Newcastle United-Leicester City Preview
As Leicester City's dream season shows no signs of slowing down, Newcastle United have turned to an old Premier League hand in their bid to avoid a nightmare scenario.
The front-running Foxes continue their title chase Monday at home versus the Magpies, who have enlisted Rafa Benitez to guide them to safety.
In addition to scraping their way to the summit of the top flight, Leicester City (17-9-3) have often been the beneficiaries of the best possible outcomes of results with regards to their closest pursuers. That again proved to be the case for last week's two match days.
Despite being held to a midweek draw versus West Bromwich Albion, the Foxes gained a point while Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester City all lost. And after Arsenal and Spurs split the points in their match early Saturday, Leicester City extended their lead to five points with a deserved 1-0 victory at Watford that night.
Much like the win over Norwich City a fortnight ago, it was Claudio Ranieri at his "Tinkerman" best that swung the match in Leicester's favour. His halftime introductions of Andy King and Jeff Schlupp injected needed pace, and the Foxes were rewarded on 56 minutes with Riyad Mahrez's well-taken goal.
"It was very tough, we knew coming here would be a tough ask. Riyad has come up with a bit of magic so we are delighted," keeper Kasper Schmeichel said. "We are in a good position, but (with) nine games (to go), a lot can happen."
The Algeria international gave all of Leicester's fan base a fright when he pulled up with a possible hamstring injury before being subbed off in the 85th minute, but it turned out to be only a cramp.
Though the Foxes and Newcastle are separated by 36 points, the league leaders are not looking beyond the Magpies with so much at stake in this once in a lifetime season.
"They're a really good team and everyone is still baffled as to why they're so low in the league table," Schlupp told Foxes Player HD of Newcastle.
"It's a difficult match because they're in a dangerous position," Ranieri added. "There are so many good players. I think it will be another difficult match because they are fighting to survive."
During this soft patch of schedule, Leicester have relied less on their marauding counterattack and more on buildup to score goals. It was the third straight match the Foxes held the majority of the possession, and their success in sussing out goals multiple ways is a key reason they've stayed in first.
"I think it just shows how far we've come with the team and the players we've got," Schlupp said. "It's not just one game plan now; we can do it one way or the other."
Leicester City have taken a Premier League-high 82 points over the last 38 matches, and Newcastle's 28 in that span are better than only Aston Villa (26).
And that's their current status in the table - better than only Villa.
Manager Steve McClaren's day of reckoning finally came Friday, with last weekend's 3-1 home loss to Bournemouth the breaking point for owner Mike Ashley as the Magpies flirt with their second relegation in eight years.
With Newcastle's £80 million investment over the last two transfer windows - the most spent by any European club - producing little on-field reward, Benitez has the daunting task of rescuing Newcastle (6-6-16) from a three-team scrum with derby rivals Sunderland and Norwich City that will send two of them to the Championship with the Villans.
"I have the pleasure to confirm I have committed to a legendary English club, with the massive challenge of remaining part of the Premier League," Benitez said. "It will be a challenge not just for me and my staff but for the players, the club and the fans.
"Personally, it means my return to the Premier League, closer to my home and my family. I can't be happier."
Benitez's arrival in the North East, though, is the Spaniard also trying to repair his reputation. He was unceremoniously sacked by Real Madrid in January amid breakdowns between himself and the club hierarchy as well as the players, the latter group near gleeful in publicly deriding him after his departure from the Bernabeu. The nadir was an embarrassing 4-0 home defeat to Barcelona, a match in which many thought Benitez put forth a starting XI more aesthetically pleasing to the higher-ups than one that could beat their Catalan archrivals.
These 10 matches - the Magpies have one in hand entering the week - carry high reward and little risk for Benitez. He reportedly could earn a £3 million bonus if Newcastle stay up and has an option in his £18 million, three-year deal to leave the club if they fail to do so. But England has always been a favoured home for Benitez, who won the 2005 Champions League title with Liverpool and was runner-up in 2007 during six seasons at Anfield and had a six-month stint as caretaker with Chelsea in 2012-13.
''I am coming here trying to do my best to stay in the Premier League and if I have a compromise for the future, it's because I am convinced that we will do well. I want to stay here," he said of the release clause.
The one player who has the most potential to ease Benitez's transition to Tyneside is Jonjo Shelvey, who briefly played under him at Liverpool in 2010. A January transfer to Newcastle himself, the mercurial 24-year-old midfielder could emerge as a fulcrum along with Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic to help keep the Magpies in the top flight.
Their play, however, is presently only sending them farther down. Newcastle have lost three on the trot and five of six in league play, having been outscored 14-4 in that span. They were thoroughly outclassed in the reverse fixture in November, failing to register a shot on target in a 3-0 defeat as Jamie Vardy, Leonardo Ulloa and Shinji Okazaki all scored for Leicester.