St James’ Park stadium, Newcastle
Saturday – August 13, 2011
2200 hours IST (+0530 GMT) – Live on ESPN India
A summer of never-ending transfer speculations, team re-building, contract negotiations and – in some cases – betrayal, the new season is finally upon us. It’s the time when most of the attention will turn from the gossip section of the papers to where it matters most – the football field.
But, St. James’ Park hosting Arsenal again in a Saturday late kick-off? The match will bring back contrasting memories for the supporters of the two clubs. Both the teams played out an enthralling and frantic match last season at this venue. Cheick Tiote’s long range volley two minutes from time earned the Magpies an unthinkable point after trailing 4-0 just after the half-hour mark. The gunners will be looking for redemption this time around.
To say that Arsenal had a disappointing last season would be an understatement. At a certain point of the season, the gunners were competing for a quadruple, but ended up adding more dust in the trophy cabinet. Their dramatic collapse towards the end of the season was nothing short of a catastrophe. People have raised serious concerns over Wenger’s ‘youth’ project. People have questioned the lack of leadership in the team and within the board. Their failure to close out games and a lack of plan ‘B’ has been pointed out.
As if things weren’t bad enough for Arsenal last year, this year they are set to lose many of their key players. Clichy has already left, while Nasri and Fabregas are next in line. What promised to be a busy transfer window for Arsenal hasn’t lived up to its billing – or it has but in a negative sense? Gervinho, Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have been the new recruits this season, but the fans are still waiting for a ‘marquee’ signing. The defense which was exposed so often last season hasn’t been strengthened yet. Wenger has come under severe criticism from fans for his transfer policy. Many believe if the barren spell continues for Arsene this year, it could very well be his last year at the helm of the club. Wenger and his team will have a thing or two to prove this year.
Newcastle United’s return to the top flight was a dramatic one, as well. If you think Arsenal have lot of problems, Newcastle is a close competitor. They started off well, but then Chris Hughton was sacked midway through the season much to the bemusement of the fans. Alan Pardew was brought in as the replacement. The fans continued to be in a bemused state, as their star striker Andy Carroll was sold to Liverpool.
In hindsight, the deal was quite beneficiary – £35m is a hefty sum of money! The fans expected a good replacement for Carroll, a worth number 9. The fans’ wish was obliged and the mighty Shefki Kuqi was signed, which did not quite endear Mike Ashley to the Toon Army. After few hiccups, Newcastle finished safely in 12th position. This transfer window has been a bizarre one for Newcastle. Their captain and best player last season, Kevin Nolan has left the club for relegated West Ham. Sol Campbell has been released, while Stephen Ireland has returned to Aston Villa. Joey Barton and Jose Enrique are on the verge of leaving as well. Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux, Demba Ba, Mehdi Abeid and Gabriel Obertan have been the new signings this season. Pardew has a tough task in his hand – firstly, to gel the new team together and secondly, stopping them from using twitter.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Newcastle started their pre-season with a 2-0 victory over Darlington. There pre-season tour of USA had mixed results. They started off with a goalless draw against Kansas City, and then they lost their next match against Orlando. They managed to end the tour on a good note with a three-goal victory over Columbus Crew. Their next pre-season match was against Leeds which they lost 3 – 2. Newcastle’s last friendly match against Fiorentina was called off in the 63rd minute due to a waterlogged pitch. The friendly matches showed that the new signings will take time to settle down and Pardew still doesn’t know his best eleven. This is what Alan Pardew had to say after the Leeds match:
“There were some positives today. Cabaye played in Cheik’s position in a holding role. We all know he’s a fantastic passer, but I thought he showed good defensive qualities in there. So that bodes well. Haris came on for a nice little cameo and I thought Demba Ba was sharp as well. But overall I was a bit disappointed with our quality. We needed to experiment though and sometimes when you lose, you can learn more.”
Newcastle have few injury worries of its own. Ben Arfa, Perch, Harper and Kadar are all reported to be on the treatment table. One major problem that Newcastle will face is replacing Enrique. Enrique’s transfer to Liverpool is imminent and Pardew doesn’t have a natural back up in his squad. In all probabilities, Danny Simpson or Ryan Taylor will be placed in an unfamiliar role. Dan Gosling might be given a start in this match as Barton is kept out in the cold. Cheick Tiote had been Newcastle’s star performer last season and has maintained his form in the pre-season as well. He should provide solidity to the midfield, with Cabaye and Gosling supporting him. New signing Marveaux and Gutierrez is likely to operate on the wings, while Leon Best plays upfront. New Captain of the side, Coloccini, and Taylor will hold up the fort against Arsenal.
Possible Line-up – Krul, Simpson, S.Taylor, Coloccini, R.Taylor, Tiote, Gosling, Cabaye, Gutierrez, Marveaux, Best
Arsenal didn’t have a great pre-season this time around. The pre-season tour has posed more questions than answers. Out of the 6 matches they have played, Arsenal have managed to win just 2 of them. They even lost the emirates cup to New York Red Bulls. In their last pre-season matchm Arsenal lost to Benfica 2 – 1. The flaw within this Arsenal team is obvious to everyone. Arsenal drew two matches in the emirates cup, in both of which Arsenal were in the lead. Despite such disappointing results, performances of certain players have stood out. Tomasz Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey have been brilliant, while Gervinho has already made his impact with a brace against Cologne.
The season hasn’t started yet and Arsenal already have six players injured. Jack Wilshere, Robin Van Persie, Abou Diaby and Theo Walcott are all facing problems with their ankles, while Samir Nasri and Laurent Koscielny are still doubtful for the opening match. Meanwhile, Cesc Fabregas is closer to Barcelona than he is to London and Nasri is looking destined for Manchester. Arsene Wenger is facing serious problems putting out a team on Saturday. Gibbs is expected to replace Clichy in the team, but it is being reported to have picked up an injury as well. New signing Gervinho should get a start as well. Ramsey and Rosicky should come in to replace Fabregas and Wilshere. Vermaelen is also been reported to have back problems, but should be fit for the match. He should partner Djourou in the center of the defense. Van Persie should be able to this match; Chamakh might get a look in otherwise. It will be interesting to see whether Arsene Wenger continues with his favored 4-3-3 formation this season.
Possible Line-up – Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen, Djorou, Gibbs, Song, Ramsey, Rosicky, Gervinho, Van Persie, Arshavin
Key Match Facts
1. The last 5 matches between this two sides have yielded 20 goals.
2. Arsenal have scored 14 out of those 20 goals.
3. Arsenal have not lost an opening day fixture since a 1-0 loss to the Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, 11 long years ago.
4. Newcastle have not won an opening day fixture since 2007 season.
TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR
Gervinho comes to England after two wonderful seasons with Lille. The Ivory Coast international has been Arsenal’s biggest signing so far. He has immediately made his presence felt after scoring a brace in a match against Cologne. He is a very direct and exciting player. Incidentally, he was pursued by Newcastle United before signing for Arsenal. He would be eager to show the Magpies what they have missed out on.
Newcastle United 1 – 3 Arsenal
It should be an exciting game with plenty of goals in it. Both sides will be under immense pressure to perform, so the game might be a bit tentative in the early stages. Expect some strong challenges to fly in. Defenses of both the team will be under scrutiny, expect plenty of mistakes as well. Arsenal are usually quick starters and boast an impressive opening day – victory record, expect them to edge this one by two goal margin.
TheHardTackle’s BLAST FROM THE PAST