Newcastle United target League Cup glory following year of seismic change

Magpies face Leicester City in quarter-final clash at St James' Park on Tuesday

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Spot the difference: In the third round of the FA Cup, Newcastle United are bundled out of the competition by third-tier Cambridge United. It’s described by the BBC, among others, as a “major upset.”

Almost exactly 12 months later, Newcastle are knocked out in the FA Cup third round by Sheffield Wednesday, who, like Cambridge, play in League One. Seen through the weary, fatalistic lens that for much of the last decade has been Newcastle supporters’ perspective, there is little difference between the two events.

The sequence might be taken as evidence that a club’s bad habits are set on an endless repetitive cycle. The truth is otherwise. At Newcastle, the period between the 1-0 loss to Cambridge and the really major shock or upset of last Saturday in Sheffield has been one of seismic change.

Rewind to January 2022. Newcastle were sitting 19th in the Premier League when Cambridge inflicted their humiliation, it was one among many – a fifth loss in six games. Newcastle had won only once in the entire league season up until then.

Fast forward to the second week of 2023, and manager Eddie Howe speaks confidently of simply “getting Saturday out of our system,” and that the defeat “might be a good thing long-term for some of our players”.

It was Newcastle’s first loss in 16 games. They sit third in the Premier League, and are hardly conspicuous in that division for being eliminated early in the FA Cup. Seven other top-division clubs had, by the end of the weekend, failed to reach the fourth round.

Besides, in this season of breathless fixture lists, there is usually another target looming rapidly on the horizon. For rising Newcastle it is the glimpse of a trophy. They take on Leicester City tonight for a place in the League Cup semi-finals. Howe calls it “an opportunity” to endorse the uplift he – backed by the financial muscle of the club’s owners, a consortium led by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia – has driven since the low point of Cambridge’s visit to St James’ Park.

On that day, a line-up close to Howe’s first-choice were embarrassed by lower-tier opposition. A year on, several first-teamers had been rested with a view to maximising resources for the meeting with Leicester, 72 hours after the Sheffield trip. Four players in the starting XI against Cambridge also began the match against Wednesday, and all would view the two scenarios as very distinct.

Matt Ritchie played at left back against Cambridge; he was wide on the right on Saturday. Joelinton was in the then unfamiliar position of midfield against Cambridge; 12 months on, under Howe’s careful instruction, the Brazilian former target-man has redefined himself in the deeper role.

Martin Dubravka, the goalkeeper in both FA Cup games, has just returned after a six-month loan at Manchester United, fully knowing his recall is to the position of back-up gloveman.

The Cambridge match was Kieran Trippier’s Newcastle debut, the England full-back the first signing of a cohort of newcomers over the two transfer windows with the new owners setting budgets. Strength has been added in every area of the field.

Trippier, a 2021 La Liga winner at his previous club Atletico Madrid now wears the captain’s armband and looks to his left to see the accomplished Sven Botman, a Ligue 1 winner with Lille in 2021, at centre-back and, beyond Botman, the tall figure of Dan Burn, recruited from Brighton.

Midfielder Bruno Guimaraes, freshly returned from World Cup with duty with Brazil, was the statement signing of last winter, striker Alexander Isak, now returned from a long injury layoff, the headline arrival last summer, when England international keeper Nick Pope also joined. Pope currently protects the best defensive record in the Premier League.

Several of the senior men rested at the weekend are expected back in the starting XI against Leicester, whose 3-0 home defeat to Newcastle two weeks ago ushered in a run of three successive losses in the Premier League.

Howe’s leading scorers this season, Miguel Almiron, who came off the bench in the FA Cup tie, and Callum Wilson, who did not make the trip, are likely to be restored, while a late decision will be made on winger Allan Saint-Maximin, who has been unwell.

“We’ll be going full-strength to win the match,” said Howe. “The time [an evening kick-off] of Saturday’s game was difficult because of this upcoming one, a quick turnaround on the back of a congested league period. But the League Cup, in the later stages, takes on huge importance.”

Updated: January 10, 2023, 2:31 AM