Newcastle United have a rare chance to get ahead of their rivals this weekend as they face Cardiff City on Friday night.
A number of times this season Newcastle have gone into a game on a Saturday night or a Sunday, due to television commitments, with the knowledge of how their closest rivals have got on. This week however they have a chance to put some pressure on their nearest rivals if they can get all three points. The fight for automatic promotion is as tight as it has ever been with just four points separating first and third place in the table. With West Brom winning in mid-week they have moved up to second place ahead of Nottingham Forest. Although the Magpies have the benefit of home advantage they face a tough game against Cardiff City, who despite their well documented financial problems sit fourth in the table and not completely out of the race for automatic promotion. The Welsh side are currently unbeaten in eight games in all competitions and carry one of the biggest goal threats in the division. Friday night will see the second best attack in the division take on the tightest defence in the division. Danny Simpson could return at right back for Newcastle while Jonas Gutierrez should return to the wing after being rested against Leicester City.
Among Cardiff’s array of attacking talent will be a familiar face in the form of former Geordie Michael Chopra. He did not have the best of games when the two sides met in the reverse fixture earlier in the season when Newcastle grinded out a 1-0 win. Going in to that game he was on a fine run of goalscoring form but from October to December the goals completely dried up. Perhaps ominously for Newcastle he has just started to return to form again. In the build up to Friday’s game Chopra has become the focal point of the local Press’ attention. After playing for local rivals Sunderland, he will not be getting the warmest of welcomes to his former home. He commented: “Obviously, I’m a Newcastle fan, and it’s always been a dream of mine to score at St James’s Park. It’s still my dream now, but even if I do score, I won’t celebrate. I’ve got a lot of respect for Newcastle and the fans. I go to a lot of games, when I’ve got a day off, I get up to Newcastle and watch them play. I still support the team – it is where I was brought up – but on Friday, I’m a Cardiff City player, not a Newcastle player. I’ve got to do my best for Cardiff. I’m looking forward to it, it is the first fixture I looked for when they came out. I still love the football club, but on Friday, when I put a Cardiff City shirt on, I’ll only be thinking about helping the team get a result.”
Experienced goalkeeper Steve Harper will be charged with the job of denying Chopra the chance to net his former club. Harper is on a fine run of form this season and seems to have produced at least one top class save in every game he has played so far. Yet another clean sheet against Leicester means that he has now chalked up an impressive 16 shut outs this season. Harper is the latest senior player in the Newcastle dressing room to praise the spirit among the current squad. He believes that the bling culture that previously afflicted the club is now at an end. It does not take a genius to work out that the Newcastle changing room was not a happy place to be last season. Harper said: “It’s vitally important to have the right sort of players in. It is well documented that we have had our fair share of difficult characters in the past. But everybody that has come in now seems to be good lads and that is part of what the manager was looking for. With the injuries we’ve picked up, it was important to get in proven players at this level. That’s what we’ve done.” From the outside looking in last year the players seemed to split into different cliques and had no real affinity for the club. In the Championship the players that have stayed are much more unified.