Clubs sliding towards danger
11 January ~ Norwich v Newcastle tomorrow is a classic case of two nervous teams who need a win. Norwich have lost four league games in a row, have difficult fixtures with Liverpool and Spurs immediately after this one and aren't so far away from the bottom that they couldn't be sucked in to the relegation battle. Newcastle have lost nine of the last 11 in the league, are two points off the drop and teams below them are finally beginning to pick up points. Following last weekend's FA Cup defeat at Brighton, it's difficult to see where the next win will come from.
With fellow relegation-battlers Reading and Aston Villa the next two opponents after this, they are at a pivotal moment in their season.
Chris Hughton is warmly remembered on Tyneside for his dignity and quiet capability as manager before his unwarranted sacking and his presence will focus attention on Alan Pardew's struggles this term. Newcastle's season has been defined by the failure to strengthen in the summer. An increased number of games and long-term injury problems mean that for some time they have had a better team under treatment than on the pitch. Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa and Steven Taylor have been particularly badly missed and though on the way back all seem unlikely to be ready for this game.
In addition, the most famous contract clause in Premier League history was finally taken advantage of when top-scorer Demba Ba moved to Chelsea earlier this month. Midfield destroyer Cheick Tioté's trip to the Africa Cup of Nations won't be felt as keenly as was feared, thanks to his woeful form in all but a handful of games this season.
New signing Mathieu Debuchy should improve the quality of passing from the back and provide better support on the right going forward but whether this will be enough to turn around the current slump remains to be seen. With the loss of Ba and Shola Ameobi's suspension, only Papiss Cissé and various youngsters are available up front. Having played all season in an uncomfortable wide position, Cissé looks likely to be restored to his central striking role.
Newcastle lost heavily in this fixture last season when a weakened central defence was unable to cope with crosses to forwards with aerial prowess. Though Newcastle should be close to full strength defensively this time their solidity has deserted them this season, a trend accentuated by attacking tactics at Old Trafford and the Emirates over Christmas. Just for the record, Newcastle would prefer a 1-0 victory here to another high-scoring defeat. However, as both of Norwich's forwards who caused so many problems last season are struggling with injury, this game may turn out to be a case of the Malleable Object versus the Enfeebled Force. Mark Brophy