Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Premiership Preview--12. Newcastle

When Sam Allardyce left by "mutual consent" in early January, Newcastle turned to a familiar figure to turn the club's fortunes around. I said it then and I'll say it now: Kevin Keegan, who spent over a decade away from St. James Park before returning to take the reins, is a blast from the past and isn't the answer going forward. When the "Geordie Messiah" took over, the club was in 11th place. They finished 12th, just a point ahead of arch-rival Middlesbrough.

Newcastle fans will continue to tell you that because they sell their stadium out for every game and their stadium is one of the largest in the Premiership, they support a "big club". They conveniently fail to tell you, however, that the last time their club won a major trophy of any kind -- and let me make this clear -- was 1955, when they won the FA Cup.

Sorry, but the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup doesn't count, at least not to me. The Intertoto Cup certainly doesn't count because it's not a lone-standing tournament, it leads into something else. The Anglo-Italian Cup doesn't count either, nor do the Kirin or Texaco Cups. To be considered a "big club", you have to win things! It's that simple; you have to win silverware! If you can't win a trophy, at least consistently challenge for one, either in the league or in domestic or continental cup competitions. Newcastle doesn't even do that anymore, so they're nowhere near "big club" status. At one point, they were, but that's no longer the case.

The fact that more than 50,000 fans turn up for every home game to watch a mediocre team is a testament to them, yes, but it doesn't mean the product they're watching can be compared to the likes of the "Big Four" by any stretch of the imagination. They're some of the best fans in the Premiership, but they're gluttons for punishment.

Now that that is over with, let's take a look at this season's edition of the Magpies.

It's been a pretty quiet summer on Tyneside. Keegan has brought in just two players so far, Jonás Gutiérrez and Danny Guthrie, both midfielders, although the permanent acquisition of young French defender Sébastien Bassong from FC Metz should be finalized within the next couple days. Five players have left St. James Park, including right back Stephen Carr and creative, but injury-prone, central midfielder Emre Belözoğlu, who returned home to Turkey to play for Fenerbahçe. All-in-all, the moves in and out have essentially been a wash, with Newcastle not losing much or gaining much.

They are undoubtedly strongest up front, where they have three strikers in Michael Owen, Mark Viduka, and Obafemi Martins who are each capable of scoring 15 goals a season. Newcastle closed the '07-'08 campaign in impressive fashion, going 5-3-2 in their last 10 games, including a seven-match unbeaten streak, to wind up in 12th after failing to win any of their first eight league fixtures under Keegan. It isn't coincidental that that good run of form for Newcastle started when Keegan switched from a 4-4-2 and began playing Martins, Owen, and Viduka all at the same time. Those three lit it up at the end of the season, giving the club's fans some hope heading into the summer and this season.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-3-1-2/4-3-3):
GK: Steve Harper

RB: Habib Beye
CB: Steven Taylor
CB: Abdoulaye Faye
LB: José Enrique

*RMF: Geremi
CMF: Nicky Butt
*LMF: Damien Duff

RF: Viduka
CF: Owen (captain)
LF: Martins

*The wide midfield positions are most up for grabs, and although those are my projected starters, others will see plenty of playing time. James Milner and Gutiérrez will both play on the right. Duff can play on either flank. Charles N'Zogbia is comfortable at both left back and left wing. Even Alan Smith can play anywhere in midfield, but he's used more up front. Joey Barton was played on the left during the club's late-season push, but he'll miss the start of the season due to his incarceration, so look for either Duff or N'Zogbia to open the year there. During that run, Geremi played on the right, and I'm not sure Keegan will mess with what worked. The only sure starter is Butt, who is still a quality defensive midfielder.

Two of Newcastle's first three matches are on the road, which is tough enough as it is, but these are even more difficult as they're at Manchester United and Arsenal. Newcastle was outscored by a combined 8-0 in the corresponding fixtures last season, so an ugly start to this year is highly probable.

If that does come to fruition, Newcastle will get a chance to make it up in September and October. Those months bring home games against Hull City, Blackburn, Manchester City, and West Brom, all winnable, and road trips to West Ham and Everton, which aren't extraordinarily difficult by any means. October 25 is the first of two Tyne-Wear derbies against Sunderland, with this one played at the Stadium of Light.

In an interesting schedule quirk, Newcastle will see West Ham, Blackburn, Man City, and Sunderland (in that order) again in January, and West Brom and Everton in the first two weeks of February. Everyone plays everyone else twice, but it's rare to see the same opponents you played in one long stretch like that at two different times. Usually teams are scrambled up on the schedule and this kind of thing doesn't happen, but it does in this case.

A brutal four-game stretch in March and early April brings matches against Man United, Arsenal, and Chelsea, all at St. James Park, broken up only by a visit to Hull.

Bottom Line: We'll see if Keegan can reignite the flame that propelled Newcastle to that 5-3-2 record to finish last season. His strikers are good, as I mentioned before, but there are question marks at the back aside from Taylor and on the flanks, where it seems to be a case of musical chairs to determine starting spots. If he can push the right buttons again, Newcastle has a chance to be a top-10 team. If not, North East rivals Middlesbrough and Sunderland will be right on their heels, which is unthinkable for Newcastle fans.

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