Topsy-turvy Premier League season means Newcastle can take nothing for granted (From The Northern Echo)
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Topsy-turvy Premier League season means Newcastle can take nothing for granted
SO far this season, Newcastle beat Manchester United, who had already seen off Arsenal. Arsenal beat Liverpool, but couldn't get past Chelsea. Chelsea were also too good for Manchester City, but couldn't beat West Brom. West Brom lost to Southampton, who face Newcastle this afternoon.
The conclusion from all of that? If you're trying to work out this most topsy-turvy of Premier League campaigns, the only thing you're going to end up with is an almighty headache.
Each weekend seems to bring its own twists and turns at the moment, so while Newcastle might ordinarily be heading into today's home game with the Saints in a confident mood, any bravado is tempered by an acknowledgement of previous mistakes.
While last weekend's 1-0 win at Old Trafford has been rightly lauded as a fantastic achievement, the previous week's 3-0 defeat at Swansea is equally instructive when it comes to making predictions about forthcoming games.
On their day, Newcastle are perfectly capable of beating anyone in the Premier League. Allow their standards to slip, however, and they are not yet good enough to take victory for granted, as this season's defeats to Swansea, Hull and Sunderland attest.
“It's hard to make predictions about anyone,” agreed Mike Williamson, whose rock-solid defensive displays have been one of the few constant factors in Newcastle's last few games. “You couldn't predict the top four this year, and I certainly don't think you could predict the top seven either.
“It's all so unpredictable, and that's what's made this season so exciting. The level of all the teams in the Premier League has been rising, and the gaps that might have existed in the past aren't really there now. It's making for an exciting season.”
It certainly is, and with the leading sides all beating each other, there is the tantalising prospect of a side like Newcastle putting a strong enough run together to propel themselves into the thick of the European battle in the second half of the campaign.
The Magpies briefly rose into sixth position last Saturday, and while Spurs' win at Sunderland sent them back into seventh, they go into today's game just three points adrift of a top-four place.
Realistically, the Champions League might be out of reach, but there is no reason why Newcastle should not be targeting a Europa League spot, although on the evidence of last season's struggles, that might well be a double-edged sword.
The club's supporters would certainly welcome a return to continental competition, something that looked a distant possibility when relegation fears were being aired in the wake of September's chastening first-half embarrassment at Everton.
Since then, Newcastle have won six of their last nine matches, but while the turnaround is welcome, it remains a work in progress.
“At the start of November, people were still talking about our dodgy start and worrying about what might happen,” said Williamson. “Now there's been a complete change and suddenly Europe is back on the agenda.
“That's the way football has gone really, especially at this club, but as players, we just have to remain level-headed and not get carried away, good or bad. We're all experienced enough to know that.
“If we're still in a similar position come the middle of January, then we can really start to look forward to the second half of the season. I've been asked about targets quite a bit in the last few weeks, but without wanting to slip into cliches, I think we all know that things can change in the blink of an eye in the Premier League.
“It's such an unpredictable league, especially this season, and it's all about getting your preparation right for the next game and doing the basics right.”
And if Newcastle's players needed any warning about the dangers inherent in an off day, it arrived at the Liberty Stadium ten days ago.
The Magpies were comprehensively outplayed by a Swansea side lacking their two leading strikers, so while Southampton go into today's game on the back of just one win from their last seven games, no one on Tyneside will be taking anything for granted.
“It's all about keeping the momentum going,” said Williamson. “As Swansea proved, nothing is a formality. Every game brings its own challenge, and if we're not on our mettle and playing at the level we did against Manchester United, we can still slip up.”
Newcastle must cope with the absence of Yohan Cabaye, who is suspended after picking up his fifth booking of the season at Old Trafford. With Vurnon Anita expected to retain his place in midfield, Alan Pardew could opt to recall either Shola Ameobi or Hatem Ben Arfa in order to adopt a more attacking approach.
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