To begin by stating the bloody obvious, it would seem Chelsea and Newcastle are respectively preparing for their match on Saturday with fan bases firmly planted on either ends of the cheeriness scale. The home side approach the game having soundly defeated their biggest rivals only five days earlier, whilst the visitors will still be hurting after losing their third consecutive NE derby for the first time since 1923. Alan Pardew’s team will also be forced to play without their best forward (Loic Remy – suspended), their best defender (Fabricio Coloccini – bad knee) and their best player (Yohan Cabaye – sold by Joe Kinnear, consequently sacked, to PSG). Most football fans are certainly in the habit of downplaying situations and whining about ultimately trivial issues, but in fairness to Newcastle fans at the moment, I think their low positioning on the cheeriness scale is sufficiently justified.
As The Times’ Rory Smith wittily described this week, the end of Joe Kinnear’s seven month piece of performance art, simply entitled: ‘Twat’ – has brought back up the question of just what the hell the point of him ever was. The man who, at the start of the season, told his club’s supporters to judge him on his signings, certainly didn’t make it hard for them – having signed nobody (on a permanent basis). His failure to replace Yohan Cabaye, after selling him for less than the owner’s valuation, has to be one of the worst pieces of Director of footballing in history also. Safe to say, the rest of Newcastle’s season looks doomed to be filled with disappointment and mediocrity, though safety from relegation seems secure.
For ourselves, Saturday’s game could well represent an opportunity to briefly go top of the league, with Arsenal away to Liverpool in the early kick-off. Though, interestingly, in the last 13 league matches between those sides, the home side has only won twice, with the Reds’ last home win in the fixture, way back in 2007; they’re certainly due a good result. Plus with Ramsey and Walcott injured, Flamini suspended and Arteta and Wilshere doubtful, this is probably as a good a chance as Liverpool have had in a while. Let’s hope they do us a favour.
Saturday also, importantly, gives us a chance to shake off the last of the disappointment from our last home game, and our failure to overcome, as Giles Smith described it, the ‘Neolithic’ methods of Sam Allardyce’s West Ham, in correction of Mourinho’s generous allusion to 19th century tactics. The ability of the manager and the team to deal with the big games this year can hardly be faulted but some of our home performances against smaller sides this term have been very unconvincing. Regardless of what Mourinho says, we are absolutely title contenders and as such, we have an obligation to deal with games of Saturday’s stature with an element of routine we’ve often failed to demonstrate thus far.
I’ve always been amused by the Newcastle fans’ chant towards David Luiz that he’s ‘just a shit Coloccini’. As a statement it’s as patently false as, for example, describing Carlos Valderrama as ‘just a shit Fellaini’. However, when you consider the standard of their other centre halves, I think you can maybe forgive the Geordies for viewing Coloccini as a modern day Passarella. Although Taylor and Williamson are good athletes and good naturally instinctive defenders, I’ve always thought their game-intelligence/tactical positioning was dire. I imagine Vernon Anita will stay quite deep to support them for most of the game meaning Oscar won’t have to drop back to even out the midfield ‘battle’. I hope the Brazilian stays forward a lot more than he usually does, because if he plays even at just 50/60% of his capability, his movement should be enough to bamboozle the opposition centre backs.
Elsewhere, the Newcastle frontline looks a lot less imposing without French duo, Loic Remy and Yoan Gouffran, the latter of which may return from injury in time for Saturday, but won’t be fully match-fit regardless. And whilst the Ameobi brothers are no mugs, it’s hard to imagine them causing Cahill and Terry much trouble on current form; the same goes for new loan signing from Germany, Luuk De Jong.
For Mourinho now, I think it’s reasonable to say that 9 of 11 starting positions pretty much pick themselves. And in a turn of events, the position that has been the glaring weakness since week one, is now the area with the most competition for places – with David Luiz, Matic, Ramires, Lampard and Mikel all vying for a holding midfield slot. For me, the latter two are unquestionably at the bottom of the order. And whilst Matic should clearly be the first pick, the decision of whether to partner him with Luiz or Ramires is not such a simple one. The former is obviously the more defensive option and the less natural in the position, but he’s also in my opinion, the better player and worthy of a regular place even if he isn’t good enough currently to start at centre half. Also, crucially, I think Luiz is more capable of solving the problem with which we suffered against West Ham, specifically being unable to get the ball to the attacking players quickly enough. And regarding Ramires, for all his outstanding qualities, the accuracy and speed of his forward passes aren’t one of them. For the home games against mid/lower league opposition at least, Luiz and Matic would be my first choice midfield pairing.
As Arsene Wenger said earlier in the week, ‘consistency will be key’ in this title race. There are plenty of big games left for all three title contending teams and though their results are of course important, what will be crucial to the outcome of the league is who can deal with the lesser sides the most consummately/who can continue to pick up points regularly as the pressure starts to rise. With this in mind and with the defeat to atone for in the reverse fixture, I can’t see Chelsea failing to win this weekend, especially when you consider Newcastle’s recent on-field form and off-field issues. I predict a win at least as comfortable as the one against Man Utd, probably even more so.