Newcastle Utd v Man City, Saturday, 12.45pm
14 December ~ In the penultimate game of last season a record breaking Premier League attendance at St James' Park of 52,389 saw a match-up of the division's form teams. Manchester City, desperately needing a win to take their title challenge to the final weekend, eventually edged a finely fought game with two second half goals from Yaya Touré. Newcastle, having recorded an excellent win at Chelsea the previous week, were denied a Champions League place by a failure to gather points in both this fixture and the final match at Everton.
A few months on and the fortunes of both clubs are something of a cause for concern. Like last year, City go to Newcastle tomorrow after a derby game but on this occasion a defeat by Manchester United has dented a two-year unbeaten home record and the team's seemingly fragile morale.
Of course reports of City's decline remain greatly exaggerated and it's in the interest of many a Fleet Street sports editor to keep it that way. City remain good copy and a slow day in the office can always be perked up by a 1,000-word "think piece" on the behind-the-scenes travails at Eastlands, whether based on anecdote or conjecture. Manager Roberto Mancini is apparently detested by his players, causing spirit in the City camp to remain desperately low, which might make even the most casual observer wonder why it has taken until the second week in December for the team to lose in the league this season.
Similarly, Mario Balotelli is unrecognisable to his team-mates as the petulant and moody man-child painted in the media. Having said that, his on-field performances – one league goal to date this term – make him unrecognisable as a player nominated for the Ballon d'Or, too. Still, that's what a good 20 minutes against Germany buys you.
Despite the reported implosions and dressing-room revolts, City remain only six points from the top of the Premier League with more than half of the season remaining. Early exit from European competition means that a focus on retaining their title won't be hampered by midweek travelling and the heightened chance of injuries. City need to take advantage of this, as they can't afford to watch Manchester United sail off into the distance.
However City are not playing particularly well at the moment. Their goal tally is surprisingly low – particularly when set against last year's pre-Christmas figures – with the Argentine duo of Carlos Tévez and Sergio Agüero showing no shortage of effort but a disappointing return. Edin Dzeko has sparked a few late revivals with his off-the-bench turns but seems oddly off the pace when he starts. Balotelli's recent form will see him lucky to find a place on the substitutes' list.
Newcastle's record of only two wins in their last ten league games has sent them to 14th in the table and started a few barbed comments about Alan Pardew's contract extension. For both teams this match, while not as obviously vital as last season's, is for different reasons just as important. Tony Curran