As the landscape of this Premier League season has convulsed, Newcastle United have risen as an unlikely addition to the league’s Champions League elite.
Unlikely because of their 12th placed finish in last year’s competition and their then-perceived tendency for cashing on the most influential members of their squad.
This was the immediate perception anyway. What actually happened was the club’s vilified owner, Mike Ashley, and manager Alan Pardew shipped out their more over-priced and over-rated English ‘stars’, replacing them with cheaper, more technically astute foreigners.
The Toon have successfully managed to surprise their rivals with a combination of shrewd recruitment, effective organisation and a splash of verve in Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye.
The trip to Stamford Bridge this Wednesday will not only be a definitive moment in deciding the overall success of their season, it will also indicate whether this initial surprise has a longevity to it and isn’t just waiting to be cottoned on to.
Roberto di Matteo’s side are old hands when it comes to crunch fixtures, so they will be sure to provide a rigorous examination of Newcastle’s aspirations.
The Italian has done a successful job of solidifying the Stamford Bridge side after the fluidity attempted by Andre Villas-Boas failed to produce the intended results.
The Blues’ experienced players will know exactly what is required of them as they try to complete a full turnaround of their season and re-enter the top four after reaching the FA Cup final and, most astonishingly, the Champions League final.
On a roll and looking dangerous after demolishing QPR on Sunday, Fernando Torres getting a hat-trick, their back four looking more settled – Chelsea’s form looks ominous for their remaining opponents.
Pardew’s team have found their most troubling moments when away from home and Stamford Bridge seems to have lost the air of fallibility that pervaded the ground for some of this season.
Newcastle’s away day blues were exemplified last weekend when they had been on a six-game winning streak, taking them to fourth behind Arsenal, only to put in a performance of exquisite ineptitude against Wigan Athletic.
While not being a complete shock due to Wigan’s recent impressive run, Pardew’s side seemed uncharacteristically disorganised and were cut open regularly by the new Victor Moses, going down by the match-winning 4-0 scoreline before half-time.
It was a showing that was not in line with the new perception of them that has developed and questions will be asked if they have finally succumbed to playing at a level we previously thought more fitting.
Chelsea won the reverse fixture at the beginning of December with what looks a comprehensive 3-0 score, but Newcastle felt a little hard done by in the final score and will want to go some way in atoning for it.
Tomorrow night will tell us if Newcastle really have what it takes to roost amongst the Premier League old guard.
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