2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 — Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)

With multiple irons in the fire and a top-four spot to defend, Chelsea look to bounce back from a tough Carabao Cup loss Saturday when they host relegation-threatened Newcastle United.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Eds note — replace Atsu for Muto on Newcastle left wing

The turn of the calendar year saw no let-up in the fixture list for the Pensioners, who were held to a draw at Southampton in their first league match of 2019. They followed that with a 2-0 victory over Nottingham Forest on Saturday in the third round of the FA Cup as Alvaro Morata had a second-half brace.

Tuesday, though, was a different story as Chelsea (13-5-3) lost 1-0 to Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinals. Harry Kane’s contested penalty on 27 minutes was all that separated the London sides, with manager Maurizio Sarri taking heart in the fact the tie was still delicately balanced and Chelsea played far better than they did in a 3-1 loss to Spurs in late November in which they were bossed all over Wembley.

“We deserved more because in this match we played better than the opponents,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “We were in control of the match and defended well against a team dangerous in the offensive phase, so we deserved more. We played about 70 balls in the opposition box against 11 balls of Tottenham in our box, 18 shots against seven I think, five goal opportunities against two, so we deserve more.

“So I am really disappointed with the result but very happy with the performance, one of the most important of the season from my team.”

Sarri had issue with the penalty awarded Kane, noting the original call of Spurs being offsides should have stood as opposed to VAR overturning it after Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga upended the England international. As someone who dealt with VAR while managing Napoli in Italy, Sarri dryly noted, “I think they need to study better this system.”

Chelsea already made a splash in the transfer market with the acquisition of Borussia Dortmund winger Christian Pulisic for next season, but for the January window, the London side are the subjects of constant speculation. Notably absent from Tuesday’s 18-man roster was Morata, with rumours of him returning to Spain with Sevilla bandied about.

There is talk of Sarri being reunited with Gonzalo Higuain, who is currently on loan from Napoli to AC Milan, with reports Higuain’s agent is in London to hammer out some sort of deal. Bayern Munich continue to be in pursuit of winger Callum Hudson-Odoi, who is making himself more indispensable to Sarri with each passing performance.

The good news for Sarri is two of the players currently in his squad – centre-forward Olivier Giroud and winger Pedro – should be available for starting duties after both came off the bench Tuesday. Giroud would allow Hazard to go back on the wing as opposed to the false nine spot Sarri has used the Belgium international more of late.

Newcastle United (4-6-11) could only hope to have such names associated with them bandied about in the transfer rumour mill as manager Rafa Benitez begins yet another window with hat in hand to owner Mike Ashley looking for any sort of reinforcements to help in the relegation scrap to stay afloat for a third consecutive season in 2019-20.

The Magpies have been linked with a possible move for winger Miguel Almiron, the Paraguay international who recently helped Atlanta United win the MLS Cup in just their second season in the top flight of American football. Atlanta is reportedly asking for a minimum of £24 million for the 24-year-old Almiron, who totaled 21 goals and 28 assists in 62 league matches the last two seasons, a figure that would finally break Newcastle’s transfer record of £16.5 million for Michael Owen in 2005.

“He is an amazing player, he was one of the best players on the pitch in both of the All-Star games that we played against Juventus and Real Madrid,” Atlanta United president Darren Eales recently told SkySports. “I have no doubt that when the time is right and the offer is right, he can be a success in whatever league he goes to.”

As Newcastle look to find reinforcements, Benitez must find a way to come up with points against the Big Six to aid in the relegation scrap. The Toons have yet to take any of a possible 21 from their first seven such contests after a 2-0 loss at Manchester United on Jan. 2. Some solace can be taken in Newcastle being a better road side than at home this term, collecting 11 of their 18 points (2-5-3) outside St James’ Park.

The expectation is Benitez will stay with the five-man backline he has used in league play for the last four league matches as well as the teams at the top of the table. Newcastle United will be without winger Kenedy for this match since he is ineligible to face his parent club, perhaps opening the door for Christian Atsu to play on the wing and move Ayoze Perez into a central playmaking role.

The ultra-conservative tactics nearly got Newcastle a point in the reverse fixture against Chelsea, who were gifted a 2-1 win when Newcastle right back DeAndre Yedlin deflected a shot by Marcos Alonso into his own net on 87 minutes. Hazard had staked the Pensioners to a lead on 76 minutes from the spot before the Magpies equalised through Joselu with seven minutes remaining.

Chelsea are 5-1-1 in their last seven versus Newcastle in all competitions and have won six on the bounce at Stamford Bridge since a 2-0 loss in 2012. The Magpies are a woeful 2-6-17 in their trips to Chelsea in the Premier League era, with the other triumph coming in the 2010-11 League Cup.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Chelsea are 2/9 favourites to complete the double over Newcastle, who are 16/1 longshots to beat a Big Six side for the first time in eight tries this term. The odds of a draw to give the Magpies their first point in such contests are 6/1.

Oddsmakers are expecting Chelsea to find a way to breach Newcastle’s defence, with 4/6 odds on clearing 2.5 goals compared to 6/5 odds on going under. There are 1/2 odds there will be a clean sheet in either direction, compared to a 6/4 offering on both sides scoring.

Unsurprisingly, Hazard leads the list of options for first goal-scorers, getting 13/5 odds to do it in both matches between the teams. Giroud, who may or may not start, is second at 10/3, while Morata rounds out the top three at 4/1. Chelsea, in fact, occupy the first 14 slots on the list for the first goal before there is a Rondon sighting at 18/1 along with Joselu. Hudson-Odoi is a 9/2 selection, followed by Willian (5/1) and Pedro (11/2).

Hazard and Giroud are better than even money odds at 4/5 and 5/6, respectively, to score at any time during the contest. Morata is again third at 11/10, with Hudson-Odoi (5/4) and Willian (7/5) completing the top five. Rondon and Joselu are again paired together, this time at 11/2, to score over the course of 90 minutes.

PREDICTION

What a difference a better performance makes. After looking like he wanted to run away and hide from the world after his side’s first loss to Spurs, Sarri was in much better spirits after Tuesday’s loss, and with good reason. The Pensioners took the fight to their London rivals for almost the entire hour after Kane’s penalty, denied once by the woodwork and also by some competent goaltending from Spurs deputy Paolo Gazzaniga.

This is a chance for Chelsea to reinforce what worked in that game, though it may also be a chance for Sarri to find out once and for all whether or not he wants to keep Morata or off-load him for a different centre-forward. Holding him out of Tuesday’s contest on the heels of a brace was puzzling unless there is a deal to send him back to a La Liga side. But given how Chelsea refused to let Cesc Fabregas leave for Monaco until Friday, it seems unlikely Morata will not at worst be on the bench for this game or possibly start.

Newcastle will be Newcastle in this match, which is every bit the backhanded compliment it is intended to be. The Magpies will defend resolutely and stubbornly, perhaps release Ritchie and Yedlin down the flanks on the occasional counter, but they will cede too much possession to Chelsea (again) and be suspectible to crosses in the box from Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta as opposed to the wingers given how compact the two lines will be.

It is understood Benitez is simply doing what he can with what he has, and it continues to be a source of frustration throughout Tyneside and the Toon Army given his coaching acumen in contrast to what he is given to work with considering the spendthrift ways of Ashley.

This match, as Agent Smith best said in The Matrix, “is the sound of inevitability.”

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 3, Newcastle United 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS:

West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)
Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)
Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)

The sudden juggernaut who are Manchester United attempt to make it four wins in four under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Wednesday when they face Newcastle United at St James’ Park.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Solskjaer, best remembered as the striker who capped United’s historic treble with his dramatic stoppage-time winner versus Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, has breathed new life into what was a moribund United (10-5-5) since his arrival on loan from Norwegian side Molde.

The Red Devils have totaled 12 goals in his three matches in charge, with an emphasis on going forward with Paul Pogba in a more advanced role in midfield. The France international and World Cup winner has factored in seven of the goals scoring four and assisting on three after recording his second consecutive brace in Sunday’s 4-1 romp past Bournemouth.

One of the more notable differences under Solskjaer is Pogba finding his way into the penalty area, a sign of trust from the new manager and also a sign the defence in midfield is in capable hands with Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera.

Marcus Rashford contributed a goal and an assist, and in his first appearance for United under Solskjaer after returning from compassion leave, Romelu Lukaku capped the scoring on 72 minutes almost straightaway after his introduction for Rashford.

United are almost at full strength in attack, with Alexis Sanchez expected to be included for the first time since a reserve appearance against Crystal Palace on Nov. 24. The Chile international, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury in addition to reportedly falling out of favour with since-sacked Jose Mourinho, has just three goals in 22 league matches since joining United from Arsenal last January.

“Alexis has had some great training sessions over the last few days and wanted to be here (against Bournemouth) as well but we’ve had to manage him,” explained Solskjaer to the club’s official website. “He’s been out for a month. He will be involved (at Newcastle), yes. He wants to play all the time, he’s one of those characters. He made himself available but I think it was a few days too early for him. He’s not had enough fitness work but he is champing at the bit.

“I think Alexis is a player that would benefit from the interchanging, rotation and movements and, of course, more chances. If we create more chances and get the ball in the final third, he will be an asset for us.”

Solksjaer will be forced into one change from Sunday’s XI as Eric Bailly will begin serving his three-match ban for a reckless challenge on Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser. Phil Jones is expected to pair with Victor Lindelof in central defence, with Matteo Darmian on standby since Chris Smalling and Marcus Rojo are sidelined through injury.

There has only been light speculation over United’s doings in the upcoming transfer window, though the club has been linked to 19-year-old Ajax centre back Matthis de Ligt. Prior to his dismissal, Mourinho had been adamant about acquiring another central defender, but club chairman Ed Woodward rebuffed Mourinho’s want of Spurs’ Toby Alderweireld.

As Manchester United appear to have found themselves, Newcastle United (4-6-10) continue to scrap for any and all points in a bid to avoid the drop. The Magpies dropped two crucial points Saturday at Watford when they were pegged back for a 1-1 draw courtesy a late Hornets goal by Abdoulaye Doucoure eight minutes from time.

Salomon Rondon, who was rested Boxing Day when the Magpies took a 4-0 hiding from Arsenal, staked Newcastle to the lead just before the half-hour with his third goal in the last five matches he has played. The Venezuela international has scored or assisted on Newcastle’s last four goals spanning the club’s last seven matches and has accounted for five of their 15 goals in league play.

The impending transfer window will likely provide more friction between Benitez and embattled owner Mike Ashley, who is again reportedly close to selling the club. The Spaniard has spent nearly every window publicly beseeching Ashley to open the purse strings in post-match press conferences, only to have the amount fall short of what he desires or not seen at all.

With a contract that expires in May and no new offer to extend Benitez’s deal – much to the chagrin of club supporters who are firmly in the Spaniard’s camp – the gaffer gave the sound of a man whose loyalty is being tested despite sticking with them to win the Championship and earn promotion back to the Premier League in 2017.

“I think our fans are quite clever,” he told the Chronicle Live. “I decided to stay when I came here, and I thought we could save the team, but we couldn’t. I then decided to stay in the Championship, so they know about my past, about my history.

“They appreciate that, and then we won, which is football. Even if you have a good CV, you still have to win.”

Winning at home is something Newcastle have not done much of this term. The Magpies are just 2-1-7 at St James’ Park, totaling only seven goals while shipping 15. They also have six losses in as many matches to Big Six foes, with all but the defeat at Arsenal coming by one goal.

The loss to United at Old Trafford may have been the most painful one of the six as Newcastle roared to a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes through Yoshinori Muto and Joselu, only to see Manchester United fight back in the final 20 minutes to win 3-2. Juan Mata and Anthony Martial scored in the 70th and 76th minutes, respectively, before Sanchez headed in his only goal of the season at the death.

Newcastle won last term’s corresponding fixture 1-0 courtesy of Matt Ritchie’s goal on 65 minutes but have won just six of 47 Premier League matches (6-14-27) between the sides.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester United’s renaissance has caught the attention of oddsmakers as they are 4/7 favourites to win their fourth match on the bounce. Newcastle United are 9/2 underdogs to deal Solskjaer his first loss since taking over, and there are 3/1 odds on the sides splitting the points.

Even with Newcastle’s expected defensive set-up for this encounter, the odds of there being more than 2.5 goals are 4/6 compared to 6/5 odds on a total under that mark. With United still shaky at times in the back coupled with Newcastle having scored twice in the reverse fixture, there are 7/10 odds on both teams getting at least one goal compared to 21/20 odds on a clean sheet in either direction.

After scoring on his return from compassion leave, Lukaku is a 4/1 pick to score the first goal of this match, followed by Anthony Martial (9/2). Pogba, Rashford and Alexis Sanchez are all 5/1 picks to create a 0-1 scoreline, with Jesse Lingard is a 15/2 pick. Unsurprisingly, Rondon leads the line for the Magpies at 17/2, with Joselu (9/1) and Perez (10/1) rounding out the top three for the hosts.

No one on United is better than even money to score, though Lukaku (11/10) and Martial (6/5) are fairly close. The trio of Pogba, Rashford and Sanchez are all 11/8 options, with Lingard tabbed at 11/5. For Newcastle, Rondon is a 5/2 pick, followed by Joselu (11/4) and Perez (3/1).

PREDICTIONS

Benitez has some interesting personnel and tactical decisions to make considering how Manchester United are nothing like the side Newcastle faced in October. For starters, will he go with a five-man back for the third straight match? Despite the heavy 4-0 scoreline at Anfield, the Magpies did not play all that badly and were eight minutes from a crucial three-point pickup at Watford last weekend.

Rondon missed the first match through injury, and his form makes him a virtual must-start given Newcastle’s lack of scoring options beyond him. The loss at Old Trafford was one of just three matches all season Benitez’s team has scored more than one goal, and they have yet to register three in any contest. If Rondon operates by his lonesome, how do Liverpool supply him? Will it be through the flanks with Kenedy and Perez, or will it be over the top, with Shelvey appearing to be finally over his thigh injury.

Newcastle tried — with much success — pumping balls up to keep the Red Devils’ back four pinned just above the box in the first encounter, and Manchester United contributed to Newcastle’s success with some abject defending. Bailly, who lasted just 19 minutes before being fish-hooked out by Mourinho, will not be at the centre of any controversy this time around as a spectator.

This will be the first real test of United’s offence given the lack of quality of both Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town, and the lack of anything resembling a top-tier defence from injury-ravaged Bournemouth last time out. Though the expectation is for Martial to start, seeing Sanchez from the opening kickoff would not be a surprise. Both have the capacity to give Newcastle United right back DeAndre Yedlin a miserable time on the left.

For all their new-found prowess in attack, United are still a work in progress on defence. The expectation is Newcastle will be content to try and hit on the counter — thus the less possession the Magpies have, the better off United’s back four are. If Diogo Dalot does get the rotational start over Ashley Young at right back, how he deals with both Kenedy and Ritchie — who is more of a wing player than a fullback — will be something to watch.

As all this goes on, the subplot of Benitez versus Ashley in the transfer window will heat up quickly if things go sideways in this contest. It borders on unseemly that the perception is Benitez seemingly begging for table scraps in terms of what Ashley is willing to spend, which of course is no guarantee that any funds are forthcoming.

Much of the core of this side is the one who won the Championship in 2016-17. Benitez completely overachieved with this squad into a top-half finish last term, something that said as much about the “Other 14” in the Premier League in terms of overall quality. That holds true again to a degree, though there is a more defined stratification that makes the bottom half of the table more compressed after the Big Six and the next four among Wolves, Watford, Leicester City and perhaps Everton when they’re in the mood.

Newcastle are walking a fine line right now, and while a one-goal loss would be both unsurprising and frustratingly acceptable to this suddenly rejuvenated Manchester United side in the grand scheme of Premier League survival, a defeat like the one at Anfield could potentially make January a miserable month for the Magpies.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 1, Manchester United 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 20 Preview — Watford (8-3-8) vs. Newcastle United (4-5-10)

A pair of teams seeking a bounce-back effort collide at Vicarage Road, where Watford look to maintain their top-half status while keeping Newcastle United in the throes of the relegation scrap.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Hornets (8-3-8) were denied a third win on the spin Boxing Day as they succumbed to Chelsea 2-1 at home. Two decisions by referee Martin Atkinson in a four-minute span – one not to award a penalty to Watford after Gerard Deulofeu was felled by David Luiz and one pointing to the spot after Hornets keeper Ben Foster upended Eden Hazard – proved pivotal as the Belgium international completed his brace by sending Foster the wrong way for the tiebreaking goal on 58 minutes.

Otherwise it was a credible effort by Javi Gracia’s side, who went into the locker room level after a well-designed corner kick from the training ground resulted in a thunderous volley by Roberto Pereyra in stoppage time that beat Kepa Arrizabalaga inside the right post.

“Maybe in the moment when we were playing better, in my opinion, in the second half, playing more time in the opposition half, it was when we conceded the second goal,” Gracia told the Watford Observer. “But I’m proud of the effort of my players and we’ll try to do better to get a better result in the next game.”

Gracia may be forced into one change for this match after centre back Christian Kabasele was stretchered off on 16 minutes following a collision with the post as he tried to clear a ball off the line. The Hornets boss had started the same back four for six consecutive league matches, and Adrian Mariappa would be Kabasele’s most likely replacement in the starting XI.

Pereyra has perked up again as the Argentina international netted his sixth goal in all competitions and has factored in Watford’s last two non-penalties. The marker also resulted in Jose Holebas’ first assist since their 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Sept. 2.

Newcastle United (4-5-10) suffered a similar result to a Big Six side but with a far worse scoreline as table-toppers Liverpool handed the Magpies a 4-0 hiding at Anfield on Boxing Day. Early errors in each half resulted in goals conceded, and Liverpool added gloss to the scoreline and Rafa Benitez’s dismay with two markers in the final 11 minutes.

Benitez appeared to be set up to limit the damage with his customary five-man back against a high-powered opponent in addition to resting top offensive playmakers Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez as part of six changes to the side that played Fulham to a scoreless draw over the weekend. With every point at a premium and Newcastle only five points clear of the drop at the halfway point, the decision to fight another day punching against an opponent in the same weight class may prove a shrewd decision.

The Spaniard, though, was not in the mood to discuss his current personnel switches as his short answers when asked about potential reinforcements in the upcoming transfer window hinted he will be locking horns with owner Mike Ashley once more in his bid to keep Newcastle in the top flight.

“Yes, I was talking with (managing director) Lee Charnley and still I have the same feeling: that it will not be easy,” Benitez told the Chronicle Live while noting that Ashley currently on holiday has complicated his timetable to bring in potential new players.

It may be a good thing Newcastle are on the road for a second consecutive match since that is where the bulk of their points have been accumulated. The Toons have claimed 10 of their 17 points outside St James’ Park and have yet to lose on the grounds of a non-Big Six side (2-4-0).

One of Newcastle’s two home wins, however, came in the reverse fixture Nov. 3. Perez’s goal on 65 minutes separated the sides and gave the Magpies their first league victory after an 0-3-7 start. While there was offensive intent as the teams combined for 26 shots, there was a lack of quality finishing as only three of them registered on target.

It also ended a five-match winning streak by Watford in all competitions between the teams. Newcastle have never done a Premier League double over the Hornets, last achieving one while the sides were in the Championship in 2009-10.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Watford are 4/5 favourites to bounce back with a win and claim all three points, while Newcastle United are 4/1 underdogs to recover with a third road win on the season. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 27/10.

Unsurprisingly, oddsmakers think this game will not feature many goals as there are 4/5 odds the total will be under 2.5 goals compared to even money to top that threshold. There are 10/11 odds in both directions whether there will be at least one clean sheet or both teams scoring.

Hornets striker Troy Deeney leads the list of options for first goal-scoring honours at 5/1, leading a list of five players from the host side that include Isaac Success and Stefano Okaka (11/2) and Deulofeu and Pereyra (13/2). Rondon tops the options for the Magpies at 17/2, followed by fellow striker Joselu at 9/1. Newcastle attacking midfiedlers Ayoze Perez and Yoshinori Muto along with Watford starlet Domingos Quina (10/1).

Deeney is a 13/8 pick to score over the course of the 90 minutes, with Success and Okaka a step back at 15/8 and Deulofeu and Pereyra at 11/5. Rondon and Joselu are 3/1 options, with Perez, Muto and Quina all offering a 7/2 return.

PREDICTION

One can sense that Benitez is fast approaching a breaking point with the dithering by Ashley and Charnley regarding the January transfer window. Never mind the fact it is somewhat difficult to find a true impact player in that window, but the fact Benitez’s pleas have taken on the form of hostage negotiations in which he begs for what appear to be table scraps is not a good luck for a club as large as Newcastle — however inverse Ashley’s ambitions are perceived by supporters.

On the pitch, the decision to hold out Rondon and Perez at Anfield puts enormous pressure on the pair to produce something in this match. Rondon, at least, has been playing at a high level of late — the Venezuela international had scored all five of his goals in the prior six matches before the Magpies were shut out in the previous two.

Perez has been somewhat disappointing this term — he has not factored in a goal since his match-winner in the reverse fixture, a goal that stands as his only one of the season.

Watford continues to have the look of a side evolving to that next level where they will compete for a top-half finish with an eye on trying to challenge Everton and Bournemouth for a potential Europa League spot. When the left side of the Hornets — Jose Holebas, Pereyra and Deeney from front to back — are all engaged and going forward, Watford are at their most dangerous.

If Shelvey is available, that would be a huge boost for Newcastle since he is their most creative midfield player. The Magpies did not look all that bad at times going forward versus Liverpool, but those half-seconds of mistiming are all the more magnified against the league’s best. If those chances are available again, Newcastle’s ability to convert will make the difference between a potential loss and a point or three.

PREDICTION: Watford 1, Newcastle United 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 20 PREVIEWS:

Tottenham Hotspur (15-0-4) vs. Wolverhampton (7-5-7)
Liverpool (16-3-0) vs. Arsenal (11-5-3)
Southampton (3-6-10) vs. Manchester City (14-2-3)
Manchester United (9-5-5) vs. Bournemouth (8-2-9)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 19 Preview — Liverpool (15-3-0) vs. Newcastle United (4-5-9)

There will always be a fondness for Rafa Benitez for the Miracle at Istanbul that resulted in Liverpool’s fifth and most recent European title.

But with current manager Jurgen Klopp actively on the prowl for No. 6 as well as a long-awaited first Premier League title, sentimentality will give way to the business of getting points on Boxing Day as the table-topping Reds welcome their former manager and Newcastle United to Anfield.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

“I have known him for a long time,” Klopp said regarding Benitez during Monday’s pre-match press conference. “I knew him before I came to Liverpool and he always did a brilliant job. He was very successful, he was outstanding at Napoli, and won different things. That makes him a special person.

“I don’t know too much about Newcastle; from time to time I read a little bit and I heard nobody was really happy with the amount of money they had to sign players. But Rafa is too experienced to carry that through a full season.”

Liverpool (15-3-0) are enjoying their best start in Premier League history and are atop the table at Christmas for the first time since their last legitimate title challenge in 2013-14. That side, however, are the only one of the past nine to lead at the holiday and not see the job through.

Though that run ended with the Reds second-best to Chelsea due to Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip in the loss to the Blues and their 3-3 draw the following match at Crystal Palace, there is hope for better things this time around.

Palace, in fact, gave Liverpool a boost by beating reigning champions Manchester City on Saturday, a result that left the Reds four points clear as they had won 2-0 at Wolverhampton the night before. Mohamed Salah scored in the first half and set up a goal for defender Virgil Van Dijk in the second as the Reds were not at their best but still found enough to see out the match against the best promoted side of the three.

“Obviously scoring a goal is a bonus and obviously a very proud moment and hopefully there’s more to come, but I’m more focused on winning games,” Van Dijk told Liverpool’s official website after scoring his first league goal and his first with the club since scoring against Everton on his debut in last season’s FA Cup.

“We are very happy and at the end I am happy with the win. In the first half we were a bit sloppy at times, but second half we did it well and we are very happy that we won.”

With squad rotation a key part of the holiday fixture list, Klopp is hopeful right back Trent Alexander-Arnold will be available after missing the last two matches with an ankle injury. Midfielder Naby Keita picked up knocks to his rib and foot in the win over Wolves but is at least expected to be available for selection.

Klopp has used midfielder James Milner at right back in place of Alexander-Arnold, but in all likelihood, the manager will wind up using his 11th different midfield combination in 19 league contests as he has plenty of options at his disposal in Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Giorginio Wijnaldum, and Fabinho.

Benitez could only dream of such depth and quality as he again toils in a bid to scrap his way through to keep Newcastle (4-5-9) in the top flight. The Magpies were held to a scoreless draw Saturday versus Fulham, making them the first team to fail to score against the Cottagers in league play this term.

It also continued a run of little reward at St James’ Park, where Newcastle have taken just seven of a possible 30 points. Newcastle did not register a shot on target against the last-place club, drawing the ire of the home supporters, and with a daunting fixture list that includes both Manchester clubs and Chelsea among their next six matches starting with this contest, the Spaniard is already in a survive and advance mode.

“I know what is coming and I know where we are,” Benitez ominously told The Times as his team enters this match five points clear of the drop. “You can see the team is trying a lot of things but still it is not enough. A game like that is a confirmation of what I know. Even if we strengthen in January, it will be a miracle if we stay up.”

Benitez’s modus operandi when playing against the Big Six is to use a five-man backline and try to hit on the counter. It has succeeded in the sense Newcastle have done an excellent job in limiting the damage against these clubs – the Magpies suffered only a minus-5 goal difference in those games – but it also has created a stunning amount of agony among supporters.

Newcastle have been tied 1-1 in three of those matches only to lose two of them with goals on 83 minutes and later. They were also two to the good at Manchester United before contriving a way to lose all of those matches along with a 2-1 reverse at Arsenal.

It is possible Benitez restores DeAndre Yedlin at right back after the American came off the bench versus Fulham, and Yoshinori Muto could be in line for a start after not playing Saturday.

Liverpool ran out 2-0 winners in last term’s corresponding fixture as Salah and Sadio Mane scored in a 15-minute span bridging halftime. Anfield has been a house of horrors for Newcastle, who are 0-4-18 in their last 22 visits – all in league play – since a 2-0 victory in their first Premier League match there in 1994.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Liverpool are staggering 1/6 favourites to run their domestic winning streak to eight matches and at least retain their four-point advantage atop the table. Newcastle United are 18/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline, and there are 15/2 odds on the Magpies stealing a point from Anfield for just the fifth time in 23 trips.

Despite what will obviously be a defensive-oriented Newcastle lineup, oddsmakers do not seem all that convinced goals will not be scored. There are 4/9 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 7/4 for not reaching that threshold. There is also an expectation Liverpool will record a 12th domestic clean sheet, with 4/7 odds on one team not scoring compared to 5/4 odds for both teams to score.

All told, there are 14 Liverpool players who have better odds of scoring the match’s first goal than the top Newcastle option of Rondon at 18/1, and the Venezuela international shares those odds with Liverpool’s Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. Salah leads the line at 13/5 to open the scoring for a second straight contest, with Daniel Sturridge second at 3/1.

A trio of Reds — Mane, Bobby Firmino and Divock Origi — are all 4/1, while Xherdan Shaqiri lurks another step back at 5/1.

For any-time goal-scorers, Salah and Sturridge are heavy favourites to get one past Dubravka at 4/7 and 4/6, respectively, while Mane, Firmino and Origi are also better than even money options at 20/21. Shaqiri is just off that standard at 6/5, and Rondon and Joselu lead Newcastle’s list at 6/5 to score over the course of 90 minutes.

PREDICTION

The Chrismtas miracle is not that Liverpool are atop the table, but rather that they actually have a one-match margin of error. If Klopp’s side can hold that ahead of their Jan. 3 showdown at the Etihad, the pressure will be to simply gain a point like City did at Anfield as opposed to hunt out a victory.

The holiday fixtures begin what will be a scrutinised rotation for Liverpool, whose midfield will continue to be fluid from match to match over the next few weeks. In this match, however, patience will be the watchword as Liverpool could end up with 80 percent possession as they look to unlock what will be a stubborn two lines of Newcastle players while making sure Rondon does not get free for a moment of magic.

In attack for the Reds, it would not be surprising to see Firmino dropped to the bench for this contest given his struggling form. Again, Klopp does not lack for options as Sturridge would be the most likely replacement if Liverpool stay in a 4-3-3. Another possibility is to have Shaqiri in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 with Salah either to his right or leading the line depending on where he lines up Sturridge.

For Newcastle, this has all the feel of “Groundhog Day” in which they will be difficult to break down and hold out for an hour before the wheels come off. Not having Ki could prove problematic as Isaac Hayden will likely be preferred to Jonjo Shelvey, but this is another case where Benitez will set up to limit the damage — though it may not be as successful as in the first five matches against the Big Six.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 2, Newcastle United 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 19 PREVIEWS:

Burnley (3-3-12) vs. Everton (6-6-6)
Tottenham Hotspur (14-0-4) vs. Bournemouth (8-2-8)
Leicester City (7-4-7) vs. Manchester City (14-2-2)
Southampton (3-6-9) vs. West Ham United (7-3-8)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 17 Preview — Huddersfield Town (2-4-10) vs. Newcastle United (3-4-9)

Huddersfield Town’s bid to climb out of the bottom three got significantly harder this week ahead of their potential six-point belter Saturday at John Smith’s Stadium versus Newcastle United.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Terriers (2-4-10) are at the top of the drop on 10 points, one better than both Southampton and Fulham. They have a Premier League-low 10 goals, and one of their primary sources of offence and playmaking – midfielder Aaron Mooy – has been ruled out until at least February with a torn MCL in his right knee suffered in last weekend’s loss to Arsenal.

It is a doubly cruel blow for the Australia international, who will also be unable to represent his country at the Asian Games in January. Mooy is the only midfielder or forward on Huddersfield with more than one goal in all competitions – his brace powering a 2-0 win at Wolverhampton on Nov. 25.

“I’m gutted to be missing an important time for Club and Country,” Mooy told the club’s official website. “We’ve got a lot of fixtures over the Christmas period at Huddersfield Town, but I back the team to continue our good performances and get the results that we’re targeting.

“I’m also sad that this injury will rule me out of the Asian Cup. I’d like to wish the Socceroos all the best as they head to the UAE; I’ll be supporting them from afar. The hard work on my recovery has already started and I’m looking forward to being back out on the pitch.”

The news also is not good in defence either as talisman and defender Tommy Smith is sidelined until at least the turn of the calendar year with a hamstring tear suffered in the loss to Arsenal. After using Smith at right back in a 4-2-3-1 set-up versus Arsenal, Huddersfield boss will likely have to revert to a three-man defence as he has done most of this term.

“The news on both Aaron and Tommy is not something we wanted, but injuries are part of football; we have to deal with it, manage it and carry on into this important December period,” Wagner said. “Aaron and Tommy are both strong characters and will work very hard in their recovery. We look forward to having them back.

“For now, this creates opportunities for others. I’ve said all along that we will need everyone in the squad to contribute and now we should see the benefits of having such a competitive squad.”

Wagner will be without one of Mooy’s potential midfield replacements as Abdelhamid Sabiri is sidelined until February following surgery to repair a broken collarbone suffered against Bournemouth. Huddersfield also have short-term injury concerns for this match with midfielder Jonathan Hogg (groin) and left back Terrence Kongolo (knee) facing late fitness tests.

Huddersfield – trying to avoid a fourth loss on the bounce — will also be without striker Steve Mounie, who is serving the last of his three-match ban for a straight red card given in their 2-1 loss to Brighton and Hove Albion on Dec. 1. The Terriers still have yet to get a goal from a striker this term.

Newcastle United (3-4-9) are in far better health than Huddersfield Town, but Rafa Benitez is trying to revive the club’s spirits after a hard-luck 2-1 loss to Wolverhampton at home last weekend as they are just three points better than the Terriers.

Ayoze Perez’s header on 23 minutes canceled out a Wolves goal six minutes prior, but the Magpies had to play the final 33 minutes down a man after DeAndre Yedlin was given a straight red card for a foul as the last man on a scoring opportunity.

Benitez’s side defended bravely in their bid to nick a point, but it came cruelly undone in the fourth minute of stoppage time when Matt Doherty had an uncontested header from close range on the rebound of a shot by Diogo Jota turned out by Newcastle keeper Martin Dubravka.

Benitez was incensed at referee Mike Dean’s decision to eject the American international, who will miss this match due to the red card, and the Spaniard became the latest Premier League gaffer to feel VAR cannot come fast enough in the top flight.

“I saw the replay (of the elbow) and we need VAR right now,” he fumed to the Times, equally livid Dean missed what he thought was a penalty on Wolves after Perez had his nose bloodied in an aerial duel with Willy Boly. “I was praising the referee and they (the FA) fined me, so imagine how I feel now. You can see the two incidents in the video. It was unbelievable.

“You cannot believe this type of situation can happen in the Premier League. It was an elbow in the face, he was bleeding. It was so obvious.”

Benitez does at least have an in-form striker in Salomon Rondon. Though the Venezuela international was denied a fourth goal in five matches when his free kick thumped the crossbar, his graft in tracking to the outfield to recycle the ball resulted in him getting an assist with the cross for Perez’s goal.

Javier Manquillo will likely deputise at right back for the suspended Yedlin. Centre back Fabian Schar is also available for selection after serving a one-match ban for yellow card accumulation.

Both teams recorded 1-0 victories on their home grounds last term, with Mooy’s goal on 50 minutes the difference in West Yorkshire in Huddersfield’s first top-flight home contest since 1971.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Huddersfield Town are slight 13/8 favourites to claim all three points, while Newcastle are 21/10 underdogs. Oddsmakers are also giving 21/10 odds to the teams splitting the points.

Given the sides’ defensive set-ups, oddsmakers are heavily leaning on the teams failing to reach 2.5 goals with 8/15 odds. There are 6/4 odds on the clubs having an offensive outburst to get over that threshold. There are even money odds for both teams to score a goal compared to 3/4 odds for at least one clean sheet.

With Mounie out again, Laurent Depoitre is the top option to score the first goal of the game with 11/2 odds, followed by Huddersfield teammate Collin Quaner (6/1). Isaac Mbenza is a 7/1 pick for the hosts, as are by Newcastle’s tandem of the in-form Rondon and fellow forward Joselu.

Depoitre also leads the line for an any-time goal in this match with 21/10 odds, followed by Quaner (9/4). The aforementioned trio of Mbenza, Rondon and Joselu are all 11/4 to score over the course of 90 minutes, with Perez and Huddersfield’s duo of Adama Diakhaby and Elias Kachunga all listed at 3/1.

PREDICTION

This is a really tough spot for the Terriers, who are clearly not dealing from a position of strength offensively without Mooy and Mounie, and potentially without Hogg as well. The pressure to pull the strings in the middle will fall upon Alex Pritchard to help Depoitre, who likely will operate as a long striker. On the flank, Florent Hadergjonaj will have to try and go forward to help pin Newcastle left back Paul Dummett in his own half of the pitch.

This match may be as simple as the Magpies pumping balls into the box to see what kind of damage Rondon can do against Huddersfield’s back three, especially if Kongolo is unable to play in this contest. It has taken almost half the season, but the Venezuela international is getting the type of results that are making Newcastle supporters slightly forget they let a similar striker in Aleksander Mitrovic go to Fulham this summer.

Not having Yedlin is a blow, but the return of Schar provides a stability to the central defence that was lacking somewhat last week. That was most evident in the breakdown on Wolves’ first goal with Federico Fernandez and Jamaal Lascelles. The good news is Benitez can use Manquillo for the first 45 minutes to figure out if he needs to replace him for the second 45.

This is not a matchup for those seeking goals, though Wagner and Benitez are both cagey enough to turn this into a chess match. But the lack of bodies who can create goals for the Terriers is going to loom large against a Magpies side that does their best work on the road.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Huddersfield Town 0, Newcastle United 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 17 PREVIEWS

Manchester City (13-2-1) vs. Everton (6-6-4)
Wolverhampton (6-4-6) vs. Bournemouth (7-2-7)
Tottenham Hotspur (12-0-4) vs. Burnley (3-3-10)
Liverpool (13-3-0) vs. Manchester United (7-5-4)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 16 Preview — Newcastle United (3-4-8) vs. Wolverhampton (5-4-6)

New boys Wolverhampton have proved they can punch above their weight class, but the challenge for Nuno Espirito Santo’s side Sunday at St James’ Park versus Newcastle United is maintaining that level of play against their peers.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The “Other 14” clubs of the Premier League have gone a combined 3-5-51 against the Big Six through the first 15 matches of the season, and Wolves (5-4-6) have claimed one of those victories and three of those draws. They picked up a vital three points midweek, rallying to defeat Chelsea 2-1 on goals by Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota four minutes apart in the second half.

The victory ended a six-match winless drought in league play during which they claimed just one point, and it was all the more impressive considering they played without their best midfielder Ruben Neves – who returns for this contest after serving a one-match ban for yellow card accumulation.

“We knew it was going to be hard coming into the season,” defender Ryan Bennett told Wolves’ official website. “Obviously with the teams which are in this league there were always going to be points when things would be tough. But it’s about how you get through them, and we managed to do that the other night against Chelsea, so it’s nice to be back on track.

“The aim is to get three points, that’s how we go into every game. We found it tough in the last couple of games, against Huddersfield and Cardiff, but with a good result at Chelsea we want to take that into the game at Newcastle, which is going to be a tough place to go. But it’s a game we look at to try and get all three points.”

The win over Chelsea showed the potential Wolverhampton have – many consider them to be one of the best promoted sides of the Premier League era – but their November struggles that included losses to relegation-threatened Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City also showed just what kind of grind the top flight is according to the defender.

“You look at the sort of dip we just had, and it makes you realise how hard it is in this league, but we’ve got a pretty good perspective of where we’ve come from and how hard it is, but we’ll be trying to achieve that top ten finish and we’ll see what happens.”

Nuno made three changes to the starting XI that lost to Cardiff City, but the insertion of teenager Morgan Gibbs-White in the midfield for his first Premier League start to replace the suspended Neves proved influential. Gibbs-White, who captained England to the U-17 World Cup title last year, has logged 734 minutes since winning that tournament – the most of any player in the starting XI from that win over Spain.

Nuno has yet to start Gibbs-White and Neves together, only bringing the starlet off the bench thus far.

While Wolves have shown the technical ability and talent to play with the top sides, Newcastle United (3-4-8) get by on graft and the guile of manager Rafa Benitez. The Magpies have yet to nick a point from the Big Six – losing all five of those matches by one goal – but came out of Merseyside with a credible 1-1 draw midweek versus Everton.

Salomon Rondon continued his fine form with a goal in the 19th minute, his third in four matches, but Newcastle conceded before halftime. Christian Atsu had a gilt-edged chance in the closing minutes inside the penalty area but saw his low shot parried by Toffees keeper Jordan Pickford.

The draw marked the fifth time in six matches (3-2-1) Newcastle gained at least a point as they have finally kicked on from their dismal start that was top-loaded. One of Benitez’s challenges now is to carry that road form into consistent play at home – the Magpies were denied a third consecutive win at St James’ last time out with a 3-0 defeat to West Ham United last weekend.

“We have to be a team that is compact, well organised and difficult to break down,” Benitez noted in his Friday news conference. “That is the main thing if you want to win games or get results.”

Benitez will be forced into one change for this contest since centre back Fabian Schar picked up his fifth yellow card in the draw versus Everton and will serve his one-match ban. It is a somewhat dubious achievement considering the Switzerland international has played only six league matches and accrued his five cautions in 484 minutes.

On the positive side, winger Matt Ritchie will return after serving his yellow card ban, and Paul Dummett should be available at left back after resuming training following a hamstring injury. Further up the left side, Kenedy is also expected to be available after missing out midweek with a toe injury.

The improved player availability means Benitez may be able to go to his traditional four at the back after using a 5-4-1 set-up versus the Toffees. The Magpies manager singled out talisman Jamaal Lascelles and Jonjo Shelvey for their patience and veteran leadership as the two have struggled for first-team playing time in recent contests.

“They know they have to wait and keep pushing to get back in the team,” Benitez said when asked about them. “I think they understand that a team that was winning and in the position they were needed support behind the scenes and they were doing that.”

The teams have not met since playing in the Championship in the 2016-17 season. The road team won both matches, and Newcastle recorded a 2-0 victory in the third round of the League Cup.

Wolves have never beaten Newcastle in Premier League play, though the sides have split the points in four of their six top-flight meetings. Neither team have recorded a clean sheet in those matches.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Wolves are slight favourites to bring all three points back to Molineux with 17/10 odds, rating slightly better than the Magpies (19/10). The draw is the longshot of the trio at 11/4.

Oddsmakers are not expecting the sides to ring up the goals, as there are 4/7 odds the total will stay under 2.5 compared to 11/8 odds to cross over that threshold. There are also 3/4 odds there will be at least one clean sheet compared to an even money pick for both teams to score.

Despite making the trip to St James’ Park, Wolves have the top three options for first-goal scoring honours — Jimenez (11/2) and Jota (13/2) flanking Leo Bonatini (6/1). Newcastle’s top two picks are exactly who you would expect — Rondon and Joselu — and both are 7/1 picks. Magpies playmaker Ayoze Perez has 15/2 odds while Ivan Cavaleiro, Helder Costa and Yoshinori Muto are all a step back at 8/1.

Jimenez also leads the line to score over the course of the match at 21/10, followed by Bonatini (9/4) and Jota (5/2). Rondon and Joselu are both 11/4, while Perez, Cavaleiro, Costa and Muto are all 3/1 picks to bag a goal.

PREDICTION

This is a very curious match of tactics and managers and managers’ tactics. Newcastle United appear to be as close to full strength as they have been in weeks as Kenedy and Dummett are available. Whether Benitez restores Shelvey to the starting XI is yet to be seen after he did so with Lascelles last match, but there are options, and when Benitez has options, he’s at his best.

There is something about Wolverhampton that smarter people than myself have noted of late, claiming the reason Wolves have fared so well against the higher-placed teams is because there is more technical football being played. That is also a backhanded dig that Wolves do not have the cynicism or desire to get down and dirty and apply the graft to get those points against their peers. Results lend credence to this argument, but this is a match where Newcastle could play either way and test Wolves to see how they either stick or twist.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 1, Wolverhampton 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 16 PREVIEWS

Manchester United (6-5-4) vs. Fulham (2-3-10)
Chelsea (9-4-2) vs. Manchester City (13-2-0)
Leicester City (6-4-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (11-0-4)
Everton (6-5-4) vs. Watford (6-2-7)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 11 Preview — Newcastle United (0-3-7) vs. Watford (6-1-3)

St James’ Park has not been a happy hunting ground for no one tied to Newcastle United this season – not for owner Mike Ashley, manager Rafa Benitez, nor the players and supporters. The Magpies look to stop the bleeding and pick up their first home point of the season Saturday when they host a resurgent Watford side.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Newcastle (0-3-7) are ahead of the only other winless team in the top flight – Huddersfield Town – on goal difference. The Magpies have lost four of their five matches at home by one goal, with three of those coming against the “Big Six.” They have yet to lead at St James’ Park and have been ahead for just 69 minutes combined in all their competitions.

That has taken a toll on all parties involved on Tyneside, with Benitez saying Newcastle had to “find three teams worse than us” following the last home loss a fortnight ago to Brighton and Hove Albion. Some of the discontent was soothed in the form of a scoreless draw at Southampton last weekend, but the Magpies’ woes up front were again laid bare as strikers Yoshinori Muto and Salomon Rondon failed to find an answer against an organised Saints defence and Newcastle failed to register a shot on target.

The struggles have led to more fan discontent, as Magpie Group supporters are planning protests for two home matches in December. Benitez is trying to act as peacekeeper between supporters and players knowing the former prefer him over Ashley, while the latter continue to hold him in the highest respect.

“Our fans are quite clever,” Benítez told The Times. “They know where we are, they know the situation. What they expect is a team that works really hard. You could see them cheering and supporting the team until the end. They appreciate that. At the same time, everybody – the manager, the players – wants to see good players playing well. But they know that is not the case. What they have to do and are doing already is to support the team.”

This is the portion of the schedule where the Magpies must make hay – they played five of the “Big Six” in their first eight matches, and they do not face Liverpool until a Boxing Day visit to Anfield. The fact Newcastle were second-best for most of the match against Southampton and still able to earn an away point gives Benitez optimism his side can turn the tide.

“It means sometimes when you don’t play really well you can still get something,” Benítez said of their schedule. “Against the top sides, if you don’t play well normally, you lose. But with the other teams . . . you could see today without playing very well we could get a draw. We have to be mentally strong, carry on and in January if we are in a good position we can hopefully improve and see what we need.”

Rondon’s return after a three-match absence due to a thigh injury makes him a likely candidate to supplant Muto and lead the line in Newcastle’s 4-4-1-1 set-up. The Magpies have not scored at St James’ Park since Ciaran Clark’s stoppage-time goal in a 2-1 loss to Arsenal on Sept. 15, and they’ve gone 260 minutes without a marker since Muto’s goal gave Newcastle United a 2-0 lead at Old Trafford in a 3-2 defeat Oct. 6.

Watford (6-1-3) enter this contest seventh in the table, three points out of the top four and looking to win a third match on the bounce. The Hornets, who looked so irresistible in victories in their first five matches in all competitions and then so insipid in a five-match winless spell, have re-discovered the winning formula coming of the most recent international break.

Javi Gracia’s side followed up a 2-0 victory at Wolverhampton with a 3-0 romp at home past Huddersfield Town last weekend. Like the win over Wolves, it was a pair of quick strikes that set the tone as Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu scored nine minutes apart before the match was 20 minutes in. The wins are all the more impressive considering first-choice striker Troy Deeney missed both with a hamstring injury.

With 19 points through their first 10 matches, the Hornets are off to their best start since the 1982-83 season, when they finished runners-up to Liverpool following promotion to the First Division under the late Graham Taylor. Gracia, though, is hellbent on keeping his players grounded and trying to simply get through each match without paying attention to history and the table.

“I don’t spend much time looking at the table. That is not good for us. It is better to be focused on the next game and try to do our best,” the gaffer told the club’s official website. “I don’t think we will be the champion. We are going to enjoy every game and make the supporters proud of us. We’ll see what we are able to do. In all the games, I am sure we are going to make a big effort to get the best results.”

Like the Magpies, Watford have a chance to make the most of this patch of schedule ahead of the next international break. The Hornets play at Southampton next week, and the Saints — like Newcastle — are struggling to score goals.

“I prefer to enjoy every game,” Gracia said. “I am very demanding and the best way to achieve a good future is to focus on the present and do our best. It’s our mentality to be demanding. I don’t send much time looking at the table or if we achieve a new record. We have many things to improve.”

Deeney should at least be available for this match, while Gracia has some decisions to make about his back line as first-choice regulars Jose Holebas and Christian Kabasele did not regain their spots after both served one-match bans in the win over Wolverhampton. Kabasele made a late runout against Huddersfield while Holebas was an unused substitute.

Watford did the double over Newcastle last term and have won five on the bounce against the Magpies in all competitions. The Hornets cruised to a 3-0 win at St James’ where Will Hughes and Andre Gray scored on either side of halftime and bracketed Newcastle defender DeAndre Yedlin’s own goal in first-half stoppage time.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, this game is a toss-up as both Watford and Newcastle have 17/10 odds to take all three points. A draw has slightly longer odds at 21/10. Watford are rated slightly higher for a win with more than 2.5 goals at 4/1, while the Magpies have 19/5 odds. In turn, the Toons are 4/1 odds to win by a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline, just better than the Hornets at 21/5. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has emerged as a favourite with 27/10 odds compared to 12/1 odds for a 2-2 draw or higher deadlock.

There are four top options at 6/1 for first-goal honours — two belong to Newcastle in strikers Joselu and Rondon, while Deeney gets top billing for Watford. The “no scorer” option is a co-favourite at 6/1 odds. There are three Hornets just off the top at 13/2 — Andre Gray, Isaac Success and Gerard Deulofeu — along with Muto for the Magpies.

Joselu and Rondon lead the line for any-time goal-scorers at 9/4, narrowly ahead of Deeney at 23/10. The aforementioned Watford trio are listed at 12/5, while Muto comes in right behind them at 12/5.

PREDICTION

What may be the most amazing thing about Newcastle’s woes at home is that the atmosphere is not totally toxic around St James’. That is a testament to Benitez walking the fine line with his supporters, who are booing the outcomes more than the players’ effort…and all the while loathing Ashley with the fury of a thousand suns.

But back to the pitch. Newcastle seem to lack the creativity and personnel to unlock the middle third of the pitch over the centre line. There are times Shelvey can pick off a gnat at 40 yards with a diagonal ball, but there are also times the Magpies simply cannot play the ball through the middle of the park. The goal Muto scored against Manchester United — coincidentally the last goal Newcastle have scored anywhere — are the kind of goals this side need to score to kick on this season and get out of the bottom three.

Yet for all the things Newcastle have not done and do not have through the first 10 matches, this is a winnable contest. Watford have played well in spurts in winning their last two games — goals within two minutes in beating Wolverhampton and two in nine minutes last weekend versus Huddersfield Town. It was enough to restore confidence to Gracia’s side, but in the bigger picture, the Hornets can be a team with designs on a top-half finish through Deulofeu as he grows in confidence and league-level match fitness.

Newcastle need any sort of break, but it does not seem likely it is going to happen here. The defence is fine, but until the offence catches up, it puts too much pressure on the back four to turn in another clean sheet. Watford right now have the flair and creativity to find that moment of magic, and it likely will only take one for a victory.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 0, Watford 1

OTHER MATCH DAY 11 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (7-1-2) vs. Liverpool (8-2-0)
Wolverhampton (4-3-3) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-3)
Bournemouth (6-2-2) vs. Manchester United (5-2-3)
Chelsea (7-3-0) vs. Crystal Palace (2-2-6)