A brilliant couple of weeks for Newcastle United. The back-to-back victories over Liverpool and Tottenham have given Steve McClaren some momentum and have created a basecamp from which he’ll hope to keep climbing.
Those wins were impressive for different reasons and they required the players to perform in slightly different ways, but they were equally pertinent in terms of what they represented: it was the first time this season that the players had, to a man, reached the required levels of application. They did what they needed to do to win the game, they gave what they needed to give.
The implied caveat is that both games were against top-tier opposition and, understandably, pessimists will say that they true measure of Newcastle will be in how they perform in more mundane fixtures. When the ready-made excuses aren’t there and when they’re pitted against a side who they should beat, what will the application be like then?
With that in mind, Aston Villa are really the perfect opponent this evening.
Villa are an entirely different challenge. They are rightly considered the weakest side in the division, they are away from home today, and they are very much there for the taking. That set of realities will inevitably effect how Newcastle approach the game and they will compete within an entirely different set of conditions to what they’ve experienced over the past few weeks. The crowd’s intensity will naturally be down a notch, the freedom of being the underdog won’t exist, and some of the natural incentives that they have been feeding off are no longer available to them.
It’s fascinating, then, to see what the response is. If Newcastle are able to sustain their level of professionalism into this game, this is an easy victory. Regardless of what the league table may imply, they are a considerably more talented team and anything other than a win would be wholly unacceptable. There are no valid reasons for losing this game.
So how will this set of players respond to that? Are they capable of elevating themselves back-up to the Liverpool/Tottenham standards without the aid of the special energy derived from being publicly written off?
This is the kind of game in which self-motivation is key. Nobody remembers home games against struggling sides unless they end badly and, unfortunately, St James’ Park has become a ground where even opponents with limited confidence feel that they’re able to take points just by out-working their hosts. Think back to some of Newcastle’s worst moments during the Mike Ashley years: an awful lot of them involve half-hearted efforts in today’s sort of game.
Villa are there to be knocked over - so knock them over. It’s time to behave like a full-time football team, one who understands that they can’t take days off when it suits them.