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Arsenal given the runaround by Newcastle in summer transfer market

After a summer of expenditure in the transfer market, hopes were high that Arsenal finally had a squad to challenge on all fronts this term for the first season in recent memory.

Despite the early season form of Chilean superstar Alexis Sanchez, the North London club have experienced the same old problems of late.

A lack of strength in depth has blighted the Gunners in recent campaigns, with injuries to key men seeing players deployed out of position and occasionally out of their depth.

Defensive injuries mean that Nacho Monreal has had to play at centre-half, while youngster Calum Chambers has been thrown into the breach after switching from Southampton.

Following the departure of Bacary Sagna in the off-season, bringing in a new right-back was key for Arsene Wenger, with the arrival of Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle as a result.

However, the France international has suffered from injuries and as such has only played four games this term. Debuchy was not subtle in his desire to leave St James’ Park in the summer and pushed for a move to North London – something of a slap in the face to Newcastle.

The Tyneside club recuperated a fee in the region of £12 million for the former Lille full-back and spent around half of this on his replacement, Daryl Janmaat.

Daryl Janmaat

The Netherlands international was coming off the back of a positive World Cup campaign, having impressed over a number of seasons at Feyenoord.

Janmaat had big shoes to fill given Debuchy’s performances for Newcastle, especially on the front foot, but early signs indicate that Newcastle have carried out a very astute piece of business.

The 25-year-old provided both assists in Newcastle’s 2-0 win over West Brom at the weekend and has slotted into Alan Pardew’s defence almost seamlessly.

With Debuchy’s showings at the World Cup questionable and Janmaat available for cut-price fee in the summer, Newcastle seem to have got a much better deal than the Gunners in filling their right-back berth.

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Aston Villa, Newcastle or Norwich: Where will Darren Bent play his football next term?

Darren Bent has always scored goals, wherever he has been. For whatever reason he isn’t held in the esteem of the likes of Jermain Defoe or Peter Crouch, but he has an excellent goalscoring record. He is a victim of his own type; the player who ‘only’ scores goals. Because his touch isn’t pretty and his game is based on pace and goal getting, he can be a bit frustrating. For this reason, he’s only had a brief spell with Spurs as a chance at a top club. Even there his record wasn’t too bad, but it is remembered more for the glaring misses, chances that Harry Redknapp’s mother could have scored, than his near one goal in three 25 goals in 79 appearances. Compared to Peter Crouch at Spurs (24 goals in 93 games) it’s not too bad and only marginally less than Jermain Defoe’s goals per game ration at the club.

But aside from that Spurs spell, his ratio has been nearer to, and often better than, one in two, the holy grail of the striker. His career ratio is one goal every 2.3 games. Which compares favourably to the likes of Robbie Keane (1:2.7) Crouch (1:3.3) Defoe (1:2.4) and even Wayne Rooney (1:2.2). Bent has always shown pedigree and always scored goals. And yet he is not thought of as being in these players’ calibre.

Darren Bent

Aston Villa paid Sunderland £18m for Darren Bent in January 2011 to help them out of a relegation battle. He rewarded them with nine goals in 16 games over the rest of that season. He was then in and out of the team, many suspecting it was to avoid paying Sunderland extra money, but still managed nine in 22. However, last summer saw the arrival of Paul Lambert and the pursuit of a different transfer policy. With him came youth and lower wages. And most importantly, Christian Benteke. The young Belgian surged in to the team and with Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor either side, gave Villa a dynamic front three. But no place for the £18m man Bent.

With this in mind, and Villa’s desire to keep trimming the wage bill, Bent looks almost certain to leave this summer. There should be no shortage of takers, but where will he end up?

Newcastle have been linked most prominently in the press and the arrival of Joe Kinnear has added to this. On the understanding that he wants a striker and will prioritise the domestic market, Bent looks like an obvious solution. Never mind his ex-Sunderland days, they need a goalscorer. Much will depend on the future of Papiss Cisse though. Bent will not move anywhere that will result in him sitting on the bench. But Newcastle pay Cisse to be a starter. There is only room for one.

Norwich are making a real effort to improve their goal getting and the pace and movement of Bent will look very dangerous next to the equally swift Ricky van Wolfswinkel. Norwich have some nice creativity in wide areas with Robert Snodgrass and Anthony Pilkington but need pure goal scorers. Bent is capable of getting them 15-20 with good supply and he’d be a nailed on starter.

Stoke have to be in play for Bent. New manager Mark Hughes needs to add goals to an otherwise awful attack and Bent gives them the kind of poacher they don’t have. They’ve got a group of variously talented strikers but none are pure goal poachers. They also need to add players who can make chances mind, but what few chances they do get need someone to put them away. They’ve got some money to spend too.

Hull are a decent outside bet as it was under Steve Bruce that Bent enjoyed his best form for Sunderland. They need to show the kind of ambition to persuade him to come though, but if they can add a few creative players they might be able to persuade him.

Whoever gets Bent is in all likelihood getting a bargain. Villa are not in a strong negotiating position given that it’s pretty common knowledge that they want rid. A bid of £5-6m could end up getting the buyer a 15 or even 20 goals striker with the right supply line and total confidence in him to let him start every week.

Newcastle United have the talent to get back to the top six

With all the furore and confusion caused by the appointment of Joe Kinnear as Director of Football, it is all too easy to get pessimistic about Newcastle. But the reality is they have the quality in their squad which would be the envy of most clubs. At their strongest, their starting eleven is at least the match of Liverpool and Everton, maybe even a Bale-less Spurs. The majority of their first team have been linked with Champions League clubs on the back of their 2011/12 fifth-place finish. In January they added to that core with France’s first choice right back, two other French internationals and the captain of the defending French champions. The first team is loaded with talent, and with a couple of careful additions, they can easily get back to the top six. Of course, with Newcastle, there is always a tendency towards self destruct. The appointment of Kinnear doesn’t undo the quality they have though. As long as he doesn’t do something ridiculous like sell them all.

Last season was somewhat anomalous for Newcastle. They didn’t build on the fifth place in the summer and when key players were injured or out of form in the early season, panic set in. The first choice team was excellent, but the depth was poor. When Yohan Cabaye is out and replaced by James Perch, there is going to be an appreciable drop off. They did their best to rectify the problems in January, but a big influx of players is always hard to bed in. Never mind mid-season. Alan Pardew didn’t quite seem to know how to use all the players at his disposal and at times they were tactically disjointed. He was caught between trying to infuse the new players and keeping loyal to some old favourites.

Alan Pardew

Playing Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko in the ‘number 10’ role didn’t really work. Sure, Sissoko scored some goals early on, but it’s not his role. Cabaye is a deep playmaker and Sissoko a Yaya Toure like box-to-box bulldozer. Neither have the subtlety and probing ability to play so high up the field. They are the club’s best two midfielders, and he tried to use them further up the field to give them greater influence, but the way to use them most effectively is in their best position. Their best ‘number 10’ could be the bizarrely under utilised Sylvain Marveaux. When he played, he was inevitably involved in goals. He’s not a hard worker, but his floaty, pacey style, combined with a lovely passing range makes him a true threat.

Newcastle can then use Hatem Ben Arfa and Yoan Gouffran as their wide forwards in a 4-2-3-1 and that gives them genuine pace and width. Rather than using Sissoko and Jonas Gutierrez, one out of position and one who works hard but doesn’t possess flair or pace, Alan Pardew needs to use his two quality weapons. Ben Arfa has been linked to Chelsea and PSG and when he was younger Gouffran was linked to Man United. They’ve got the ability to score 7-8 and make 10-12 each, and that would put them with the top names in that area of the field. With Papiss Cisse upfront bringing his strength, pace and beautiful technique, it would give Newcastle more than enough ammunition. Kinnear wants another striker for some reason, but Cisse has enough class. He needs to be trusted and provided with plenty of supply to thrive.

The concern last year was the defence, but again there is class there. Mathieu Debuchy and Davide Santon are top notch at full back and a now refocused Fabricio Coloccini is one of the better centre backs in the league when on song. Tim Krul could be a top five keeper in the league if he keeps improving. There is however, a big problem next to Coloccini. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa had a few good games, and Steven Taylor is hugely popular but both are erratic and error prone. Newcastle need to invest in a reliable presence. If, as is rumoured, Kinnear has vetoed signing Twente’s commanding Douglas it is a ridiculous decision.

With all this talent on board, Newcastle have more than enough talent to reach the top six. If Pardew uses his players properly, and trusts them to play to their strengths, they can show why they finished 5th. However, this all depends on the new director of football not doing anything rash. They’ve got the talent, they just need to trust it and add sensibly in the manner they have in the past few years.

West Ham’s purchase of Liverpool’s Andy Carroll – inspired or mad?

Andy Carroll’s much-expected move to West Ham was finalised on Wednesday and is widely believed to end up costing the East Londoners £46m in total – a transfer fee of around £15m and a relatively staggering six-year, £100,000-a-week contract. The question on everybody’s lips is whether Carroll, who scored seven goals in 25 appearances during an injury-plagued loan spell at Upton Park last season, is worth this club-record fee. Just why are West Ham willing to spend so much on a player that Liverpool are prepared to lose £20m on?

The fee the Hammers have paid for the England forward pales in comparison to the £35m price tag Liverpool paid in 2011, yet will still be seen as a hefty fee and neutrals will question just what Carroll has to offer.

Since his move to Liverpool, the former Newcastle man has been much maligned by many, with that fee hanging around his neck like a millstone. Carroll will feel that such a consensus is unwarranted after an impressive run of form towards the end of last season, in which he netted the winner in the FA Cup semi-final against Everton and a consolation goal in the final. Just as Carroll was beginning to settle on Merseyside however, out went the man who had shown so much faith in him – Kenny Dalglish – and in came Brendan Rodgers, a man whose preferred style of play was never going to make provisions for a six-foot-three striker. Those hoping Carroll would be utilised as a Plan B were left disappointed – a regular place as a mere squad player was never going to be an option for someone who cost, and was continuing to cost, so much.

Andy Carroll

The predicament at Anfield was a typical one when the player in question is of Carroll’s ilk. At his best, Carroll terrorises even the most astute of defenders in the air and has a projectile left foot that is always a threat to opposing goalkeepers. At his worst; the pony-tailed Gateshead man is conspicuously left cantering around the final third leaping into defenders just to feel involved when games aren’t catering to his strengths.

At Newcastle, Carroll was at times unplayable – as Arsenal and indeed Liverpool will testify – and when the Anfield club came in for the striker it was to nobody’s surprise – after all, Tottenham and Chelsea were also known to be keeping a close eye on him. It was of course the astronomical fee that Liverpool paid that shocked the football world and, more than likely, the player himself.  As the disbelief began to fade however, there was a genuine belief that this was the step that this rising star needed in order to completely fulfil the potential he had shown. Of course, this wasn’t the case and those who have watched the striker closely from his impressive Championship days have been left with a residual sense of frustration and disappointment.

Carroll is certainly capable of reaching double figures next season under Sam Allardyce, who is sure to give his new striker the run of games, fitness permitting, he so desperately needs. A strike partner is yet to be shipped in at Upton Park after Allardyce’s failed attempt to audaciously land Alvaro Negredo from Sevilla, but whoever is brought in must play to and off Carroll’s strengths. The aerial strength of Carroll is such that he is more than capable of assisting as many goals as he can score – something he hinted at several times last season alongside Kevin Nolan. There are few defenders who can handle Carroll at his best and if Allardyce has the tools to tap into this rich source of goals then Upton Park may well have a new hero. The player himself must also play his part, as the coming season will be vital with the pressure very much eased on his still young shoulders. He will no longer have pound signs floating over his head whenever he fails to meet a cross or squanders a chance, and hopefully Carroll will eye this as an opportunity to remind us all of the player he is capable of being.

Ask any Liverpool, or even Newcastle, supporter about Andy Carroll and the majority will, perhaps reluctantly, speak fondly of the lummox that was their number 9. While others will scoff at the amount that has been spent on Carroll – his two transfers combined far outweighs the money that has ever been spent on Robin van Persie for instance – West Ham fans should be comforted by the lack of ill-feeling towards their new man from those around Anfield. One thing that Carroll is certain to provide fans is a mixed bag of frustration at his unfulfilled but palpable talent and resounding elation when the smiling Geordie wheels away after scoring. The Upton Park faithful will hope for more of the latter and you would suspect that so will those at Anfield and St James’ Park, where a frustrated soft spot for the big man well and truly remains.

Oh Joe he didn’t! Kinnear returns to Newcastle as Director of Football.

There is certainly never a dull moment at Newcastle United and with owner Mike Ashley in charge, supporters in the Northeast have seen some unusual moving and shaking over the last few years. The appointment though of former manager Joe Kinnear to the role of director of football is, even by the standard of Ashley’s antics, baffling to say the least.

Newcastle fans, and quite possibly manager Alan Pardew himself, would be forgiven for wondering what’s going on as they find themselves scratching around amongst the disbelief and bewilderment for a reason to be positive about this latest twist. Without wishing do disrespect the abilities of Joe Kinnear, this is an appointment that reeks of agenda, smacks of déjà vu and it seems “captain Ashley has turned on the seatbelt light, we’re about to run into some turbulence.”

The whole phenomenon of a director of football is something that has gradually crept into British club operations from abroad where a senior man, operating above the touchline means the traditional manager’s role is more that of head coach. This new ideology has been greeted with suspicion by both managers and fans alike. The main worry being that the director will interfere with team matters, to the extent that it hampers the manager’s ability to do his job. The fears of course, are often justified and in search of a previous example, we should look no further than Tyneside itself.

Joe Kinnear

Back in 2008 Ashley’s popularity was at an all-time high with the Toon support due to his appointment of club hero Kevin Keegan for a second spell as manager. He had however, also recently appointed former Chelsea captain, Dennis Wise to the director of football role. Before long rumours were circling that Keegan was unhappy with Wise meddling in team matters. He resigned by September, openly citing the interference as a reason and saying players were being bought and sold against his wishes.

So what of Joe Kinnear and his track record? The Irishman has of course, had a good degree of success as a manager. Most of this success though was with his Wimbledon crazy gang back when the Premier League was just a spring chicken two decades ago. His spell at Luton Town could also be regarded as a positive one but the majority of Magpies’ fans will be wondering how in touch Kinnear can possibly be with the modern game due to a couple of lengthy health-related absences.

Now 66 years old, Kinnear is linking up with Ashley at Newcastle for a second time, albeit in a different role. His last spell, replacing Keegan as manager, was mediocre in terms of results and ultimately cut short by his own health problems. It was however packed with controversy and included an infamous foul mouth rant by the Dubliner, aimed at a journalist form the Daily Mirror. What on Earth can we expect this time around?

Directors of football usually downplay their appointment on arrival. Clubs issue statements justifying the position and there is much talk of strengthening links between the manager and the board. The language used is all about supporting, guiding, administering and advising. In general the explanation of the role is vague and maximum effort is made to avoid ruffling the manager’s feathers.

Joe Kinnear though wasn’t beating about the bush. He was making it clear that he would be not only involved in decisions about transfers, but having the final say. It’s hard to know when Pardew first heard of the appointment but here was Kinnear was claiming in his phone interview, that he planned to sit down for lunch with the manager, openly admitting at the same time that he had not yet spoken to him, while effectively announcing on national TV that he would be taking away some of the boss’ responsibilities. The whole thing was just bursting with the aura of a truly public undermining and the hallmarks of a Mike Ashley stunt.

The agenda? Newcastle had a cracking 2011/12 season under Pardew and Ashley rewarded the manager with an unprecedented eight whole years of contract. Now here we are one year on and Newcastle toiled badly last season, Mr Pardew’s stock is lower and his contract still seven years away from a severance free ending. If Mike Ashley fancies another change in manager he will need Pardew to quit rather than sack him.

What makes the whole thing even more audacious is that one Joe Kinnear was installed as director of football at Luton Town in 2001. Almost immediately after appointment, Kinnear demoted the manager and took control of the team himself. Alan Pardew of course will be immune from anything quite so obvious and drastic but you would forgive him for thinking that there is something sinister afoot.

As we wait for Pardew to comment, Newcastle fans can sit and wonder what the future will hold regarding Kinnear’s impact on how the club will operate in the summer transfer market. Perhaps Kinnear will bring experience and a great assistance to the current manager and perhaps Mr Ashley is being shrewd beyond our comprehension. The potential twists and turns in this plot are mouth-watering for a neutral onlooker. Despite all the uncertainty we can rest assured that the immediate future at United will be far from the mundane.

Would Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye be a hit at Manchester United?

Newcastle playmaker Yohan Cabaye was linked heavily to Manchester United at the end of the 2011/12 season after he was instrumental in Newcastle’s fifth-placed finish. He was thought to be an upgrade on Michael Carrick, who had plateaued and had been a key player for France and Lille in the role. 12 months on and this time Cabaye is having to link himself. His own form this season wasn’t bad but was by no means as good as the previous campaign and as the key playmaker and midfield fulcrum, Newcastle’s poor season reflects badly on him. Still, in an interview with Canal+ he was asked whether a move to Man United would interest him and he said ‘Yes of course, I like this club for a long time…They are always well placed amongst the big clubs, yes for sure it could be an interesting challenge but like I said for the moment, there is nothing concrete and I am still at Newcastle.’ So he is clearly interested, but are Man United, and should they be?

Cabaye’s debut season at Newcastle saw him score four and assist eight from his deep playmaking position. His metronomic passing, excellent set piece delivery and hard running, pressurising defensive game marked him out as one of the elite midfielders of his type in the Premier League. He had shown the same qualities at Lille where he led the team to the French title before Newcastle caught everyone napping to sign him. This meant that last summer, as rumours of a Man United midfield search abounded, he was right up at the top of the list. People with bored with Michael Carrick, they didn’t know what to expect of Tom Cleverley or Anderson, and weren’t sure if Phil Jones could play the role. Cabaye made great sense. But, as we know, Sir Alex Ferguson trusted his midfield and Michael Carrick ended up having the season of his career. Cabaye on the other hand, fared less well.

Yohan Cabaye

The main reason for the drop in Cabaye’s performances were his own injury issues and misdeployment by Alan Pardew. Cabaye struggled for full fitness through a lot of the season, which meant that he was a step slower, marginally less accurate than before, and couldn’t impose himself on a Newcastle team that struggled before being flooded with his countrymen in January. In this essentially new team he struggled to exert himself in an alien position. This is because Pardew played him in a far more advanced role for much of the season to little gain. Cabaye can get goals and see a pass from deep but he doesn’t have the fleet feet and inventiveness needed further forward. It’s not that he is suddenly a bad player though, considering the constant turnover of players at Newcastle his drop in form is understandable. It’s not really this that means he is perhaps ill suited to United though.

If United played a 4-2-3-1 system, Cabaye would be a good partner for Michael Carrick. They would be able to move the ball and maintain possession smoothly whilst also offering a strong defensive shield. However, if David Moyes uses his preferred 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 system, a midfield of Carrick and Cabaye would lack for something. Neither of them would be the ideal deep driving engine midfielder. United have also been linked to Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas and Marouane Fellaini, who would all make better compliments to Carrick in that system. Cabaye is solid when getting forward but if that is how he is used he wouldn’t be being bought for the right reasons. However, if Moyes does want two deep possession midfielders then Cabaye would be ideal. United could get him at a reasonable price compared to the others on this list too.

Cabaye can be a success at Old Trafford is used properly and bought for a specific purpose. If David Moyes used the correct tactical set up he could be excellent. However, if the new United manager keeps his usual preferred method then Cabaye should not be first choice ahead of the more thrusting options United could look at.

Newcastle vs Sunderland: The Premier League’s number one derby

The derby…a personal view on what it means

I’ve read a lot of articles recently, looked through a lot of Twitter feeds and a lot of forums in preparation for Sunday’s big Tyne-Wear derby, and it still makes me laugh when Sunderland fans feel the need to refer back to a game in 1908 to have a dig at Newcastle fans. Over 100 years ago, before the first of two world wars and before anyone could even envisage a television set, yet Sunderland fans still feel its necessary to chant the words, “we beat the scum 9-1″. I will point out that despite none of these fans (usually 13-16 year olds) will have witnessed the game, Newcastle fielded a reserve team after winning the league comfortably that season. Just a small pointer to get started.

With Sunderland hovering at the bottom end of the table, all their attention will be on Sunday’s crunch game, however for Newcastle it was all about Thursday night where they took on Benfica in the Europa League quarter-finals. Despite the bad timing of such a game I would be very surprised if any Newcastle fan wanted it any other way. To be back playing in Europe on the big stage is something we could only have dreamed about when we were in the Championship three seasons ago and to make the last eight, despite injuries and suspensions, is something to be very proud of. Just to compare the two teams in terms of European adventures Newcastle have played in Europe for 17 separate seasons playing over 120 competitive matches in cities such as Barcelona, Turin, Milan, Brugge, Moscow, Lisbon and Athens. Sunderland have played four games courtesy of an FA Cup win in 1973. And despite Newcastle’s hectic schedule this season, having to travel all over Europe clocking up thousands of air miles, they still find themselves above their rivals despite Sunderland’s longest European trip this season being away to Swansea City.

Alan Pardew

Back to Sunday’s game and despite some so-called pundits seemingly brushing our derby aside as a relatively small event in comparison to the so-called bigger derbies, it is without the question in my eyes the biggest and most fierce derby in the country. The passion that comes down from the stands onto the pitch is something the Manchester, North London, Midlands, and Merseyside derbies could only dream of having. As the famous saying goes, ‘you would have to see it to believe it’, and in this case that could not be more true. Having been to many derby games myself I can tell any neutral fan outside this forgotten part of the country that no matter how passionate you feel towards your own team, the passion your derby creates will never come close to what us north-east natives create.

The derby for us is not just a one-day event. When the fixtures are released in June that is when we start preparing for the two games and from then the countdown begins. As the game draws nearer the nerves become a little more increased and that is when you start getting the light-hearted banter between the two sets of fans, and as it gets closer and closer that banter more often then not turns a little bit more aggressive until you are so pumped up for the game it is the only thing that is keeping you awake. As a Newcastle fan I love both derbies, but nothing compares to a derby at the home of football, St James Park. The whole city is anticipating something special, and a lot of the time that is exactly what we get. The 5-1 demolition in 2010 instantly springs to mind as my best-ever derby experience. From waking up bright and early, from heading to the ground and to hearing the roar of the crowd as the players emerge to Local Hero. Nothing quite beats a derby day at Newcastle.

Newcastle fan celebrates

The word ‘obsessed’ is used all too often in this part of the world, when one of our teams get beat the fans find it comforting to label their rivals as obsessed with their club’s demise. I’ve done it after a defeat, as I am sure everyone who reads this will have done. It is a heat of the moment thing you feel obliged to do just because you cannot stand the thought of your rivals taunting you! For Sunderland though, it seems to come all too natural. With modern day technology I have seen NUFC Twitter feeds littered with Sunderland fans mocking us after a defeat, whether it is a friendly match or a massive European game. I would love to see the day when fans concentrate on their own team’s affairs without having to judge others. The derby is another matter. We live for day when we beat Sunderland and can label ourselves, as Sunderland fans call themselves ‘top dogs of the north-east’. The derby can either leave you feeling top of the world or literally rock bottom. After a defeat you do not want to show your face to anyone, let alone a rival fan. You log out of all social networking sites, switch off your mobile phones and lock yourselves away for a good two days. And when you decide to come back into the world, you turn your phone on to see missed calls and texts from the people you have been so keen to avoid.

I’ve been lucky enough to witness some great derby games. The 5-1 humiliation of 2010, the 3-2 win when Emre curled in that glorious free-kick past a helpless Kelvin Davies, the 4-1 win when Alan Shearer scored his last-ever competitive goal from the penalty spot in front of the travelling fans, and of course the memorable 1-0 away win when Ryan Taylor defied all the odds from the corner of the box. No matter what part of the country or the world you are from, if you support Newcastle United you know exactly what Sunday’s game means to us all. It simply means everything. So Paul Merson can take his beloved Midland Derby, Charlie Nicholas his Old Firm derby, Alan Smith his North London derby, Phil Thompson his Merseyside derby and Gary Neville his Manchester derby, put them all together and still not come anywhere near what our derby means. The Tyne-Wear derby is simply THE derby.

Premier League Preview: Big games for Manchester United, Stoke, Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa

Premier League preview: Derby day on Tyneside, United look to bounce back and a big game for Villa

While most eyes will be on Wembley this weekend for the FA Cup semi-finals, there are still some massive games in the Premiership with a number of teams looking for the precious three points.

Newcastle v Sunderland

A massive derby game on Sunday at St James’ Park, with a huge three points on offer in this relegation battle. After their last-gasp victory against Fulham last Sunday, Newcastle know that three points here would all but secure their place in the Premier League for next season and possibly condemn their nearest rivals to a place in the relegation zone.

Paolo Di Canio

After an encouraging performance at Stamford Bridge, Paolo Di Canio will have his team fired up and want them showing the same passion that he will undoubtedly be putting across on the touchline. Sunderland may well see this as a big opportunity with Newcastle playing on Thursday night against Benfica and they may well find it tough to get themselves up for another big physical effort just over two days later. This fixture generally produces goals, cards and talking points so a high scoring draw may well be on the cards, and with a lot of combative midfielders on the pitch a red card or two would not be a surprise.

Stoke v Manchester United

A big game at both ends of the table as Manchester United travel to the Britannia to take on a Stoke City side who have been dragged into a relegation battle. Only Reading are in worst form in the last six games than the hosts, who haven’t won in their last six league games and have only won one of their last six at home. Manchester United meanwhile are at the top of the form table and have not lost an away league game since defeat at Norwich in November.

Sir Alex Ferguson

Stoke now sit just three points above the drop zone after the damaging home defeat to Villa last week and as the lowest scorers in the division and their usually tight defence beginning to leak goals, they are in real danger of falling back into the Championship. The last thing Stoke need now is a visit from the champions elect. Manchester United will be stung by their derby defeat on Monday and they know that defeat here will give Manchester City a chance to get back into the title race. The first goal here will be crucial as the Stoke fans will try and create their famous intimidating atmosphere straight from kick off, an early goal for United and it may well be another easy away day for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. If Stoke could manage to get in front though a positive result will surely act as a springboard for them to retain Premier League status.

Aston Villa v Fulham

Another massive game down the bottom as Paul Lambert’s young side have an opportunity to put some daylight between themselves and Wigan, who are in FA Cup action this weekend. After their impressive win at Stoke last weekend, which dragged them into trouble, Villa could take a massive stride toward safety by making it back-to-back wins.

Christian Benteke

One problem for this Villa side is playing in front of their home fans as they have lost four out of their last six home games. The young players seem to freeze in front of their own fans and play with much more freedom in their away games. Fulham meanwhile have picked up slightly with their away form, losing just two of their last six games but they are generally poor on their travels and now that they are safe for another season Villa’s extra need for the win may sway this fixture in their favour.

By Chris Newman

Newcastle United – the challenge ahead

Newcastle United have had a patchy season to say the least, yet they are challenging for the Europa League and have certainly improved since the influx of French imports in the January transfer window.

The short-term target for the club is to establish themselves in the Premier League and have a good go at the Europa League; the long-term vision is to cement their place in the top six of the Premier League and stay there. There is no doubt they have the foundations to do so.

Moussa Sissoko

Although Newcastle have brought a lot of new players in, they have not spent vast amounts of money. Moussa Sissoko, Yoan Gouffran, Massadio Haidara, Mapou-Yanga Mbiwa and Mathieu Debuchy cost the club an estimated £15.3 million in the January window; compare that to the £19 million QPR spent on Loic Remy and Chris Samba and the huge wages they paid both players. Newcastle have the squad to challenge at the top end of the league but in order to do so, they will have to improve certain aspects of the team.

A ‘purple’ player, as managing director Derek Llambias calls them, are players that will jump straight into the first team, and it has been said that the club are targeting three ‘purples’ in the summer, without having to sell any key players. Here is my view on where the club should strengthen in the summer:

Striker – Since the departure of Demba Ba and the failure to land Loic Remy, Newcastle are desperate for another top striker to play alongside Papiss Cisse. The number one target is Saint Etienne striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Gabon international is in demand though and will not come cheap. It’s rumoured that the player would be very interested in a move to Tyneside, and indications suggest Mike Ashley will make a personal visit in order to get the deal done. It would be a magnificent signing for the club. Other potential striker targets for the club are Siem De Jong from Ajax and Wilfried Bony, however, I believe signing Aubameyang would be the best move for the club; he will offer not only goals, but strength and pace also.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Centre-half – With the imminent departure of captain Fabricio Coloccini, it is essential that Newcastle sign a centre-half to replace him. Mamadou Sakho from PSG is a name that has been thrown about for a good 12 months around the club, and it is believed that Newcastle will make an early move for the French centre half. The signing of Sakho would represent a major coup in the window for Newcastle after a lot of clubs have expressed an interest in the centre-half. James Tomkins is a name that has been mentioned a lot, but I believe that would be a major step down for the club.

If Newcastle can strengthen these two positions in the summer, and not sell any key players, then they will be a team that will have power, strength and pace and not many teams will look forward to facing that prospect. For the first time in a long time things are starting to look extremely bright on Tyneside, and despite a blip this season, I believe Newcastle United are back on the road to becoming a major force once again in English football.

Chelsea, Tottenham and Newcastle have a real chance of Europa League glory

Even though there is no English interest in the Champions League, the same cannot be said of the Europa League where there are three teams battling to make the final at the Amsterdam Arena on May 15th. All the English teams face tough tasks though, and the draw has conjured up four ties between teams that have never met before.

Chelsea v Rubin Kazan

Whilst Chelsea may have been installed as bookmakers favourites following the draw they take a step into the unknown against the Russian outfit. Chelsea have been far from convincing in Europe this season, crashing out of the Champions League as holders at the group stage and then scraping past Sparta Prague and Steaua Bucharest in the first two rounds of this competition. Rubin meanwhile have been mightily impressive in getting to this stage. They topped their group ahead of Inter Milan who they thumped 3-0 at home. They then followed that by knocking out the holders Atletico Madrid 2-1 on aggregate, which included a 2-0 victory in the Vicente Calderon.

John Obi Mikel

Rubin have a mixture of nationalities in their squad including their danger man, the Venezuelan striker Jose Rondon who has scored five goals in the competition so far. While he is their main threat up front Rubin also have a solid backline, which has only conceded four goals in their 10 games so far and two of those came in the first group game away at Inter. Make no mistake; this is a massive test for Chelsea, and with the away leg coming second the Blues may need a couple of goals advantage to take to Russia. These two games also come in a spell of six games in 16 days for Chelsea and all that may add up to a shock in this tie.

Tottenham Hotspur v FC Basel

The easiest looking tie for the English clubs on paper begins at White Hart Lane as Spurs take on the rank outsiders FC Basel. Tottenham cruised through their group as runners-up behind Lazio and have then fought their way through two tough ties against Lyon thanks to a late Mousa Dembele goal and against Inter Milan on away goals. Basel started the season in the Champions League but lost out to Cluj in the final play-off round. Having dropped into the Europa League they finished second in a weak group behind Genk before seeing off Ukrainian minnows Dnipro. They were impressive in the last round though, knocking out Liverpool’s conquerors Zenit 2-1 on aggregate.

Benoit Assou-Ekotto

Basel have a good blend of youth and experience with the Swiss pairing of Marco Streller and Alex Frei still scoring goals at this level. Over two legs though Spurs will surely be a class above and if Inter Milan struggled to contain the likes of Gareth Bale then it is hard to see how the Swiss will fare any better. Being at home first does make things harder for Tottenham as they have not been too convincing away from home thus far, but they will surely be too far ahead after the first leg for it to make a difference.

Fenerbahce v Lazio

The only tie that does not contain an English team but it is still very tough to call. Fenerbahce are another team who came down from the Champions League after losing their play-off to Spartak Moscow. Their path through the group stage was easy enough finishing top of their pool, however during the knockout rounds they have been unconvincing in getting past Bate 1-0 on aggregate and Plzen 2-1 over the two games. Lazio have been much more impressive, topping the group ahead of Spurs and then scoring five times in each of their knockout rounds against Borussia Monchengladbach and Stuttgart.

Raul Meireles

Both sides have a lot of experience running through their teams. Lazio have the likes of Miroslav Klose and Lorik Cana while Fenerbahce have some well-known faces in the form of Joseph Yobo, Raul Meireles and Dirk Kuyt. Lazio may well just have the edge in this tie though through their goal threat. They have the Czech striker Libor Kozak who has managed eight goals in eight games so far and the unpredictable Mauro Zarate. With Lazio at home second they have to be favourites and will have too much firepower for an unspectacular Fenerbahce side.

Benfica v Newcastle United

The final tie should be an absolute cracker as Portuguese heavyweights Benfica take on Newcastle. Newcastle have been solid if unspectacular so far, coming second in their group behind Bordeaux and then going through 1-0 on aggregate in both knockout rounds against tricky opposition in the shape of Metalist Kharkiv and Anzhi Makhachkala. Benfica are another team that dropped out of the Champions League, finishing third in their group behind Celtic and Barcelona despite a creditable 0-0 draw at Camp Nou. They have won every game in the Europa League so far though beating both Bayer Leverkusen and Bordeaux home and away.

Moussa Sissoko

Benfica’s main threat is of course their goal machine Oscar Cardozo who already has three in four games in this competition. They also have exciting young midfielders in Nicolas Gaitan and Nemanja Matic and the experience at the back with Luisao and Ezequiel Garay. Newcastle could not have wished for a tougher task and a lot will depend on how their young team cope with the intimidating atmosphere in Lisbon in the first leg. If Newcastle can continue their solid defensive form then they may give themselves a chance of a special European night at St James Park in the return game.

By Chris Newman

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