravka is back to being the keeper he was in the first half of the season.
The best thing Newcastle can do is jump to an early lead. Who knows, maybe embattled owner Mike Ashley might get to enjoy a game without being booed… well, vociferously booed at least.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 2, Huddersfield Town 0.