MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26: Danny Simpson of Newcastle United is congratuled by his team mates after clearing the attempt on goal of Javier Hernandez of Manchester United off the line during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on November 26, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
After a short midweek break to the island of Let's-Cripple-Lucas (it's in the Caribbean), Chelsea are back in real life with a visit to Sports Direct Arena or whatever Mike Ashley is calling St. James' Park these days. Newcastle have had a great start to the season and are actually above the Blues in the table, although my suspicion is that that state of affairs won't continue much beyond Christmas.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have most emphatically not had a good start to the season, finding themselves with four league losses out of their first 13 games, out of the Carling Cup thanks to the midweek loss to Liverpool and on the verge of falling into the Europa League thanks to an abject failure to knock off Bayer Leverkusen or RC Genk in Europe. As a result, Andre Villas-Boas is under huge pressure to get a result both against Newcastle and then against Valencia at home. The next few days are some of the most important the club has seen in years.
The good news is that neither Valencia nor Newcastle are insurmountable opposition for a team of Chelsea's calibre. Granted, Newcastle were able to hold their own against Manchester United at Old Trafford, but they needed some remarkable good fortune to do so, and in general they're playing above their heads. They have some fantastic players, but the likes of Gabriel Obertan and Demba Ba are nowhere near as good as they've looked so far this season*.
*I have just jinxed Chelsea into conceding a Ba hattrick, and for that I am sorry.
Chelsea, for their part, have relatively few personnel decisions to make. Most of the squad is fit, with the exception of the never-going-to-play-anyway Josh McEachran and long-term absentee Michael Essien, and that means the Blues can do basically whatever they'd like against Newcastle.
With Jonas Gutierrez out thanks to the red card he picked up against United last weekend, it would make some sense to try to attack down the right - overloading that side with Danny Sturridge and Jose Bosingwa would make some sense with Newcastle's attacking abilities somewhat curtailed no matter who they replace Gutierrez with. Ramires on that side of the midfield could make Ryan Taylor, already a bit of a liability, very nervous indeed.
The left will see an interesting battle between the combined forces of Ashley Cole and Juan Mata vs. Gabriel Obertan and Danny Simpson. For me, it's imperative that Cole does not allow himself to be caught up field, where Obertan's pace can start to pose real problems. That could restrict Mata's ability to influence play somewhat, as without Cole high up the pitch there's very little natural left-sided width, meaning that Mata won't be able to drift all over the place like he usually does.
There is, of course, one major personnel decision that Villas-Boas has to make. Who starts between Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba? It's difficult to say. Drogba's been starting recently and that's freed up Sturridge somewhat, but conversely it's limited Mata's involvement, and Drogba himself has been relatively poor on the ball. With a slightly clumsy Newcastle defence, I'd suspect it makes a little more sense to start Torres on Saturday, although I've thought that for a while and the manager doesn't seem to listen to me. If Torres starts, so too should Raul Meireles. Otherwise, it's Frank Lampard for the final midfield slot.
Shake all that up, and out pops this Chelsea lineup:
That's a team that can beat Newcastle, especially one without Cheik Tiote and Jonas Gutierrez. Will they? Well, we'll just have to wait and see - the match is on Saturday at 12:45 PM GMT (7:45 PM EST).