28 November ~ As Newcastle United prepare to host Chelsea today, they could be forgiven for being suspicious of their visitors' worst run of league form in years. Although they have lost three of their last four Premier League fixtures, they were top of the table before yesterday's games and the formidable opponents their league position indicates. A fixture that could present an opportunity to catch Chelsea at a good time is just as likely to herald the end to their surely temporary thin patch.
Newcastle are not without problems themselves. Though results have been good and Chris Hughton's popularity has not waned, often contradictory media machinations persistently revolve around him. Supposedly only a late equaliser at home to Wigan saved him from the sack in mid-October. Barely a fortnight later and the nation's opinion-formers were then astonished that Hughton was still waiting for an extension to the contract which runs out at the end of this season. Fans with a siege mindset have become ever more convinced that the national media's only interest in Newcastle is as a destructive influence.
There was no fan clamour to sack Hughton in October, however, and little enthusiasm to push for a rapid resolution to the contract issue. It isn't really surprising that a club still paying numerous ex-managers years after their dismissal are reluctant to commit to another long-term contract for a relatively inexperienced manager just yet. That doesn't signify a lack of confidence in the manager, or political manoeuvrings to replace him, just an overdue desire for financial prudence. When Hughton and Carlo Ancelotti shake hands on Sunday and their eyes meet, recognition may pass from one to the other of a fellow soul not helped by media speculation into internal club politics.
The satisfaction of a better-than-expected start to the season has been tempered by the unpredictability of their performances and the manner in which they have dropped points. Momentum that might have been gained from results like the hammerings of Villa and Sunderland and away wins at Arsenal and Everton has been repeatedly thrown away in home defeats to less heralded sides. An inability to break down compact tactics at home has been made worse by a tendency to risk too much in pushing for victory and as a consequence lose games to teams happy with the draw. At the start of the season, tenth position at this stage would have been seen as pleasing progress. It would be unfair to allow the knowledge of how much better things could have been to divert away from this.
It could be that playing dominant sides like Chelsea suits Newcastle's style more than games against dour draw specialists. Even if that is so, this game follows on from the self-destructive collapse against Bolton last weekend. With a difficult run coming up, and suspensions starting to hit a thin squad hard, it's more important to return to solidity than to look to turn on the style again. Mark Brophy