The only Premier League offering of the weekend comes at Villa Park on Saturday night, as Newcastle travel to the Midlands to take on Aston Villa.
With the FA Cup 4th round taking centre stage this week, it’s a chance to play a game that should have been played back in December, when a COVID outbreak at Newcastle’s training ground caused the first postponement of the season.
Since that game was called off, Villa have had an outbreak of their own, which culminated in their exit from the cup competition, as a massively changed side lost 4-1 to Liverpool earlier this month. Newcastle had no such excuse when they were dumped out by Arsenal in the third round.
Villa played their first league game since New Year’s Day on Wednesday night, pushing Manchester City hard before a controversial offside decision didn’t go their way, and they eventually lost 2-0 at the Etihad. As a result of that call, Dean Smith was sent off and will be banned from the touchline when Newcastle come to town.
The game will also see Steve Bruce return to Villa Park, a little over two years since being sacked by the Villans. Bruce’s exit from Villa Park was compounded by a fan throwing a cabbage towards the dugout during a 3-3 draw with Preston North End. Things are so bad at Newcastle right now that had fans been allowed in stadiums, Newcastle supporters may have planned for history to repeat itself at St James’ Park.
While that may be a drastic move, it’s not an understatement to say that the mood around Newcastle United is at an all-time low. Winless in their last nine games in all competitions, the Geordies have looked utterly hopeless in recent weeks, a run of form capped by becoming the only team to lose to Sheffield United recently.
Much of the problem at Newcastle is a complete failure to create chances, and Allan Saint-Maximin’s absence has been a large part of that. The electrifying winger is back in training after recovering from COVID, and could make the squad for the first time since November 21st, when Newcastle lost 2-0 to Chelsea.
Club captain Jamaal Lascelles made his return to the side in the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal last Monday in place of Federico Fernandez, who missed the game through injury. The Argentine defender should be available for selection again though, as should Ryan Fraser, who is back from the suspension he received for two yellow cards against Sheffield United.
Steve Bruce has an almost entirely fit squad to choose from ahead of the game, which should provide plenty of opportunity to “do things his way” as he promised before the Arsenal game. Bruce employed a 4-4-2 formation against the Gunners, only to see his side succumb in the second half.
Whether a similarly brave system will be utilised against Villa will be interesting to see, with Smith’s side looking dangerous for large periods against Man City on Wednesday night, particularly on the counter attack.
However the home side choose to set up, they’ll be boosted by a mostly fit squad, with the only absentees being Wesley, Trezeguet and Kortney Hause. John McGinn picked up his fifth yellow card of the season against City and will miss the game through suspension.
A win for Villa will move them into 8th in the table, above Chelsea and Southampton on goal difference, and ensure hopes for a Europa League place continue into the second half of the campaign. Meanwhile, Newcastle need the points to ease their growing fears of a relegation battle. A win would move them ten points clear of 18th-placed Fulham and stop their alarming slump.
Aston Villa take on Newcastle United on Saturday, January 23rd. Kick-off is at 8pm.