Sky are known for picking some random games to show on TV, but even by their standards, a double header of Norwich v Sunderland and Wigan v Newcastle will not set many pulses racing outside of the North East, a small pocket of the North West and Norfolk.
When selected for live TV around Christmas time, the optimistic Newcastle fan would have hoped that the Toon would have sorted out their poor form, brought in a new defender and kept hold of Demba Ba in January. Whilst the Magpies were unable to fend off interest due to the much-publicised release clause, they invested heavily in the window and after a wins against Aston Villa, Chelsea, Southampton and Stoke they appear all but safe.
The real talking point of Tyneside has been the continued exploits of Pardew’s men in the Europa League. Tight defensive performances and disciplined attacking play saw the Toon firstly overcome Metalist Kharkiv and in the round of 16 the Magpies despatched Anzhi of Dagestan/Moscow with a late Papiss Cissé winner on Thursday night.
The major gripe of Newcastle fans has long been their perceived lack of interest in cup competitions. With all the will in the world, they will not challenge for the league title, so having a crack at a cup competition makes obvious sense, to that fan on the street at least.
Pardew announced at the start of the season that the league would be the priority, which makes striving for European qualification seem a tad pointless if it is then seen as a burden. Thankfully United negotiated the group stage and after two tight ties against more than decent teams from Eastern Europe, the Toon find themselves with a quarter final tie against Benfica early next month.
The draw has caught the imagination of the fans, and message boards and social networking sites are buzzing with chatter of routes and flights to Portugal. After the logistics of trips to Ukraine, Madeira and Russia, reaching Lisbon should be relatively easy and the Toon Army will travel in numbers, hoping that this could be the year.
Closer to home, the Magpies have a trip across the Pennines to Wigan to contend with. With the large allocation and comparative proximity, ‘Wigan away’ has replaced Sheffield Wednesday as the game in which the Newcastle fans can travel en masse, with 5,000 turning up last year. Unfortunately for the travelling supporters, they were treated to a rare capitulation and the Latics ran out 4-0 winners, a result which effectively killed off Newcastle’s unlikely charge for fourth place.
The DW Stadium, or JJB as was, hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for United, with five defeats in six games since 2005, their solitary win courtesy of a Shola Ameobi goal in 2011. The architect of more than one of those defeats was Ryan Taylor who had a habit of rifling in wonder goals against Newcastle, prompting the Magpies to sign him when Charles N’Zogbia moved the other way.
This game should be a close one, with Wigan fighting for their lives, as is the norm. It is usually this time of year when the Latics turn on their overdrive and come out with some impressive performances and results when it seems they are set for the drop. Wins for Aston Villa and Southampton have left the Latics six points from safety.
Roberto Martínez will have earmarked their next three games against Newcastle, Norwich and QPR as must win games, and will be expecting his players to deliver the kind of performance they did at Reading a couple of weeks ago when they ran out 3-0 winners.
Newcastle will have to maintain focus and not allow their minds to drift off toward Portugal, as Wigan will be a stern test with plenty to play for. Newcastle fielded a strong side against Anzhi on Thursday, but will likely recall the cup tied Mathieu Debuchy and Yoan Gouffran to their starting line-up.
One piece of bad news for the Toon this week was the admission from Pardew that Hatem Ben Arfa will miss the rest of the season as they seek a cure to a longstanding groin injury. This loss is tempered by the promising form of Sylvain Marveaux, filling the creative void with two excellent last-minute assists for Papiss Cisse in the last two games.
It sure as hell won’t be a classic and will lead to the fans of other clubs trotting out the ‘who put this crap on Sky?’ lines, but until the Dream League is up and running, some of the other clubs who make up the league have to have their turn. It can’t be Judgement-Day-Super-Sunday overblown hyperbole every week.
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