On the back of two consecutive victories, Newcastle United have a good opportunity to put further distance between themselves and the bottom three when they host basement-dwellers Aston Villa at St James’ Park on Saturday (5.30pm, live on Sky Sports).
Things were looking pretty grim for Newcastle and their coach Steve McClaren (pictured) prior to their home match against Liverpool two weeks ago. They had lost four of their previous seven matches by three or more goals, including a humbling derby defeat to Sunderland, and it was difficult to see a way forward for them given their poor performances and results.
But a 2-0 victory in that fixture was then followed by a 2-1 win away to Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, in which goals from substitutes Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ayoze Perez saw the Magpies produce a deserved comeback victory with a determined second-half performance fuelled by their disappointment over their lacklustre display during the opening 45 minutes.
It was the sort of reaction McClaren would have been hoping for when he questioned his players’ attitude in the wake of their 5-1 defeat away to Crystal Palace last month. He was quick to offer equivalent praise in the aftermath of Sunday’s victory and will hope that his side can now carry that same determination into upcoming fixtures, starting on Saturday.
The last two results were the first back-to-back victories Newcastle have achieved in the Premier League in over a year and while their underlying statistics suggest there is still plenty for McClaren to work on, particularly with a defensive unit that currently has the joint-worst record in the division, his team have now at least given themselves a little breathing room and a decent platform to build on from here.
Indeed, for the true meaning of grim, one only need look to Newcastle’s opponents on Saturday. Aston Villa are currently rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table, eight points from safety, having secured just six points from one win and three draws in their opening 16 fixtures. Their 28-season stay in the top flight looks in serious danger of coming to an end.
Remi Garde stepped into the breach following the dismissal of Tim Sherwood in late October but is yet to oversee a victory in what has been a tough opening set of fixtures for the former Lyon coach. His side secured credible draws at home to Manchester City and away at Southampton but were thrashed 4-0 away at Everton alongside home defeats to Watford and Arsenal.
One of the reasons for Garde’s appointment was the hope that he would be able to draw better performances from the number of young French-speaking players the club invested in over the summer. However, while the difficulty of his side’s opponents to date has certainly conditioned things, there has been little sign that Garde will be capable of significantly improving displays without further investment into the squad in January.
Villa have the joint-worst scoring record and the joint-second-worst defensive record in the division. While they have perhaps been a little unfortunate not to pick up a few more points, a failure to address their issues at even one end of the pitch will make it very difficult for them to secure sufficient points between now and the end of the season to make up their current deficit.
The Villains face three members of the current bottom six over the course of their next four fixtures and must aim to secure at least five points from these encounters in order to avoid becoming further marooned at the bottom of the table. In Newcastle, however, they will face a side with renewed confidence and belief, and one that despite being far from perfect themselves should be capable of subjecting Villa to yet another defeat on Saturday.