Newcastle host Chelsea at St James’ Park in the first match of the weekend, and will be looking to upset the odds whilst getting back to winning ways. The Magpies have only 3 wins from nine so far in the league, whilst their counterparts have double that amount. For Chelsea, it will be about avoiding a slip-up to break their dangerous run of form.
Newcastle currently sit in the middle of a very congested Premier League table. They are only just in the bottom half on 11 points, and merely 3 points separate 9th and 18th with a single win making a whole lot of difference in this context. That win should have perhaps come for them last weekend against then bottom side in the league Sunderland, which would have left them level on points with Manchester United. It wasn’t to be however and it was their rivals who currently hold the bragging rights in that derby.
So far all of Newcastle’s wins have come against teams bellow them and in the bottom half of the league - Cardiff, Aston Villa and Fulham – although there are some positives to be found in their season for sure. Only a week earlier Newcastle almost managed to run out winners with 10 men against Liverpool, a team in the same position and similar form to Chelsea. Moreover, the likes of Loic Remy and Yohan Cabaye have given supporters room for optimism. Now it’s up to the likes of Cisse, Ben Arfa and Tiote to live up to their form of the past, because in truth this team isn't radically different, man for man, than the one that finished 5th in 2012.
Omens can be ominous, and just as Arsene Wenger had never beaten Mourinho going into Tuesday’s Capital One Cup clash, Mourinho has never emerged victorious from St James’ Park. If Chelsea can overcome that record then they will rise to the top of the Premier League, and with Arsenal having a difficult home fixture to Liverpool on the same weekend Chelsea may even be able to hold that position come Monday. Indeed, in 2004-2005 when Chelsea went to the top of the Premier League for the first time (surpassing Arsenal then as well) they stayed put for the rest of the season.
Chelsea enter this game on the back of three superb victories in all competitions, with a rejuvenated Fernando Torres standing out against both Schalke and Manchester City. It was the number nine’s last minute winner that rocked the Bridge on Sunday against Manchester City, and it seems that Mourinho may finally know who his first choice striker is. In fact, for the first time since August, it is starting to look like Mourinho has made a decision on what his best starting XI is. Oscar, Hazard and Schurrle have started to, consistently, be selected as the starting front three, while Lampard and Ramires have been more or less nailed on to the central midfield roles for a long time. With the decision of who to favour between Luiz and Cahill having seemingly been made, predicting the starting XI for Chelsea is now achievable. It is now up to that group of players to take Chelsea to the top of the league for the first time in 2013.
Thanks to the likes of Cabaye and Ben Arfa, Newcastle have scored a joint-league-highest total of 5 goals from outside of the box this season, however they have also conceded the joint most headed goals, again 5, with Fulham.
Newcastle have taken only 5 points from a possible 21 in their last 7 home games, and they have failed to score in 7 of their last 12 league meetings with Chelsea.
Chelsea have only kept 3 clean sheets in their last 12 Premier League away games, and in addition Jose Mourinho has only won 2 of his last nine away games, having drawn 5 and lost 2.
With 19 chances created from open play, Eden Hazard has been the most creative player in the Premier League when set pieces aren't included.
What's more he has been one of the most creative players in the team with 7 chances created over the course of the season, Santon and Gouffran the only players in the squad to better this. However, what is perhaps most impressive about the Frenchman are his statistics compared to some of the other top strikers in the league. Indeed he has scored a goal every 98 minutes on average, and only the big names of Aguero (84.14 MPG), Lukaku (83 MPG) and Suarez (59.83 MPG) have done better than him in this department. Remy is also directly involved with a goal every 81.67 minutes when his assists are taken into account. Certainly, if Newcastle are to topple Chelsea this man will need to have a big game.
Given his form, Chelsea’s key player for this match should be Fernando Torres. There is some risk to this choice though, because although he may be above Ba and Eto’o in the pecking order, it is still evident that Mourinho likes to rotate his strikers. Additionally the manager has not started Ba since the win over Norwich, and there may be some motivational logic in starting him against his old club. Nonetheless, whether he starts (which I do expect) or makes an appearance from the bench, he is still likely to make the difference.
As already specified, Torres is being picked on virtue of his current form. He has three goals in his last two games, and is unlucky not to have had more having struck the bar twice from distance in those two as well. The biggest difference is in his confidence, and while in the past he may have opted to pass (or just fall over), now he is taking the shot on, as well as getting stuck into the opposition. Against Manchester City he had a shooting accuracy of 60%, and won an astonishing 67% of his aerial duels, many of these contributing greatly to an attacking move. What is most telling about his new found motivation are the seven dribble attempts he managed, 43% of which were successful, one of them leading to a goal assist, and all of them dangerous. I will stop far, far short of saying the Torres of Liverpool is back – no matter how well he plays he will never be the same footballer that he was at Liverpool anyway. Instead, we may be beginning to witness the birth of a new and effective Chelsea version of Fernando Torres.
Ryan Taylor continues to sit out with his ruptured ACL as has been doing for some time now, but Haidara and Dummett are new injuries worries following the midweek game against Manchester City. If lady luck shines on Newcastle then they get the boost of Coloccini and Steven Taylor taking part, that is if they pass their late fitness tests.
With the exception of Marco van Ginkel with his torn ACL, Chelsea have a fully fit squad to select form.
Chelsea classically struggle at St James’ Park, and Mourinho’s record there is unusually poor. In addition, Newcastle will be looking to bounce back from two disappointing results over the last week, and so I expect them to get on the score sheet. Ultimately though, Chelsea should be taking this one comfortably.
Chelsea win: 1 - 3