If Watford was the first hurdle, then Bournemouth will be more of an uphill struggle for Newcastle United. Victory over the Hornets last weekend, under the most pressurised of possible circumstances, has lifted the mood on Tyneside and breathed new life into an area which, after weeks of misery and frustration slowly developing into fear and genuine concern, may just start to believe again.
Everything that could have gone wrong in the first 50 minutes or so, other than a goal being conceded, did. Watford were right on top of Newcastle, cutting through them at will and squandering chance after chance. Jamaal Lascelles, Jonjo Shelvey and Yoshinori Muto were all forced off through injury, and Rafael Benitez has confirmed that they will not face the Cherries at St James’ Park. Without them six days ago, the collective spirit in the stadium, and surprisingly good performances from their replacements, carried them home in the knick of time.
Had three points not arrived then, the already growing list of nightmarish statistics and records would have reached new heights, and avoiding relegation would have gone from being a winnable battle to an extremely daunting task; not that anything has really changed in the bigger picture. The second half against Watford saw everything good about Benitez’s Newcastle return; the players exceeded their own limited quality and became a snarling, battling unit, winning every ball, while the fans, so relieved to finally have something to cheer, made the the kind of noise they must make every week.
Everybody knows that, on paper, Newcastle don’t have a squad capable of much more than a scrap at the bottom of the Premier League. Serial neglect and apathy has seeped down from the boardroom and, as a result, they will have to rely on a combination of the players’ effort, Benitez’s often brilliant tactical mind and, most of all, an atmosphere that is encouraging and intimidating in equal measure, if disaster is to be averted come May next year.
Among the teams who are putting their correct foot forward are Bournenmouth; Eddie Howe, Britain’s most exciting young coach, has deservedly won Manager of the Month in the build up to their trip to the North East. It is a club which has spent well and evolved into one of the sides most likely to challenge for the ‘best of the rest’ spot just behind the ‘big six’, though they are currently usurping Manchester United, who beat them in dramatis fashion last week, and occupy a European spot.
Newcastle’s job, as Benitez will know, is very similar to last weekend. Bournemouth, like Watford, have been particularly impressive going forward, and possess the necessary pace to threaten on the counter attack, just as Javi Garcia’s men did without actually having more than one shot on target. Worryingly for the Magpies, their visitors may have the kind of weapon capable of punishing them this time, as Callum Wilson, a one-time Benitez target, heads to St James’ Park looking for his seventh goal of the campaign after receiving a call up to the England squad for next week’s international games.
Without the same three players that came off against Watford, it will be a tough afternoon; potentially even tougher than it was then. The situation requires Ki Sung-Yueng, Fabiian Schär and Ayoze Perez be proactive rather than reactive; Newcastle must start well, because in the form they are right now, it’ll be tough to recover against Bournemouth if they go a goal ahead early on.
But, again, the crowd is the most crucial factor in the most positive outcome; they are the glue that can hold a good performance together and the light that can spark another crucial victory. Injuries have been a frustrating theme running through the majority of the season, but more damaging has been the emerging division within the stands and betweeen them and the pitch. The nerves made way for defiance, confidence and unity from the moment Ki, in particular, arrived to change the course of the game last week. There can be no waiting this time, though; only a continuation of the momentum built will suffice.
Any suggestion that Newcastle fans cannot simultaneously make their feelings towards Mike Ashley known and support the team were disproven last weekend, and the feeling of the power they can yield has returned. For much of the season, as results kept getting worse and the crisis deepened, they have felt helpless; this weekend, they can turn the game in Newcastle’s favour and help get a first home win over Bournemouth in the Premier League.
The Cherries have become something of a bogey team at St James’ Park; they arrived in a similar situation to Newcastle now alnost exactly twelve months ago, with a bad start hanging over them. Although they are in a much better position now, Howe has demanded the same dogged desire and willingness to put in the work, because he knows that is what the opposition, filled with new-found confidence and belief, will do.