Newcastle manager Alan Pardew has praised his team's defensive capabilities and the work ethic of his attacking players, as the Magpies prepare for their final home game of the season. The Sunday evening kick-off could take on a title-defining hue, as league leaders Manchester City will be the visitors and anything other than a win for Roberto Mancini's side could see their title rivals Manchester United re-take the lead and the championship with a win against Swansea.
There is an enormous amount of pressure on Newcastle too, as the Tyneside club will want all three points to continue their quest for Champions League football next season. The fact that Arsenal were held to a surprising 3-3 draw, at home, by a brilliant Norwich City side has thrown the race for third position (the final automatic qualifying spot and, should Chelsea win this season's Champions League - they are in the finals - the last qualifying spot for the Premier League) wide open.
Newcastle's surprising charge up the table has been all the more impressive because of the consistency of their play and results. The key to their success this season has undoubtedly been the goal scoring exploits of their Senegalese strike duo of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, who have found the net 29 times in total. In addition, excellent creative and link-up play by the French duo of Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye has helped create strong attacking displays.
However, Pardew insists that more credit is due to his side's defensive displays than has otherwise been given and he includes his attacking players in that scoop.
"One thing that is overlooked is the job [goalkeeper] Tim Krul and the team have done in defence. It is a risk to have so many creative players if they don't buy into the work ethic shown by James Perch and Fabricio Coloccini. Ben Arfa has to gain the respect of the players for the way he worked and fitted in. When they saw how he worked for the team, then they supported him as he worked his magic, because he was in the team by merit," Pardew explained, in a report by the Telegraph.
Newcastle have kept 15 clean sheets this season (a club record for a 38 game season) and apart from the minor (but nevertheless horrific) blip against Wigan on 28 April, when they conceded four goals, the Magpies have actually been unbreakable... literally.
They have not conceded a goal since West Brom put one past them on 25 March (a run of five games, not including the Wigan debacle) and have only conceded twice in nine games (again, not including the Wigan game).
Their sterling defensive qualities were on display on 2 May, when they soaked up pressure from Chelsea and won 2-0 in a crunch fixture for both sides. They will, however, have to produce more of the same for Sunday's game, with Mancini's men in no mood to relinquish their tentative hold on a first league title in more than four decades and boasting the likes of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli, Edin Dzeko and David Silva in their ranks.
"When you play against top-quality technicians, like City are, I think it is very important to show them respect and cover each other. You have to expect to get beaten as a defender, but there will be someone there covering. If we do that then you have a chance of getting a clean sheet and if we keep a clean sheet we have the players who can win us the game at the other end," Pardew said.
Meanwhile, Mancini has admitted he expects a tough challenge at St. James' Park.
"Newcastle will be our hardest game - harder than United," he said. "It is strange but it is like this. They have had a fantastic season and are playing to get into the Champions League. Their manager is one of the best managers here and it will be a tough game. It is another Champions League final on Sunday. We have two - Newcastle and QPR. We have to keep a big concentration until May 13," the Italian explained in an ESPN report.
Former Newcastle midfielder James Milner, who will return as a Manchester City player, agreed with his boss' remarks.
"The game against United was massive and a big result for us - but we can't get carried away. We've got two games left and it will be just as difficult, maybe even harder, going away to St James' at the weekend," the midfielder said, in a report by The Sun.
Finally, Newcaslte goalkeeper Tim Krul warned City to expect a partisan crowd.
"It's going to be electric on Sunday at St James'. We've beaten Man United and Sunderland at home and I'm sure the fans will generate the same atmosphere as they did in those two games. That will make teams crumble hopefully," the Dutch keeper explained, in a report by the Telegraph.