Defeat at home too Tottenham Hotspur over the Easter weekend appeared to end Chelsea’s hopes of Champions League qualification this season; Dele Alli inspired Spurs to a first win at Stamford Bridge in 28 years, and more importantly, eight points clear of their London rivals. The Blues were struggling badly at that point, collecting just six points from their previous seven games, but it is testament to the quality Antonio Conte has in his squad that they hauled themselves back into the race, which has been between themselves, Spurs, whose win over Newcastle on Wednesday confirmed their qualification, and Liverpool. But their frustrating campaign was typified by a draw against relegation-battling Huddersfield in midweek; now they head to St James’ Park to face the Magpies on Sunday needing a minor miracle to dine at Europe’s top table again next year.
Liverpool could put the final nail in their coffin with a point at home to Brighton, and Conte has been less than committal over his long-term future at the club. After the Huddersfield game, he said in no uncertain terms that Roman Abramovich will decide his future. Previous managers have lost their jobs after better seasons than Conte, and the damage to the board-manager relationship from over the course of the season may be severe enough to see the Italian leave regardless of what happens on Tyneside, or indeed in next week’s FA Cup final with Manchester United.
From a Newcastle point of view, victory will secure a top half finish, which would be a phenomenal achievement for Rafa Benitez’s men in their first season back in the Premier League. Various off field factors have had an impact on their form, too, and while the home side will be looking to end a run of four straight defeats, the way the season has progressed could hardly have been better and that is reflected in Benitez’s fully deserved nomination for Manager of the Year. The Spaniard has been fielding questions about his future for months now, given the club’s attempts to open up contract talks with him in January; he insisted the focus should have been on signing players in the winter, and although he admits talks are ongoing now, no deal is close to being finalised. Newcastle fans will be concerned with the lack of concrete progress and the fact that Mike Ashley looks as far away from selling the club as he ever has, but Benitez will be focussing on Sunday and nothing else.
Jonjo Shelvey’s form was fundamental to Newcastle’s drive up the table and away from relegation trouble, and while he became less influential in defeats to the likes of West Brom and Watford, he was back to his best against Spurs at Wembley. Gareth Southgate will name his England squad for the World Cup on May 16, and both he and Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles may feel they have an outside chance of being given a place on the plane to Russia. St James’ Park has seen the last of Brazilian star Kenedy who, after joining on loan from Chelsea in January, cannot feature against his parent club, but the Magpies will be desperately hoping he will don the black and white shirt again in the future.
Kenedy is not the only loan player to be unavailable for Newcastle against Chelsea, with Islam Slimani still suspended for the incident that occurred against West Brom.
Former Blues winger Christian Atsu will also miss the game through injury, so Jacob Murphy should start.
Chelsea will welcome goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois back to the squad after injury and he should go straight into the team after Willy Caballero’s mistake against Huddersfield on Wednesday.
Probable line ups
Newcastle: Dubravka, Dummett, Lejeune, Lascelles, Yedlin, Shelvey, Diame, Ritchie, Murphy, Perez, Gayle
Chelsea: Courtois, Alonso, Azpilicueta, Christiansen, Rudiger, Moses, Kante, Bakayoko, Fabregas, Hazard, Giroud
Did you know?
Chelsea have lost three of their last four games on Tyneside and are without a win since December 2011.
Newcastle were the better side against Tottenham and should really have taken something from the game. They will be keen to end the season on a high and cement just their third top ten Premier League finish under Mike Ashley, a feat nobody expected them to achieve this season. The hard work starts for them this summer; keeping and therefore backing Benitez must be high on the agenda.
Chelsea, though, cannot accept anything less than a win, and even that may not be enough. They fell below expectations against Huddersfield, but will likely reinstate Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud to the starting lineup. Those two had been the catalyst for a run of five straight wins in all competitions and they should help end the Blues’ dismal record at Newcastle.
Score prediction: Newcastle United 1-2 Chelsea