Ahead of Southampton's visit to St James's Park, we got the lowdown on Newcastle United from reporter Chris Waugh at the Newcastle Chronicle...
What’s the feeling like at the moment, heading into these last nine games?
There’s definitely a nervous tension around Tyneside, particularly given the 2-2 draw the other week at Bournemouth. I think if Newcastle had hung on down on the south coast then they would be a lot more confident, but the failure to keep those two extra points has dragged them back into things. So people are nervous, but with Rafa Benítez being in charge there is also a quiet confidence in part that he will be able to see them through.
They beat Manchester United at home last time they played at St James’s Park and they played very well, so it’s just about trying to replicate that level of performance. If they can do that then I think Newcastle fans believe they’ll just have enough to be able to survive.
How big is this game being viewed as up in Newcastle?
It’s huge for Newcastle, primarily because afterwards there’s a three-week gap before they play again, so they’re going to be a fixture behind most teams. After Southampton, it’s Huddersfield at home, so it’s two huge games, and given some of their fixtures in the run-in they really need to win when they’re playing teams in and around them. All of the players after the Liverpool game on Saturday made it quite clear that they’re targeting nothing less than three points this weekend.
I think everyone realises how important a game this is for Newcastle. There’s also the fact Newcastle’s home record is one of the worst in the division, and before the Man United game they hadn’t won since October at St James’s Park in the Premier League, so there is a bit of concern there and it’s just about how Newcastle can break down a team that’s in and around them, because they have struggled to do that at home.
chris waughi don't expect a gung-ho approach, but i think they will try to get on the offensive.
How have the team been playing recently?
The form has been very good until they went to Liverpool on Saturday, and that was partly I think the way Benítez set up, to try to protect the goal difference, which is quite good, like Southampton’s is, compared to other teams down there.
But the two games before that, for 80 minutes at Bournemouth they were very, very good – they controlled the game and then had a ten-minute capitulation – and against Man United they were excellent throughout. It was probably their best all-round performance of the season, and the first time they’d beaten a top-six side. So they are playing quite well, and the only two teams they’ve lost to in the calendar year in the league are two of the most in-form teams – Man City and Liverpool.
It’s only two defeats in nine, so they are playing quite well. It’s just about finishing off their chances.
How do you expect them to approach this game tactically?
Benítez promised at the weekend that they’d be more attacking than they were at Anfield, but he’s always someone who’s very pragmatic. He likes his teams to be organised and disciplined, so I don’t expect a gung-ho approach, but I think they will try to get on the offensive.
He’ll probably play his usual 4-2-3-1 formation, but have a few players who are going to try to get the ball into the box and release Dwight Gayle, who I imagine will continue up front.
I think they realise they need to try to score early to try to quieten some nerves that might be around, so I think they’ll be more offensive than they normally are, but I wouldn’t go to the extent of saying they’ll be gung-ho.
Who will be their key players on Saturday and the ones Southampton will need to watch out for?
Jonjo Shelvey will be a big miss if he doesn’t play. There is still a slight chance he will play, but it’s looking unlikely because of a knee injury. He’s been key to Newcastle recently.
Jamaal Lascelles is very important to them defensively. He’s their captain, their leader, and he has been one of the most consistent performers all season and they’ve performed so much better when he is in the team.
Also, going forward, Dwight Gayle, just because he’s the one player you think can really grab a goal in this team, because it is a team that doesn’t score that many. They’ve only got 27 in 29. He got a couple at Bournemouth and if he does gain some confidence he is someone who could finish those chances, so he’s someone Southampton will have to watch out for.