Newcastle United-Aston Villa Preview
Since Rafa Benitez has arrived in the North East, he's instilled the belief that Newcastle United can avoid the drop in this most important of seasons considering the financial stakes.
The one thing he's yet to do is have his players carry that belief on the road, and Saturday's encounter at already-relegated Aston Villa is as must win as they come for the Magpies.
Newcastle (8-9-19) have a tenuous hold just above the drop in 17th. Their 33 points are one more than rivals Sunderland and two more than 19th-place Norwich City, but both teams have a match in hand over the final two weeks of the season, creating an urgency for the Magpies to get the full three points from an Aston Villa team simply playing out the string.
Since being asked to clean up the mess left by predecessor Steve McClaren, Benitez has organised the Magpies into an actual team capable of challenging for points - evidenced by draws against Manchester City and Liverpool. Newcastle built on those results and are riding a four-match unbeaten streak (2-2-0) following their 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace last Saturday.
"Every single one of us has confidence in ourselves and in each other," centre back Chancel Mbemba told nufc.co.uk. "It's thanks to the coach, who is the number one - the leader. He instills that in every single one of us, player and staff.
"We deserved the win. Not just us - the players - but everyone involved, the staff and the fans as well."
The objective is to take that confidence outside St James' Park. Newcastle are winless in their last 10 (0-1-9) on the road and 2-2-14 overall - only Aston Villa (6) have fewer than their eight road points.
"Villa are already down but they have nothing to lose and they're not going to make it easy for us," Paul Dummett said. "If we remain organised and don't let Villa score then we give ourselves a great chance of winning and staying in the Premier League.
"We will go there looking to keep a clean sheet but obviously our main focus is on getting three points."
Benitez also has a strong track record against Villa from his days at Liverpool and Chelsea, compiling a 9-4-1 mark.
Seemingly everyone has been focused enough to get three points from Aston Villa (3-7-26), who enter their home finale on an 11-match losing streak in league play that has tied the 1962-63 team for the longest in club history. Last Saturday at Watford, the Villans held their first lead since the final whistle of their last victory - a 2-0 triumph over Norwich City on Feb. 6 - but they conceded twice in the final minutes and suffered a 3-2 defeat to the Hornets.
Given the vitriol that has been a constant at Villa Park as the side have endured defeat after defeat for now three months, caretaker manager Eric Black is hoping the fight his team showed at Vicarage Road will be the first step in getting back in the good graces of Villa's supporters.
"It's a fantastic football club with fantastic supporters and everything that surrounds it," he told Villa's official website. "It's about getting one little step, as small as it is, to getting the supporters back on side. That's all I think we can do. That's what we've spoken about with the players."
Black, though, will be without defender Aly Cissokho, who was given a straight red card in the 73rd minute of the loss to Watford and will miss this match through suspension.
Villa are trying to avoid becoming just the third team with 27 losses since the Premier League went to a 38-match schedule in 1995. Derby County (2007-08) and Sunderland (2005-06) both had 29-loss seasons, and the Black Cats also dropped 27 contests in 2002-03.
The teams played to a 1-1 draw at St James' Park in the reverse fixture Dec. 19 when Jordan Ayew's goal just after the hour canceled out Fabricio Coloccini's first-half marker. Newcastle are unbeaten in their last nine league matches against Aston Villa (5-4-0) since a 1-0 loss at Villa Park on April 10, 2011.