A pair of teams coming off key victories have a chance to further themselves from the drop Tuesday at St James’ Park, where Newcastle United host Burnley.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Both Newcastle (7-7-13) and Burnley (8-6-13) are part of a six-team group separated by six points in 13th through 18th, the last spot of which is relegation-bound. The clubs have walked a fine line to a degree most of this season, each spending time in the bottom three before clawing themselves up to spots of safety for the time being.
For the Magpies, the early return on investing a club-record £21 million for midfielder Miguel Almiron was a promising one. The Paraguay international made an impact on his full Newcastle debut Saturday and contributed to a 2-0 straightforward victory over 10-man and last-place Huddersfield Town at home.
In a rare scene this season, manager Rafa Benitez went with arguably his side’s most attacking group, putting both Almiron and Ayoze Perez underneath striker Salomon Rondon in a 4-2-3-1 set-up. Almiron nearly scored 11 minutes in when his chip over Jonas Lossl hit the woodwork, but the new-found attacking intent was a welcome change from the defence-first strategy Benitez has used nearly all season to limit the damage against Big Six sides.
Newcastle played 70 minutes with a man advantage, and put the numerical superiority to good use right after the restart as Rondon and Perez scored six minutes apart, with Almiron starting the buildup that led to Perez’s goal on 52 minutes.
“Miguel showed his qualities,” Rondon told The Times. “He’s always looking to give you that pass and, for a striker, that’s what you want. For a long time I have played up front on my own, but it was different in this game. We had more support, more quality.”
Also a fixture in Benitez’s starting XI since mid-season is homegrown midfielder Sean Longstaff, who teamed with Isaac Hayden in central midfield to neutralize Huddersfield. While they were aided by the red card to Terriers’ midfielder Tommy Smith, the 21-year-old Longstaff has impressed with his disciplined play and also clipped the woodwork late when Newcastle tried to add to their haul.
“He was doing well in the training sessions, and I remember talking with him before because everybody was saying, ‘he has to go on loan, he has to play'” Benitez told Newcastle’s official website about Longstaff. “I told him he had to stay until January, and after we would decide. He was lucky enough to get a position in the team and he was doing well. After, we decided to keep him, because he was doing well. I’m really pleased.”
The quick turnaround means Benitez will likely make some changes to his first XI for this game, with Jonjo Shelvey and Ki Sung-Yueng in attacking midfield and Mo Diame in central midfield among the potential changes. It is also possible Joselu could lead the line, with Rondon in support off the bench.
Burnley are enjoying the best run of the season in league play, entering this match looking for a third win on the trot and are unbeaten in their last eight (5-3-0) in the top flight. The Clarets pulled off arguably their biggest victory of a trying campaign Saturday, throwing a spanner into Tottenham’s title hopes with a 2-1 victory at Turf Moor.
Ashley Barnes’ goal on 83 minutes secured all three points for Sean Dyche’s side, which also got a disputed goal from Chris Wood right before the hour before conceding an equaliser to Harry Kane. Burnley have scored 14 goals during their unbeaten run after totaling 17 in their first 19 matches – 11 of them coming from Barnes and Wood.
“I’m sure Barnesy and I will be looking to get as many as we can. We have a good relationship together at the moment and long may it continue,” Wood told the team’s official website after bagging his 10th goal of the season in all competitions. “We are on a good run at the moment and we feel we can beat anybody on our day.
“We’ve climbed up the league again, but still nowhere near where we would like to be. We want to get ourselves well away from this relegation zone as soon as possible and if we can get a few more wins of the board we can hopefully look up, rather than down.”
Though Dyche, like Benitez, has some decisions to make about lineup shuffles, he did single out praise for his defensive midfielders Jack Cork and Ashley Westwood as central figures to Burnley’s renaissance after a season that began with nearly making the Europa League group stages gave way to a challenging league start.
“It can feel like a thankless task at times, but they are getting their rewards lately and the players around them, by the way, will definitely be full of respect because they have been excellent,” the gaffer said.
“There’s been a shift, physically, but also in their ability. They are two good footballers, not only with the ball, but they read the game ever so well and their honesty to deliver, in or out of possession, is terrific.”
Newcastle are going for the double after eking out a 2-1 win at Turf Moor in November. An own goal by Burnley defender Ben Mee and a goal from Magpies defender Ciaran Clark staked Newcastle to a two-goal lead on 23 minutes before Sam Vokes pulled one back for Burnley before halftime.
The teams have played to draws in Burnley’s previous two top-flight visits to St James’ Park.
Okay, raise your hand if you thought you’d be talking about offence first when it came to a preview regarding Newcastle United vs. Burnley. Anyone? Anyone at all? Okay, moving on then.
Both teams have picked up in form of late, with Burnley enjoying their best top-flight form since the 1960s, and Newcastle giving their supporters something other than agita. While it has been less than two hours of total play since his arrival from the United States, Almiron has been everything Benitez advertised him to be in seeking that record-£21 million transfer to secure the Paraguay international services.
The Spanish triangle — Almiron, Perez and Rondon apparently chatter to each other in that language since Almiron’s English is still halting at best — have rejuvenated the Magpies at a perfect time. Newcastle play only one Big Six side — Arsenal away on April 1 — among their next nine league matches, and have as good a chance as any team in the group of six between 13th and 18th to put some distance between themselves and the drop.
Then the real intrigue will begin — if not sooner — regarding Benitez’s future at the club, with Leicester City potentially a landing spot for the Spaniard should things fall out with owner Mike Ashley or the next ownership group should the Sports Direct magnate actually follow through on his desire to sell the club.
Burnley have also moved up the table, a testament to Dyche’s ability to navigate choppy waters by maintaining the team’s blue-collar mentality through their early and mid-season struggles. It would have been easy to take a self-pitying route given how close they came to Europa League group stages proper, and that did happen to a degree in the early part of the term.
But the departure of Vokes appears to be an addition by subtraction as Barnes and Wood have formed a magnificent partnership that has hit a rich goal-scoring vein for the Clarets. Dyche was also wise to point out his tireless central midfield, and his depth on the wings — substitute Johann Gudmundsson started the play that led to Barnes’ match-winner versus Tottenham — has been another key component of Burnley’s surge.
This is an evenly tipped encounter, with both defences capable of negating the offences, even with both on form. This has the feel of a game that could be decided in the final quarter-hour when the attacking substitutes will have to make a match-breaking impact. Burnley have yet to leave St James’ Park losers in the Premier League, and look for that trend to continue with another split of the points.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 1, Burnley 1.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 28 PREVIEWS:
Leicester City (9-5-13) vs. Brighton and Hove Albion (7-6-13)
Chelsea (15-5-6) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (20-0-7)
Liverpool (20-6-1) vs. Watford (11-7-9)
Manchester City (21-2-4) vs. West Ham United (10-6-11)