Top of the table Newcastle United return to action at the weekend with a home game against Watford. With no mid-week game to contend with it has been a relatively quiet week on Tyneside. A mid-week break is a welcome relief as the rush of games over the Christmas period looms ever nearer.
The festive fixture list has been relatively kind for Newcastle as the vast majority of games are against teams in the bottom half of the Championship. The toughest game could well be the first local derby of the season against Middlesbrough on December 20. As always at this time of the season the strength of a club’s squad is very important as managers look to rotate players if possible. Newcastle is in the envious position of having a near fully-fit squad, with only midfielder Joey Barton ruled out with a long-term injury. Nicky Butt has recently returned to training and brings some experience to the side if called upon. Strikers Andy Carroll and Shola Ameobi have also returned and are in contention for the Watford game. Recent addition Fabrice Pancrate provides cover in the wide areas where Newcastle was previously lacking.
Left-back Jose Enrique has been the focus of most of the press interest this week with a revealing interview about how he is now finding life at the club. Since joining Newcastle for £6.5m in the summer of 2007, the Spaniard had struggled to justify his price-tag with a lack of consistency being his biggest problem. This season many observers at St James’ Park have identified Enrique as one of the team’s best performers, alongside Alan Smith and Kevin Nolan. Defensively there has been an improvement and his regular forays forward have given a different dimension to the Magpies’ attack. Enrique’s partnership down the left-hand side with Jonas Gutierrez has been an unlikely yet successful one in the Championship.
In his time with Newcastle, Enrique has worked with no fewer than six managers on either a full or part-time basis. It is clear in his mind who the best boss he has worked under is, saying: “The manager has been very important. Chris has a big opportunity now and I think for me, he is the best manager that I have had in my three seasons at Newcastle. He understands football and the players are happy to play for him. It is the first time he has had the opportunity to do the job properly and he has proven he is a good manager. He is the right man for Newcastle at the moment.” The former Spain Under-21 international is keen to stay with Newcastle despite rumours of Premier League clubs, most notably Sunderland, wanting to sign him. He said: “This is a big, big, big club and it is important that it gets back into the Premier League. I don’t care about Sunderland. Even if they said Chelsea, I wouldn’t care. I worry for my team – I love the city, I love the club and I don’t care about signing for another team. When you are happy with the city and happy with the club, you would not want to leave. I know this summer all the papers are linking me and all the other players with all sorts of teams but I’m not interested. From the first moment I’ve been here I wanted to play here and I never thought about going anywhere else.”
Saturday sees Newcastle host Watford as they look to extend their lead at the top of the table. The Hornets have been something of a surprise package this season and they sit just outside the play-off spots in ninth. As there are no real injury worries to contend with, Hughton faces the choice of whether to change a winning team. Marlon Harewood and Peter Lovenkrands are likely to keep their places up front as both players were on target against Swansea. Goalkeeper Steve Harper is the only doubt after suffering a back spasm last weekend but should be fit for the Watford game.