Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur meet in a repeat of last year’s Premier League soccer season opener at St James’ Park on Saturday (7.30am ET).
Newcastle lost 0-2 on that occasion after handing Spurs the initiative with the early second-half dismissal of Jonjo Shelvey but showed well enough to suggest they would be capable of avoiding a season-long battle for survival. So it proved, as they eventually finished 10th.
It was a good first season back in the top flight for Rafael Benitez’s side, and one that was underpinned by solid underlying statistics. There didn’t appear to be any element of good fortune to where Newcastle finished. They were a decently structured side, without a standout talent but with players of sufficient ability to carry out their game plan.
There were ups and downs throughout the campaign. There was a 10-match unbeaten run from late January through mid-April that ended with four consecutive victories. Then there were eight losses in nine from late October through mid-December. Newcastle nevertheless became the first promoted side to finish in the top half of the Premier League table in five years.
The hope among the Newcastle support was that the campaign would demonstrate the potential of the club and lead to an investor stepping forward to meet owner Mike Ashley’s requirements for a sale. That hasn’t happened and so Newcastle remain in a familiar position, with Ashley putting in the bare minimum required to keep things ticking over.
With limited funds, Benitez has done good work in fine-tuning his squad, bringing in decent money for unwanted players, securing the continuation of goalkeeper Martin Dubravka (signed permanently from Sparta Prague) and forward Kenedy (on loan from Chelsea), and making a couple more potentially shrewd additions. He stills feels they are short.
With Benitez in charge, Newcastle should be safe from relegation, but it remains to be seen how long he is willing to put up with the situation as it is, especially with his contract set to expire at the end of the season.
There has been much less transfer activity at Spurs. Indeed, at time of writing, with Thursday’s transfer deadline fast approaching, they are the only Premier League team not to have signed a new player. While Jack Grealish of Aston Villa continues to be linked, it is conceivable they will go into the first half of the season with the same squad as last year.
That isn’t necessarily a major problem. The core of the current group has seen Spurs to three consecutive top-three finishes and the preservation of all of their key players will mean that they have a key advantage over many of the other sides at the top of the table in terms of coherence and understanding. It still feels they could have done with a new face or two to freshen things up a little.
Improvement will have to come from within. The hope will be that Lucas Moura can make a bigger impact with a full pre-season with Mauricio Pochettino and his staff behind him and that Harry Winks can avoid injury and make good on the clear promise he showed during the early part of last season. Hopefully Serge Aurier can cut the rash moments out of his game.
Those are a lot of ifs, but similar discussions surrounded Tottenham last summer and yet they still finished third while improving their Champions League performance. They play effective, well-structured football, and are again likely to be in the upper reaches of the table.
Tottenham’s preparations for the new campaign have been disrupted by the sheer number of their players who reached the latter stages of this summer’s World Cup: nine in all between semi-finalists Belgium, England and France. Pochettino has suggested it would be better to provide all of them, including the likes of Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris and Jan Vertonghen, with more rest, but he may be forced to play at least some of them on Saturday.
With the expectation that he will, Spurs should be considered the most likely victors at St James’ Park. They are solid in defence and even if some miss out, they have enough quality attacking options in their squad to put out a side capable of securing the three points.
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