19 November ~ When the fixture list condemned Newcastle to consecutive ties in November against Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, most Newcastle fans would have been hoping they could build up enough points beforehand to prevent them drifting into trouble. Their start has exceeded even the hopes of the wildest fantasists. When third-placed Newcastle and league leaders City meet today, they will run out as the only sides to remain undefeated in England's top division. Something has to give. City have the best attacking record in the division and Newcastle have conceded the fewest goals.
Whereas City's range of attacking options already make it seem they will be gliding unstoppably to the title, Newcastle's defensive solidity has been achieved by fielding the same back five in all 11 league games. City have started the season at a sprint, dishing out heavy beatings to highly rated Spurs and their ultimate rivals Manchester United. Alan Pardew's summer dealings made his side younger, faster and more technically proficient than last season's version.
Despite this newfound fluidity and an improved ability to control games, Newcastle's main asset has been in finding a way to win or at least avoid defeat when necessary, a triumph of collective will rather than a demonstration in style. Just as the form of City's new signing Sergio Aguero has made the the increasing petulance of Carlos Tevez irrelevant, Newcastle's Yohan Cabaye has minimised the loss of contract rebel Kevin Nolan and one-man debating society Joey Barton.
The two clubs display differing strategies off the pitch too. City's seemingly unlimited transfer budget has built a team filled with expensive talent. In the cases of the magnificent David Silva, Yaya Touré and Aguero in particular, it would be difficult to argue the money was wasted. In contrast, Newcastle have targeted youth and resale value in their signings while limiting transfer fees and wages. France's Ligue 1 has proved a particularly useful source. Yesterday City announced a £197m loss for last year, while Newcastle recently made public a mission statement that concentrates on financial self-sufficiency, a goal achieved this season, which makes their run so far all the more remarkable.
Newcastle's system has inevitable limits. Their small squad is less capable than others of covering for injuries. This game is the first where they have had major problems in the build-up. Both right-sided midfielders are out, which will require at least a reshuffle. More importantly, there are doubts about the fitness of both key central midfielders, Cabaye and Cheick Tioté. Newcastle struggled when missing the pair for the majority of their last game, against Everton, and can be expected to do the same should they field a similar 11 on Saturday.
It has been suggested that Newcastle haven't really played anyone of note so far and the next three games will provide them with a test. However, the real test, that of improving on results against the same sides from last season, has already been achieved. Whether they win or lose this weekend – or the two after – there will still be the same likely outcome. An improvement on last year's 12th position for Newcastle come May and a first title for City since 1968. Mark Brophy