Following an encouraging win over Stoke City to open the season, Aston Villa host a Newcastle United side that's been more than a bit of a thorn in their side over the past few seasons. To get you up to speed on the current state of the Toon, we spoke with Robert L. Bishop of Coming Home Newcastle.
Newcastle functionally achieved safety well before the winter window and coasted along the rest of the way last season. What are the expectations for this season?
I'll answer this in a bit more detail below, but the main expectation is, as you say, a lack of coasting. Last year there was a very real expectation from management that Alan Pardew chose to neglect the cup competitions in favor of focusing on the league, and then when safety was assured, the directive seemed to be to avoid accidentally qualifying for European play, which was given as the excuse for Newcastle's poor showing in 2012-13, when they had to balance league and cup. It's a very frustrating position to be in as a fan, but with the influx of talent this summer expectations on Tyneside have once again been raised.
Alan Pardew is seemingly on the hot seat from day one of every season, but he seems to endure no matter what. Is his contract really that much of an albatross, or is there something about his ability as a manager that neutral fans have missed?
His contract is rather cumbersome - you may recall that he signed for a ridiculous 8 years just two seasons ago. The notorious penny-pincher Mike Ashley would have to pay around £10 million to sack him, according to some reports, so yes, it's an albatross. There's some sense that Ashley learned his lesson from the disastrous relegation season that saw no less than four managers at the helm, and prefers stability to a high degree of tactical acumen or success beyond safety in the top flight. Pardew is apparently something of a yes-man, though he will occasionally posture as a foil to Ashley in the media, so that likely plays a role.
To answer your question, though, you're not missing anything.
Newcastle have bought a lot of very promising players over the past few years, and few of them seem to have lived up to expectations. What are the odds that enough of them will live up to their potential this season and if so, how high could this team climb?
Well, they certainly bought enough players this year that they can play the odds game, so to speak. The odds of all of them hitting is very low, of course, but the hope is that at least a handful of them can make an impact. There are certainly some exciting players in the squad now. Rémy Cabella gave the Manchester City defense fits last week, Siem de Jong is expected to be an effective #10, and while Emmanuel Rivière lacked a finishing touch last week, he was able to bag 4 goals during the preseason, suggesting that he is at least capable of scoring here and there.
If all goes well, we expect that this team should challenge for a Europa League spot. They were sitting sixth on Boxing Day last year before they decided to throw the rest of the season. It's not like we'll be disappointed if they don't qualify, but if they don't at least show some effort throughout the entire campaign, phrases like "lack of ambition" will continue to surround the club.
Thoughts on this weekend's match?
I fear a defensive struggle of the non-attractive variety. In our preview, I concluded that this has all the looks of a 1-0 match, with the goal coming courtesy of a bad mistake rather than a bout of brilliance from either side. I hope it comes out to our benefit, but I could just as easily see a defensive miscue paired with a lack of creativity up front being Newcastle's undoing.