Arsenal vs. Newcastle: 5 Magpies to Watch out for at the Emirates Stadium
To start with, may I say how glad I am that he isn't one of them. Not that he's an exceptionally gifted player, but I'll have to admit that by fair means and foul, he ends up being an effective one.
When Arsenal visited St "Even-though-we-changed-the-name-to-make-some-money-we-still-like-the-old-name" Park for our first league game of the season, Barton was at his slimy best.
He first got Premier League debutante Gervinho a red card and a three match ban by winding him up, and then riled Alex Song to the extent that the Cameroonian lost his rag, trampled on Barton and got himself his own retrospectively awarded three game suspension.
Given the early-season transfer shenanigans at the Emirates, we certainly did not need to lose Gervinho and Song for games against Liverpool, Manchester United and Swansea.
Fortunately, all that is in the distant past, and the return leg sees Arsenal in much meaner health, both of mind and body.
The injury situation is as good as it's been in a while, with only Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby, Per Mertesacker and Emmanuel Frimpong being long-term doubts. Yes, that's right, four long term injuries are almost like a clean bill of health at Arsenal.
Psychologically, the squad has lifted itself after its second mini-slump of the new year saw successive defeats at Milan and Sunderland. Arsenal are attacking, scoring and winning again. What more could a Gooner ask for?
Even though we're out of all the cups, we have a real battle on our hands for fourth place. Spurs are still four points ahead of us, Chelsea are level and Newcastle are just five points adrift. And as Arsene Wenger said recently, the new UEFA regulations mean that fourth place no longer guarantees a shoo-in to the Champions League proper.
And although the Geordies have not been in the best of form in 2012, they have still held on to a highly creditable top six position. Alan Pardew, as dislikeable as he may be, has bought well, equipping his team with some potent weapons. He has also instilled a great spirit into his squad, which has resulted in them punching well above their weight.
It isn't going to be a walk in the park tonight.
Here are five Magpies who will certainly trouble us.
1. Tim Krul
The Dutch keeper has been a revelation ever since he joined Newcastle. There were concerns among Geordies about finding the long term successor for Shay Given, but Krul has allayed all those fears.
He has played every Premiership game this season, claiming nine clean sheets in 27 matches. Considering he is protected by one of the League's worst defenses, that's a fantastic statistic.
Krul is a fantastic shot-stopper, is good with crosses and has excellent distribution. His height and build mean that his is a dominant and calming presence for the Newcastle rearguard.
His club form has earned him a call-up to the Dutch national team, for whom he has played twice since his debut in 2011. He is now pushing first-choice Maarten Stekelenburg for a place in the starting XI.
He will be up against player-of-the-year Robin Van Persie tonight, an ideal opportunity for him to further establish his reputation as one of the league's best keepers.
2. Cheik Tiote
I know that this is somewhat akin to saying that one should fear John Obi Mikel when playing Chelsea, but some wounds take longer to heal than others.
Tiote has been a decent midfielder at Newcastle, FC Twente and Anderlecht, with a largely unspectacular career so far. It is fair to say that his only real claim to fame has been this goal in that 4-4 draw. In fact, that has been his only goal for the Geordies to date. Typical.
But for that goal, and that goal alone, I will be on the lookout for him every time he faces Arsenal.
3. Hatem Ben Arfa
Hatem Ben Arfa joined Newcastle from Marseille amid a whirl of publicity and expectation. He was going to be an all-time Geordie great, Ginola, part deux.
He scored on his full debut, to set Geordie pulses racing even faster, but then suffered a horrific injury at the hands (feet, actually) of Manchester City hard man, Nigel de Jong. He could only play four games in his first season for the club.
As with any serious injury, recuperation has been a slow process for Ben Arfa. But it now looks like he is finally reaching his best form. He has three goals and three assists in 19 games for Newcastle this season, including this sensational effort against Blackburn in the FA Cup. Click on on this link, you won't regret it. Had Messi scored that goal, the pundits would have been drooling all over the newspapers...
4. Papiss Demba Cisse
Yet another sensational transfer coup by Alan Pardew, Cisse was signed from German club Freiburg in the winter transfer window. The fee was estimated at £9 million, give or take a bit depending on appearances and goals.
Cisse was drafted into the team straight away due to the absence of Demba Ba at the African Cup of Nations. And what an impact he made, scoring a stunning match-winner against Aston Villa after coming on as a substitute.
He scored again in his third appearance for the club, this time against Wolves, and he has a fairly impressive career strike rate of 93 goals in 218 club appearances.
He and Ba form a formidable strike force, and Vermaelen, Koscielny and company will have their hands full tonight.
5. Demba Ba
16 goals in 19 league starts for Newcastle.
Strong with both feet.
Powerful in the air.
Quality from set pieces.
One of the players of the season, and arguably the signing of the season.
Looking for evidence? Look no further.
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