Whilst Newcastle United’s 2-1 win over Chelsea had a clichéd, season-defining feel to it, the visit of Sunderland in a week’s time is undoubtedly the biggest game of the season.
Before welcoming their derby rivals to St James’ Park, however, United must navigate their way through awkward fixtures against Arsenal and Tottenham within the space of a few days.
The English Premier League match against the Gunners on Saturday (12:30pm ET on NBCSN for viewers in the United States) is followed on Wednesday by a Carling Cup clash with Spurs (live on beIN SPORTS Connect at 2:45pm ET for US viewers), and the depth of this Newcastle squad will be severely tested.
Alan Pardew has dealt intelligently with a long list of injuries and untimely suspensions this season.
That trend continued after the Chelsea win, during which second choice goalkeeper Rob Elliot was forced off with injury. He will miss between six or seven matches, according to the Newcastle manager.
Youngster Jak Alnwick did superbly after replacing Elliot at half-time but his lack of experience will be a concern for Pardew, who will already have an eye on the Sunderland game.
Newcastle have struggled at the Emirates in recent years, suffering a 7-3 defeat a couple of seasons ago and losing 3-0 on their last visit.
Moussa Sissoko’s absence – again through suspension – is mitigated somewhat by Fabricio Coloccini’s return. The Argentine was inspirational against Chelsea and Newcastle draw confidence and organization from his presence.
He will form one half of central defense, with either Mike Williamson or Paul Dummett to join him after Steven Taylor was sent off at the weekend.
The other major tactical dilemma for Pardew is in attack, where he will need to decide whether to start Papiss Cisse.
Newcastle’s season has so far hinged on the goals of the Senegal striker, who is slowly returning to his best form. In three separate games Cisse has scored a double, earning United crucial points against Hull and Swansea earlier on in the campaign.
Pardew has indicated that he will continue to use his in-form forward as an impact sub, a role in which Cisse has seemed most effective.
Ayoze Perez – who hasn’t scored since the 2-0 win over West Brom on November 9 – is set to lead the line again. Despite his lack of goals, his mobility as a lone striker is crucial to Newcastle’s structure and approach.
If the young Spaniard can recapture his goal-scoring form in London on Saturday, there’s no reason Newcastle can’t capitalize and snatch a rare point or even a victory. Arsenal have been unconvincing at home this season and Newcastle have turned in some superb performances on the road.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty for Pardew and his team is in deciding on an approach to this game. A balance between keeping defensive discipline whilst maintain an attacking threat will need to be found, just as it was against Chelsea.
This is where the absence of Sissoko is most keenly felt: the France international is a dominant figure in midfield, capable of driving his team forward and providing defensive cover in equal measure.
The spine of Newcastle’s team is severely weakened ahead of their Emirates trip and Pardew will also need to compensate by either changing shape or choosing an effective replacement.
So far this season, the English coach has dealt with these sorts of issues successfully. Doing so against Arsenal would be a huge boost ahead of that massive derby match with Sunderland on December 21.
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