Looking for their first single-season five-match home winning streak in 15 years, Newcastle United look to take another huge step away from the relegation scrap Saturday when they host Everton at St James’ Park.
After a disastrous start at home that featured five losses in as many matches – three of them to Big Six sides – Newcastle (8-7-14) have since rebounded to claim 19 points from their last 10 contests at St James’ Park. They have not won five on the bounce in a single season since a six-game run from January 17-April 3, 2004, though there was a five-game run bridging the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons.
Rafa Benitez’s side, however, is looking to bounce back from a 2-0 defeat at West Ham United last weekend. The triumvirate of Salomon Rondon, Ayoze Perez and January signing Miguel Almiron failed to ignite as Newcastle were limited to two shots on target, and the match was essentially done and dusted late in the first half when Florian Lejeune’s foul on Javier Hernandez resulted in a penalty by Mark Noble that completed the scoring.
“Today was a difficult game. They are a good team, they play at home and we did not start well,”striker Salomon Rondon told the club’s official website. “We conceded many fouls and we conceded corners and free kicks, and that is something we have to be aware of. We’re disappointed, because the last two weeks we’ve played really well – in big games – and got some points. Today we didn’t but we have to carry on.
“When you concede in the first few minutes it is difficult – we were waiting to play our game-plan but we weren’t able to. When you concede early on it is hard to score because they are compact out of possession and they keep the ball (when they have it). After that, we conceded a penalty and we went into half time losing 2-0.”
Despite the loss, Newcastle are still in a favourable position with nine matches remaining. They are in 14th place, six points clear of the drop, and have the best goal difference of any club in the bottom seven of the table. They are also just six points behind Everton for 10th, where they finished last season following promotion.
Benitez will be forced into at least one change to his starting XI, and it is a huge one as midfielder Sean Longstaff has been ruled out with a knee injury. Longstaff has made a huge impact since his debut against Liverpool on Boxing Day, with the 21-year-old academy product showing poise beyond his years.
Benitez does not lack for options to fill the spot, with Mo Diame, Jonjo Shelvey or Ki Sung-Yueng as potential replacements.
“We know Everton are tough to beat but again we must do what we have in the last few games we must repeat what we’ve done,” Diame told The Chronicle. “The atmosphere has been great in the last few games and we must use that again now.”
Everton (10-7-12) had their winless spell in the Merseyside Derby extended to 19 matches in all competitions but did secure a hard-earned point last weekend with a scoreless draw that also helped knock Liverpool out of the top spot in the table. The Toffees defended resolutely in claiming their second consecutive clean sheet and matched Liverpool’s total of three shots on target.
Keeper Jordan Pickford did well to marshal his defence and came up with a top-drawer save on Mohamed Salah near the first half-hour that stood as the best scoring chance of a largely even 90 minutes. It was the kind of performance that coach Marco Silva felt his side could use to kick on for the run-in to potentially get back to seventh and possibly claim a Europa League berth depending on how FA Cup results shake out.
“We are building again that confidence that we wanted,” Silva told the club’s official website. “Two clean sheets in a row, also. That is what we wanted. Even if you cannot win a match, you cannot give the opponent chances.
“We have many games, many points to win until the end of the season. It is our obligation to show always this desire and focus.”
The Toffees have shown that commitment sporadically on the road with only 15 points from their 14 road matches (4-3-7). Two of those wins and clean sheets, though, have come in the last three matches outside Goodison Park – against bottom-three sides Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town.
The two-plus weeks Everton were idle following their loss at Watford in Silva’s contentious return to Vicarage Road has clearly done his side some good with the increased practice time. Also influential was restoring Morgan Schneiderlin to a defensive midfield partnership with Idrissa Gueye to bring stability in front of the back four.
The teams played to a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture at Goodison Park in December, with Pickford preserving the point for Everton by parrying a shot by Christian Atsu in the final minutes. Rondon and Richarlison traded first-half goals for the sides, but the Toffees were profligate with chances in the opening 45 minutes with Newcastle keeper Martin Dubravka shined.
The draw ended Newcastle’s five-match losing streak to Everton in league play, and the Toffees are seeking a third win on the bounce at St James’ Park and a fifth victory in their last six visits.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 1, Everton 1.