The festive period can often test the stamina of a side and Newcastle will be sorely examined as they face Arsenal off the back of a gruelling 4-3 defeat to Manchester United on Boxing Day. To make matters worse, the Gunners were given the day off thanks to a tube strike in London and will be fresh as a daisy for the game - live on ESPN UK at 1730 GMT on Saturday.
The “wee club from the North East” - to quote an angry Sir Alex Ferguson - have endured a topsy-turvy season to date and no game showcased that more than the one against United. With fine firepower from the likes of Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cisse, they crumbled in defence against a United onslaught and could not hold on.
In part, they are suffering from the achievements of last season when they finished 5th and rewarded manager Alan Pardew with an eight-year contract. This season, Newcastle are 10 points worse off than they were at this point last year and the last time they had fewer points after 19 games in the top-flight was 1988-89 (17). They were relegated at the end of that campaign.
Relegation talk is a little premature but, with the distraction of the Europa League causing a lack of focus domestically, results have to turn around quickly if they are to rise from 15th place. Unfortunately, Jonas Gutierrez (knee) has joined fellow midfielders Yohan Cabaye (groin) and Hatem Ben Arfa (hamstring), as well as central defender Steven Taylor (hamstring), on the sidelines which may suggest this game may not be the place to start.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have also had a tough season, although are beginning to see the shoots of recovery and have won their last three Premier League games. Despite their recent boost they haven’t won back-to-back league games at home since April and have only picked up a win in four of their last 11 at the Emirates, but the tale of the tape sees a huge home advantage as Newcastle have won just one of their last ten against Arsenal (W1 D5 L4).
Perhaps the greatest hope for the Toon lies in the fact that the Gunners have had a player sent off in three of their last four Premier League games against them. Arsene Wenger’s men are in good form, will be fully fit and have little injury news to report, but complacency has been seen in the red half of North London already this year and Wenger will be at pains to ensure they start 2013 in the best possible shape.
Arsenal player to watch: Jack Wilshere. The heartbeat of Arsenal now, Wilshere gave the club some Christmas cheer by announcing that he would sign a new contract. Playing as a true box-to-box midfielder, despite the presence of the No. 10 on his back, Wilshere was missed badly during his period of long recovery and now looks like he is approaching his best again. A real inspiration both in attack and defence, he is as committed as anyone in the league and his leadership skills are more valuable than anything else.
Newcastle player to watch: Demba Ba. When quizzed about a possible January transfer, the Senegal international was not exactly keen to hide the fact he liked one of the clubs he was being linked to, saying: “Arsenal are one of those teams who makes you dream.” A dream start to life in Newcastle has made Ba one of the most coveted strikers in England and his haul of goals this season is coupled with the fact that he has a £7.5 million release clause in his contract. A strong showing against the Gunners and he may just persuade Arsene Wenger to part with some cash.
Key Battle: Mikel Arteta vs. Cheik Tiote: A clash in the middle of the park contains two of the most important players for their clubs. Arteta has been the backbone of the Gunners’ midfield and brings some much needed experience to a key area; Tiote’s tackling and commitment ensures that no team leaves a game against the Toon without feeling it. Arteta’s creativity will need to trump Tiote’s ball-winning if Arsenal are to take control of the game on home turf, but the Ivorian (and perhaps even Arsene Wenger) will still have flashbacks about the equaliser in the epic 4-4 back in 2011.
Trivia: Newcastle were Arsenal’s opponents in their first ever league game, a 2-2 draw on September 2, 1893
Stats: Newcastle have played the highest proportion of long passes this season (17%), while Mikel Arteta has made an average of 87 passes per game this season, more than any other player.
Odds: Arsenal (1.44), Newcastle (7.00) and the draw (4.50) are on offer at bet365, while Demba Ba is at 19.00 to score two or more goals.
Prediction: At home, Arsenal have had the best of this game in recent seasons and should have enough confidence and stamina in reserve to get a result.