After being unable to manage even a point against Reading, today's match against Aston Villa becomes yet another must-win - for Newcastle United, and perhaps for Alan Pardew individually. In Villa, Newcastle faces a club equally desperate and in even greater disarray. Friday night's FA Cup loss to Milwall has put the pressure squarely on Paul Lambert, who gave his team this glowing praise: "They weren't hiding, they were trying to get on the ball, so that was positive."
In other words, Villa is there for the taking, should Newcastle manage to extend its first half dominance against Reading for the full 90 minutes. The best chance of doing that is for Pardew to debut his new signings today. To his credit, he's already announced that Moussa Sissoko will find himself in the lineup.
Who else should join Sissoko in today's starting eleven? The obvious change in the back four is giving Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa his first Newcastle appearance in place of Mike Williamson, who'd likely struggle against Villa's formidable duo of Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann on even his best day. There is certainly an argument to insert now-healthy Steven Taylor in that position instead. But with no questions about Yanga-Mbiwa's physical preparedness for the Premier League, it's probably more risky to play a rusty Taylor in such an important match.
Pardew probably has one choice to make in his midfield three: whether Vurnon Anita or Sylvain Marveaux will join Sissoko and Yohan Cabaye. Obviously, Marveaux gives Newcastle a more attacking look, but the coaching and medical staff appears to doubt his ability to play a full match. With a match against Chelsea looming on Saturday, perhaps it's better to have Anita start and make a genuine threat available on the bench.
Finally, there's room in the again-in-vogue front three for both Papiss Cissé and Yoan Gouffran. With Villa's defense looking awfully shaky of late, the ex-Bordeaux striker may as well take his Premier League bow today, too. Meanwhile, Cissé could easily have had a hat trick against Reading, and he's probably grateful to not see Adam Federici again this season. With 10 days between matches, hopefully he can put the combination of great saves and poor finishing behind him. Maybe having a confident Gouffran next to him will help relieve some pressure.
The other wing spot is a definite weak spot until Hatem Ben Arfa returns from his hamstring injury next month. Jonás Gutiérrez has not been an attacking threat from the wing for at least two seasons. Marveaux may be an option, but he has the aforementioned fitness issues and has done better in the center of the field than on the flanks in his limited playing time.
That may mean a chance for Gabriel Obertan to see if he can rekindle something with Gouffran, whom he briefly played with at Bordeaux. Though he's far from great, Obertan has been much better than he was last season, especially on the left wing.
On paper, Newcastle has enough talent to roll over Villa and start to pull itself out of the relegation muck. But the apparent inability to win in favorable situations has been a major reason why the club finds itself in 16th to begin with. In what could be the most anticipated match of the season, let's hope the players' excitement matches our own.