Make no doubt about it, Newcastle United are the best team in the Championship in 2017. They deserve their imminent promotion. Much of their squad is patently Premier League quality, and their manager is of a European calibre. Their summer spending was in a market that Leeds United don’t even have access to. To lie just three places and ten points behind them, vying to join them back in the big time, is a statement of Garry Monk’s remarkable time in charge.
And yet, Leeds have every chance of causing an upset on Saturday. Monk will be able choose what he deems his best XI, with all players available.
There’s a positivity returning after the resounding 3-0 win over a decent Preston side. Kemar Roofe’s excellent performance against Preston will put him squarely back in the picture for a starting spot, and adds a much-needed extra dimension to a side who have undoubtedly been over-reliant on a clinical striker and robust defence.
Newcastle on the other hand slumped to a limp defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, and look lacking in the absence of their top scorer, Dwight Gayle. Before that, they were good value for their six points taken from Burton Albion and Wigan, both at home, but those were laboured performances against poor sides. It’s been a while since Newcastle played to their potential.
While St. James’ Park boasts an average attendance of over 50,000 - more akin to Europe’s elite than any second tier club in world football - it’s curiously far from a fortress, with Newcastle performing better on the road. They sit just sixth in the table of points won at home. The likes of Bristol City, QPR, Blackburn and Wolves have taken points there this season. There can be a sense of frustration at the ground that appears to rub off on the players.
Benitez has spoken of creating a “Champions League atmosphere” on evening kick-offs at St. James’ this season. On an inevitably boozy bank holiday evening, with some of The Championship’s noisiest travellers in town, this presents the best opportunity for him to get his wish.
Full voices may dissipate the anxiety that can be a hindrance to Newcastle, so Leeds should look to bring that back on the pitch. Soaking up pressure - as Leeds have shown a knack for this season - may not be enough to dampen spirit on Tyneside. Wrestling control in midfield is not something Leeds have been able to do at the best of times, and against a midfield featuring the likes of Matt Ritchie and the mercurial Jonjo Shelvey may prove to be a challenge too great, but would be key to quieting the crowd.
It’s tempting to think of a trip to St. James’ as a bonus, something to write off if things don’t go our way, but the reality of the table does not allow Leeds that luxury. Whilst Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday also face tough tests on Friday, if results go their way, Leeds could be staring at just a two point gap from 7th.
Assuming Leeds do finish in the top six, an experience such as this will prove valuable for the intensity of play-off semi finals, and - dare I say it - a trip to Wembley.
Friday night will be some occasion. The fixture - Leeds first league trip to St. James Park since 2004 - is one of those your eyes get drawn to when the fixture list gets released. Predictability, Leeds have sold out their full allocation, and Newcastle sold out in a matter of hours. Add to that the scheduling of a 19:45 kick-off on a Spring bank holiday evening, and St. James’ Park close proximity to the city centre’s bounty of drinking holes, and there should be some atmosphere.
This will feel like a Premier League fixture. Next season, it might just be - let’s hope this gives us a taste for it.
For Leeds, Liam Cooper serves the third of his six game ban for Leeds. Sacko and Bridcutt are in contention after shaking off the knocks that kept them from Preston. Peacock-Farrell will deputise Rob Green, as Silvestri’s knee operation could keep him out for the remainder of the season.
For Newcastle, peripheral figures Jamie Sterry and Curtis Good are unlikely to feature. First teamers Kieran Clark and DeAndre Yedlin are still out through injury, so Chancel Mbemba and Vernon Anita are likely to continue at centre-half and right-back respectively.
Other Notable Fixtures
Huddersfield (3rd) vs. Preston (9th)
Norwich City (10th) vs. Fulham (7th)
Sheffield Wednesday (6th) vs. Cardiff City (14th)
Aston Villa (11th) vs. Reading (4th) (Saturday)
There have been very few meetings between the clubs since Leeds relegation in 2004. The only league meeting was Leeds’ limp 0-2 defeat at Elland Road in November. The only other competitive meeting - and Leeds’ last trip to St. James Park - was another 2-0 defeat in the League Cup’s third round in September 2013. Papiss Demba Cisse and Yoann Gouffran were the scorers that night.
Leeds and Newcastle had contrasting Saturdays. Newcastle were poor in defeat at Hillsborough to Sheffield Wednesday, while Leeds registered their first win since the international break with their best performance in weeks, over Preston. Newcastle had two consecutive wins before that to put them on the precipice of promotion, whilst Leeds suffered two disappointing losses to endanger their spot in the play-offs. Newcastle sit 16th in the form table, while Leeds sit 14th.
Newcastle United vs. Leeds United
EFL Championship Fixture
St. James’ Park, Newcastle
LUTV, BBC Radio Leeds, Sky Sports 1
Friday, April 14th, 2017
11:45am PT / 2:45pm ET / 7:45pm BT
Leeds United’s predicted starting XI
Green, Ayling, Bartley, Jansson, Berardi, Bridcutt, Vieira, Hernandez, Pedraza, Roofe, Wood
Newcastle’s predicted starting XI
Darlow, Anita, Mbemba, Lascelles, Dummett, Ritchie, Shelvey, Diame, Atsu, Perez, Murphy
Newcastle are the best side in the division, but they often don’t show it, especially at home. Dwight Gayle’s injury is a blessing for Leeds, as they don’t have another forward who has shown a consistency in finding the back of the net, although the many players capable of scoring from midfield is something to envy. Leeds will need to build on the encouraging display against Preston. If we’re at our best, and the likes of Roofe and Pedraza step up again, we’re more than capable of coming away with a point, or even three. 1-1.