Premier League preview: Newcastle v Birmingham

Newcastle look safe, but Birmingham need all three points from their trip to St James’ Park on Saturday to take another step towards survival.Alan Pardew’s Newcastle are vying with West Brom for the mantle of the best-performed newcomer to the English Premier League this season, and at the moment Newcastle are in 12th place on 41 points, two points behind West Brom who are 11th.

Interestingly, Newcastle and West Brom are two of the four teams to change managerial direction throughout the 2010-11 season – along with Liverpool and Blackburn – with Pardew replacing the unlucky Chris Hughton at Newcastle and Roy Hodgson taking Roberto Di Matteo’s job at West Brom.

In their most recent game, Newcastle were on the receiving end of a 3-0 drubbing from Liverpool at Anfield and they will be keen to respond from that setback with a win at home.

Birmingham, meanwhile, have had a 2010/11 campaign boasting a clear high point that was followed by some indifferent league form.

On February 27, Alex McLeish brought the club their first silverware in 48 years with a 2-1 win over Arsenal in the Carling Cup final.

Since then, however, Birmingham’s form in the league has been found wanting – claiming just nine points from a possible 27 to see them sit in 15th place, four points clear of the relegation zone.

In their most recent game McLeish’s men were held to a 1-1 draw at home by lowly Wolves in a spiteful affair that saw the dismissal of Birmingham midfielder Craig Gardner for two bookable offences.

In the only other meeting between Newcastle and Birmingham this season, goals from Peter Lovenkrands and Leon Best lifted Newcastle to a 2-0 win at St Andrew’s on February 15.

Neither manager will admit their side are safe until mathematically proven, and goals have been a rare commodity for both teams of late – Newcastle scoring once in four games, and Birmingham netting two in three games.

United will be at a pains to admit it, but selling striker Andy Carroll has seen them struggle in the front third since January, with first-choice strikers Shola Ameobi and Lovenkrands struggling to find the back of the net with any regularity.

Proof of their shortcomings is that neither Ameobi nor Lovenkrands (five goals each) have threatened to reach captain Kevin Nolan’s tally of 12 goals this season, although many of the former Bolton midfielder’s goals came when Carroll was present.

Gardner’s dismissal against Wolves rules him out for Saturday’s match, and he heads a long list of selection concerns for McLeish, with defender Scott Dann still in doubt.

Striker Nikola Zigic may be ready to resume after groin and hip problems, but Enric Valles, James McFadden, reserve goalkeeper Maik Taylor and striker Obafemi Martins are ruled out for the season.

Cameron Jerome and Kevin Phillips joined forces up front in their 1-1 draw with Wolves, and the latter should be fresh for the Newcastle clash as he was tactically substituted following Gardner’s red card after half an hour at St Andrews on Sunday.

Pardew also has troubling news from his medical staff, with on-loan midfielder Stephen Ireland ruled out for the rest of the season and Danny Guthrie still troubled by a foot injury.

Hatem Ben Arfa is nearing full fitness after a long absence with a broken leg, and Dan Gosling has put a long-term knee issue behind him, but it remains to be seen whether they will be fit enough to play a part in the run home.

Still, it should be a somewhat comfortable end to the season to the side that takes all three points, with a draw likely to prolong the wait for both clubs.