The season is back, and with it three questions. Coming Home Newcastle covers the team in an excellent manner. Who better to help us preview the match? They kindly agreed to answer our three questions.
Cottagers Confidential: What is the biggest addition the club has made this offseason? The biggest departure?
Coming Home Newcastle: I think I speak for Newcastle fans everywhere when I say that Rafa Benitez is the biggest offseason acquisition of all. Given owner Mike Ashley's history, and the larger history of the club as a whole, it wouldn't have been at all surprising had Newcastle let Rafa walk away after the season ended. Instead, the club appears to have acknowledged that significant mistakes were made over the past few years and, in doing so, has given Rafa a great deal of control at the club. The mere presence of Benitez has transformed the energy around the club in a way I've never seen. Having spent the last few seasons in a downward spiral toward inevitable relegation, it's fairly shocking to suddenly support a club with so much energy and excitement surrounding it. If you didn't know better, you would be hard pressed to think that club was relegated just three short months ago.
With that said, games are won and lost on the field and in-terms of player acquisitions, I think the biggest acquisition has to be Dwight Gayle. I'm not necessarily sold on his ability to be the club's leading goal-scorer this year, which is what you might expect from a £10M forward at this level. However, given the club's lack of offensive spark the last few seasons and Aleksandar Mitrovic's poor disciplinary record, we'll be relying heavily on Gayle to come through.
On face value, the biggest departure has to be the club's leading goal scorer last season, Georginio Wijnaldum. His attacking prowess from midfield will be missed as he would have excelled in the Championship. Unfortunately, Newcastle fans will testify to the fact that we were without his attacking abilities even when he was in the lineup for vast stretches of the season last year. For all his talents, Gini could go missing for huge periods of time. The fact that 6 of his 11 goals came in 2 games says quite a bit. In the long run, I don't think he would have been up for the fight this year and £25m isn't a bad parting gift.
CC: Which three teams do you think go up? Which three go down?
CHN: Despite all the hype surrounding Newcastle this year, I'm going to tip Norwich to win the league this year and secure automatic promotion. I think that Newcastle will squeak by and secure the second automatic promotion spot (but just barely). The playoff is such a crap shoot every year and it's anyone's guess as to who could go up but I like what Chris Hughton is doing at Brighton and I'll go with them to win it all at Wembley.
As for the bottom end of the table, I'm going to be fairly unoriginal in picking 2 of the 3 newcomers to go back down. Wigan are always scrappy so I'll say that Burton and Barnsley are the 2 that go back down and that they'll be joined by the club who barely squeaked by last year, Rotherham.
CC: Are you worried at all that failure to go back up this year could leave you down in the Championship for some time?
CHN: Extremely. As a Newcastle fan, I'm a pessimist by nature so in my eyes it's only a matter of time until the other shoe drops. Given how ecstatic we as a fan base are at the moment, it would be extremely fitting for us to drop this match to you 3-0 on Friday and then spiral down from there. I don't see that happening, mind you, but it wouldn't surprise me. I think that Newcastle's fate this season will be determined within the first 10 games. They take on both Aston Villa and Norwich along with Brighton and Derby over that stretch. If they can come out of that run in the top 4-6, I like their chances. It's essential that the club and the players capitalize on the positive momentum generated by the off-season and keep it rolling right into this year's campaign in order to bounce back up to the Premier League.
Should they fail to do that, I firmly believe the wheels could come off the club. I have no reason to believe Rafa would stay for a 2nd season in the Championship, Mike Ashley would have to strongly reconsider the financial implications of further investment into the club, and both the fan base and the players would take a serious hit to the psyche. I don't think the club would pulls a Leeds or Wigan and drop to League 1 but if we fail to secure promotion this season, I think we could be looking at an extended stay in the Championship.
I've always hated the mantra that a club is "too big to go down." No player, manager or club is above respecting the game and the 23 other teams in the Championship certainly deserve Newcastle's respect. Newcastle deserved to be relegated last year and if they want a crack at the top flight again they're going to have to earn it one game at a time.
CC: Predicted Lineup and Score?
Newcastle threw a last second curveball at me with the additions of midfielder Mohamed Diame from Hull and defender Ciaran Clark from Aston Villa so Rafa might surprise me, but I think he'll stick with the squad he's used for the majority of the preseason.
I would expect Newcastle to line up in a Rafa's preferred 4-2-3-1 which I could see playing more like a 4-3-3 at times with Aarons and Perez interchanging with Gayle at times.
Rolando Aarons - Ayoze Perez - Matt Ritchie
Isaac Hayden - Jack Colback
Paul Dummett - Jamaal Lascells (C) - Chancel Mbema - Daryl Janmaat
That would mean Newcastle will be giving their club debuts to 4 players (Gayle, Ritchie, Hayden and Sels).
As for the result itself, I see this one being a sloppy affair. Newcastle have traditionally struggled against every London team in existence, and Fulham in particular. Newcastle have lost in their previous 5 trips to the Cottage, last winning in 2007 and scoring only 5 times in those 6 matches. I don't expect much better and I see this one ending in a 1-1 draw.