This Sunday sees Newcastle host Chelsea in one of the few games of any real significance upon the final day of the Premier League campaign. While a top half finish is beyond Newcastle, leaving them with just pride to play for, Chelsea know only a win will do in their bid to beat Liverpool to fourth place. Even then, the Reds would need to lose to Brighton at Anfield.
The Magpies’ lack of motivation at this point in the season compared to Chelsea’s might make Sunday’s result seem like a foregone conclusion. But St. James’ Park has been far from a happy hunting ground for the Blues and with the west Londoners having so much on the line, the pressure could really tell this weekend.
So, how will the 3pm kickoff on Tyneside pan out? Transfer Tavern’s Newcastle-mad editor Jonathan Gorrie and former voice of The Shed Ender George Blake share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the final day clash…
With two games of their season remaining, Sunday’s trip to Tyneside and the FA Cup final with Manchester United, Chelsea would ideally like to end the campaign with a perfect record. But the best-laid plans rarely come to fruition and that highlights one of the recurring debates surrounding English football’s top clubs right now – whether qualifying for the Champions League is more important than lifting silverware.
Would Chelsea be better off winning the FA Cup or stealing a place in the top four?
George: “We’ve seen in the past that winning an FA Cup is rarely enough for a manager to keep his job, and so for Antonio Conte’s sake, a final day miracle that sees Chelsea move into fourth would be the best case scenario for the Blues. You’ve also got to consider Chelsea’s transfer plans this summer. A rebuild is needed, and you’d question whether funds alone will be enough to tempt a top player to join the club without the prospect of European football. So, naturally, all signs point towards Europe.”
But with the FA Cup final in mind, should Conte be resting key players this weekend?
George: “Conte made the controversial decision to rest two players that have played a lot of football over the last few weeks against Huddersfield in the form of Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud, and the rest of the squad has been rotated pretty frequently all season long. I don’t see a reason why most of the squad can’t play in both games – particularly given that there’s a week-long break between the two fixtures. They’re used to playing far more often than that.”
While the expectation to win will inevitably be on Chelsea this Sunday, their record at St. James’ Park isn’t the strongest. Jose Mourinho famously failed to win there in the Premier League during his two spells as Blues boss, and Chelsea haven’t won during their last three visits, losing two of them.
Why do Newcastle seem to have that edge over the Blues at St. James’ Park?
Jonathan: “Weirdly, Newcastle seem to raise their game when Chelsea are in town. Whether we’re just playing them at the right time in the campaign – the Steve-McClaren-led 2-2 draw against Mourinho’s failing side springs to mind – or there’s some sort of psychological issues the Blues have when they come to St. James’ Park, Newcastle do tend to get a positive result. Sadly, it’s probably the former, as much as every Newcastle fan would like to believe the latter.”
George: “I think a lot of it has to do with the atmosphere. Chelsea buckle under the pressure when it really matters away from home, and St James’ Park is always a tough place to go. Given the absence of battle-worn leaders like Ashley Cole and Petr Cech, it’s no real surprise that we’ve had such a poor record there in recent years. Our last win there was spearheaded by Didier Drogba, and I think that tells you all you need to know.”
Despite recent history, there’s no doubting the quality of this Chelsea side. They’ve not lost their last seven since a humbling 3-1 defeat to Tottenham at Stamford Bridge, drawing two either side of a five-game winning run, and Eden Hazard remains one of the Premier League’s flagship entities. Olivier Giroud has really found form too, bagging three goals during Chelsea’s last six league games.
Which Newcastle players will be crucial in stopping the Blues’ attacking threat?
Jonathan: “It’s a big game for Jamaal Lascelles. With Jonjo Shelvey’s World Cup chance probably gone now, the Toon skipper will be the main point of focus on Sunday. He has previously been linked with a move to Chelsea and, considering his talent plus obvious homegrown status, it’s easy to see why he’d be attracting admirers. Up against Giroud, it’s another big chance to showcase his ability to snuff out some of the best strikers in the Premier League, something he’s been doing all season.”
As he’s on loan from Chelsea, Newcastle won’t have the luxury of Kenedy’s services this weekend. The Blues youngster has made a real impact during the second half of the Magpies’ season, not only adding goals and assists to Rafa Benitez’s side but also trickery and speed down the left-hand side. It’s made Newcastle a far more balanced team and their win rate this season has rather tellingly been 12% higher when the winger’s been in the starting XI.
Who do you see as Newcastle’s danger man in Kenedy’s absence?
George: “I fully expect Shelvey step up to the plate. He’s mean and fiery in the midfield, and I think that a few of our players won’t be able to handle that. Either that, or the Englishman will get sent off. It normally goes one way or the other for him, doesn’t it?”
And who could fill Kenedy’s void on the left wing?
Jonathan: “The Newcastle crowd would love to see Yasin Ben El-Mhanni given a chance to impress in front of them, heading into next season. However, that’s fairly unlikely, so Jacob Murphy could probably do with a chance. It’s been a difficult season for Bentiez’s most expensive signing, but he can cause any defence a problem with his searing pace and finishing the campaign off strongly would do him the world of good.”
Are there any other youngsters you’d like to see get a runout on Sunday?
Jonathan: “I’m not convinced Benitez will blood the youngsters, though I’d like to see El-Mhanni handed a chance. With Kenedy unable to feature, we need that sense of unpredictability on the left-hand side, so letting the 22-year-old off the leash would be a good move. With little else to play for, why not? Kevin Mbabu made a name (albeit a brief one) for himself against the Blues last time they visited, so let’s try it again.”
And finally lads, let’s hear your score predictions…
George: “I think this will depend a lot on what happens in Liverpool’s game. If word gets out that they’re a couple of goals down, the Blues could step up and really dominate. However, if Mohamed Salah and co storm ahead to an early lead, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Conte’s men crumble as they so often have this season. This one could go either way, but let’s be optimistic and say 3-1 Chelsea.”
Jonathan: “2-1 to Newcastle.”