What a difference two weeks can make.
It’s only a fortnight since NUFC went to Vicarage Road and limped out of the FA Cup 1-0 after dominating the game, missing several good chances and gifting our opposition a goal.
For Watford, they were in the fourth round draw despite playing badly and as the cliché goes, ‘if you can win without playing well……’.
Two weeks later and Watford haven’t scored since, the goal that settled that FA Cup game was probably Watford’s only shot in the last three games and it is over a month since Watford won their last match, at home to Liverpool.
During that month the Hornets have been unlucky not to beat Chelsea, unlucky to lose to Manchester City and Spurs…and lucky not to get absolutely thumped by Southampton and Swansea. Manager Quique Sanchez Flores described the Southampton game as the “worst match we played during the Premier League,” whilst the Swansea game was described by many as “the worst match that has been played in the Premier League.” Either way, with one point out of the last 15 available, Watford will be looking to bounce back today.
For Newcastle, an entertaining 3-3 draw against Manyoo was followed by a more polished performance and win against West Ham and the first sight of an animal we thought was extinct, a Magpie who can pass the ball, forward, with pace and vision. United will be looking to continue that resurgence this weekend.
In goal we will continue to be pleasantly surprised by the shot-stopping ability and general fitness of previous fatso Rob Elliot, a player who is quickly becoming a terrace hero and an admirable replacement for the injured Tim Krul.
For Watford, season-long stopper Heurelho Gomes will presumably have to fight harder for his place with competition coming from new signing Costel Pantilimon. The giant Romanian keeper has been signed from Wearside for what was described as “a nominal fee”, or “his market value” to you and me, but Flores has quickly reassured Gomes that he is still Vicarage Road number one:
“It was an important signing for us because I needed to feel we have competition in this position. Heurelho is amazing and we have lots of confidence in him. He is one of our leaders in the dressing room. But if something happens with him, we have cover now. I didn’t have this feeling before.”
Pantilimon was always one of those goalkeepers who NUFC just couldn’t beat and he always seemed to save his best performances for us. Whether that had something to do with our shooting I don’t know but it has been a surprise how quickly he fell down the pecking order at the Stadium of Lard. While Gomes has played well this season, despite the odd mistake, I’ll be happier if he is in goal today.
(Caption for top photo – ‘The Great Gomes between the sticks today.’)
In defence for Newcastle it looks likely that Paul Dummett will miss out due to a hamstring injury and with deputy Haidara always injured, deputy deputy Mbabu doubtful and next in line Jack Colback confirmed as missing, it looks likely that centre back Jamaal Lascelles will come in, either as a left back or in a back 3.
Having seen Dummett run, I’m not surprised he suffers from hamstring injuries, it’s more of a scuttle than a run and while he has improved over recent weeks, if any of our defenders are missing, he’d be the one we miss the least.
Hopefully Janmaat, Mbemba and Coloccini can continue their better form without him, though a ‘no backpass’ rule would be most welcome.
At the back for the Hornets, a period of relative instability looks to be over and their preferred back four of Nyom, Cathcart, Britos and Ake will continue, Ake has missed games due to suspension, Cathcart rested for the defeat by Southampton and Nyom looking knackered and substituted regularly recently.
Our new found strength in midfield should be where we can most dominate the game now that we have brought in our replacement for Yohan Cabaye, only two years after we sold him, good planning that Mr Carr.
Jonjo Shelvey was like a breath of fresh air against West Ham with his 91.7% pass completion rate and he can expect to be partnered by fellow January signing Henry Saivet in midfield. The Senegalese looked nervous on Saturday, which is the most polite way of putting his performance into words. It’s early days for him of course, half an hour of looking like he’d never played before isn’t enough to pluck and stuff the fella but he’ll do well to know that giving the ball away ponderously is Cheick Tiote’s job.
That Tiote is likely to not be playing is a mystery to me, why a team in the relegation zone would let one of their most experienced players fly out for transfer talks and miss matches is just baffling. Fair enough, if they want to sell him and he wants to leave then he can, I have no complaints about that. Yet another reason to doubt whether our football club actually knows what it is doing.
Still, if Saivet does indeed have to play in this crucial match then his NUFC career will have started as it means to go on, in at the deep end, the alternative is that Gouffran joins Shelvey in the middle of midfield, which frankly is no sort of alternative.
At least they will have Wijnaldum, released from his left wing shackles, Sissoko and Ayoze for company in midfield, two dangerous players who can create, score and run at defenders with intelligence and threat. And Sissoko.
‘Touch like an Ameobi and shoots like one too.’
Up front for NUFC we will once again have Mitrovic ploughing a lone furrow, though the addition of Shelvey in midfield has seemed to give our attacking players more confidence to join the Serb in the box. Mitrovic worked hard on Saturday, held the ball up well, played for the team and we won and if he can do the same today we may be able to forgive him his misses in front of goal.
On Saturday’s evidence he has all the weapons to be a top class striker in his armoury, he just needs to add the goals. He’s young enough for those to come, but he’ll definitely get the chance to prove it with Ivan Toney a long term injury, Cisse and De Jong a permanent injury and the replacement for Demba Ba still with the transfer committee. If only Charlie Austin had been French.
Speaking of which, today may see the return of Emmanuel Riviere, not that that will fill anyone with a sense of hope, apart from Steve McClaren of course who this week said: “I do like him, I like him a lot.”
Those of us who have seen him play before will know that we don’t like him, we don’t like him at all, but the two things Riviere has in his favour after coming back from injury are that Mitrovic isn’t doing that much better and we have never really seen Riviere play with a powerful striker before. Maybe they can spur each other on to greater things, two under-achieving strikers looking for a goal.
Speaking of under-achievers, up front shot shy Watford will have Premier League Player of the Month Ighalo up front alongside Troy Deeney and perhaps new boy Nordin Amrabat from Malaga. While Ighalo and Deeney are not the threat they were earlier in the season, gifting them goals like Troy Deeney’s amble onto Gini’s backpass in the FA Cup defeat of two weeks ago won’t make it any easier and not being able to keep a clean sheet against a team that doesn’t create any chances is hopefully a thing of the past.
If we can make Watford’s strikers work for their goals, the chances are that this weekend they won’t get any, such is the way football works. You’re only as good as your last game lads.
‘The Premier League under-achievers of the month award goes to…’
So we head to Vicarage Road hopeful of victory but mindful that in a game that we all think we can win, Watford are above us in the league, for now, and probably favourites. Steve McClaren seems to have prepared us all well with a Thursday night email telling us what we already knew, a Friday press conference where he talked about the type of “corners” which have nothing to do with football and a dampening of expectation:
“We coped very well at Vicarage Road last time out and while we didn’t deserve to lose, we know it will be tough on Saturday. We start every game from zero and we know if we’re not right attitude-wise and we don’t put the work in, Watford can hurt us.”
Has he learnt nothing about life at St James Park? Lose a couple of games and we want you out, sign a player and score some goals and we think we can win the league. At least that’s what it says on Talk Sport anyway. I don’t think we can win the league yet, but I think we can win today.
Howay The Lads.
My suggested team today:
Janmaat, Colo, Mbemba, Lascelles
Sissoko, Shelvey, Saivet