Newcastle vs Aston Villa – Pre-game Assessment

Sunday, August 12, 2 pm Venue: St James Park 
Referee: Andy Madley

While our Villans did well in the off-season’s transfer market, acquiring Pau Torres, Moussa Diaby, and Youri Tielemans, they suffered injury setbacks that left them still looking stronger entering European competition, but less so than they planned.  More immediately, their Premier League season opening game is the kind of challenge for which Unai Emery would have wanted as strong and cohesive squad as possible, especially facing a Newcastle United in the iconic St. James Park full to the gills with excited Geordie fans.

Instead, Emery has a gaping hole.  As if losing Jacob Ramsey’s two-way excellence on the left flank for the month of August, after already being weakened by Alex Moreno’s loss, is not bad enough, the scorer of a brace and star of Villa’s Summer Series 3-3 draw with the Magpies, Emi Buendia, subsequently suffered a crushing torn ACL in training and will be out for the season.

It was Buendia’s ability to make himself available that made our Villans a constant threat in that friendly in Philadelphia, while it was Buendia’s quickness that upset Newcastle’s winning streak at Villa Park in our 3-0 victory last April, with Newcastle’s Dan Burns, particularly, being forced into multiple errors.

It is not only the injuries that are of concern.  The expression of the gaffer when our Villans fail to meet his expectation is palpable.  There were multiple times during those friendlies that Unai grimaced on the touchline.  First, Pau Torres looked very uncomfortable playing at the left side of a back four, while Diego Carlos seemed well-short of match fitness after his extended injury lay-off. Leon Bailey’s absence while he represented his country in the CONCACAF Nations League Tournament meant that his team appearances were limited.  When he did appear, the lack of team-time showed.  As for Tielemans, his sporadic appearances demonstrated his great skill, but little sense that he fit in.

When Emery announced his starting line-up for this game, there was the sense he had played it safe.  Lucas Digne had shown himself to be reliable at left-back and able to contribute excellent crosses and set-pieces (corners and freekicks).  Along with Mings, Konza, and Cash that completes a backline that can act in unison to keep a highline.  Luiz and Kamara picked themselves as midfielders, with Bailey preferred over Tielemans.  That appeared as more of a vote of lack of confidence in Tielemans and Coutinho than an endorsement of the Jamaican.   The good news is the selection of Diaby to play alongside Watkins and all but guarantee goals.

Facing them will be a first class starting eleven with two Brazilians (Guimares and Joelinton) joined by Sandro Tonali, acquired from Milan for £55 million.  The superb Swedish striker (Alexander Isak) is flanked by the dangerous speedsters Almiron and Gordon, while the back four of Trippier, Schar, Botman, and Burn were solid mainstays all last season with goalie Pope pressing Pickford to be England’s number one.

Perhaps more threatening is the added threat sitting on Newcastle’s bench.  With new signing Harvey Barnes joining Callum Wilson on the bench, the breakaway threat they offer makes Eddie Howes’ job that much easier.

Result Prediction: Emery, being realistic, will be hoping for a win, but quite happy to leave the north country with a tie.  We shall see.  Prediction:  Newcastle 2, Aston Villa 2.

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