Joleon Lescott column: Marvellous Magpies set to sustain top-four tilt
The World Cup takes centre stage after this weekend but I’m expecting the Saturday evening showdown between Newcastle and Chelsea to sign the Premier League action off in style.
Whatever happens, Eddie Howe’s Magpies are now guaranteed to be in the top four at Christmas — I’m not sure even the most optimistic Newcastle fans would really have expected that!
It’s been a sensational start from them and I’m now starting to think they can keep it up and grab a spot in next season’s Champions League.
Sure, history tells us it’s unlikely. But on what they’ve shown in recent weeks, I don’t see any reason why they will suddenly slow down.
Their style of play isn’t reliant on individual brilliance and it doesn’t feel like their approach or performance levels are unsustainable.
They’ve just found a really effective way of playing, coupled with a culture that all the players are clearly buying into and enjoying. These are special times at St James' Park.
What also counts in their favour this season is the underperformance of Liverpool.
Previously, I considered Manchester City and the Reds to be shoo-ins for the top four, leaving two spots for everyone else to chase — but that’s not the case any more.
The door is very much open for Newcastle and a victory against Chelsea would put a nine-point gap between them and the Blues. That’s huge, even at this stage of the season.
Pressure on Potter
It doesn’t take long for the pressure to build at a club like Chelsea and I think Graham Potter may already be feeling the heat a little bit.
Three losses in four outings is the kind of run that sparks concern at an elite level, even if there were encouraging signs in the midweek Manchester City defeat.
Points are the only currency that cut it at the highest level, so I think Potter will be savvy enough not to downplay the importance of this trip to Tyneside.
Being honest, a point would represent a good result for Chelsea.
That may be a hard reality for some Blues fans to swallow but they're travelling to face an in-form team high on confidence with an intense atmosphere guaranteed.
I can see things being tricky for the Blues after the World Cup, too.
A large proportion of the Chelsea squad are likely to be involved in Qatar, which is another spanner in the works ahead of the Premier League’s busy festive schedule.
With Potter being such a hands-on coach, I’m sure he’d have loved more time on the training pitch to iron out any issues — but that’s not really going to be possible.
He’s got quality in his ranks, however, and this is when you need those big-game players to stand up and deliver.
I’m sure readers are as buzzing as I am for the World Cup — but it's a strange period for the Premier League players not involved in the tournament.
If I was in their shoes, I’d be taking the first week or so of the break as a proper holiday, enjoying myself and relaxing with the family.
After that, though, you’ve got to get right back on it and use the opportunity to make sure you're razor sharp when the domestic action resumes.
I think the break can have a negative or a positive impact on a player. It really does depend on the individual.
Someone like Harry Kane will probably be grateful to keep playing in high-quality games because we’ve seen in recent seasons that he often needs a few outings to hit his stride.
Meanwhile, for someone like Erling Haaland, a bit of time off after a very busy few months should allow him to recharge the batteries — a scary thought for defenders!
Time for my weekend predictions.
Joleon Lescott’s Premier League Matchday 16 predictions
Manchester City vs Brentford (Saturday, 12.30pm, BT Sport 1)
The champions left it late to seal victory against Fulham. But given they had 10 men for so long, it was still such a dominant performance from Pep Guardiola’s men.
They’ll hope to have a less stressful time of things against a Brentford team who I think may benefit from the upcoming break — they look a little leggy to me.
I expect City to get the job done comfortably.
Prediction: Manchester City 4-1 Brentford
Bournemouth vs Everton (Saturday, 3pm)
These two met in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday with Bournemouth getting an impressive win, although both sides weren't quite at full strength.
I remember a few occurrences of coming up against a side twice in quick succession during my playing days. And if you’ve lost that first meeting, you’re really determined to put things right.
I expect Everton to be much better but whether they’ve got enough to win, I’m not sure.
Prediction: Bournemouth 1-1 Everton
Liverpool vs Southampton (Saturday, 3pm)
Nobody will have been too shocked to see Ralph Hasenhuttl sacked at Southampton but Nathan Jones is a slightly surprising replacement.
The ex-Luton boss has obviously been sounded out for his developmental skills and it'll be interesting to see how he gets on with a youthful Saints squad.
This is a daunting first game for him and I can’t really see them troubling the Reds.
Prediction: Liverpool 3-0 Southampton
Nottingham Forest vs Crystal Palace (Saturday, 3pm)
Crystal Palace got a fantastic away win at West Ham and I always think the Eagles are well suited to playing on the road.
Patrick Vieira’s side has an excellent balance to it and while Nottingham Forest always have a good atmosphere at the City Ground, this looks a good opportunity for the visitors.
They don't really hammer teams, so I’ll plump for a narrow away win.
Prediction: Nottingham Forest 0-2 Crystal Palace
Tottenham vs Leeds (Saturday, 3pm)
It’s been another rough week for Tottenham and it feels like some fans are starting to turn on Antonio Conte — a few more bad results and you wouldn't be all that surprised to see him walk!
I still believe the Italian will turn things around in North London and this home clash with Leeds is very winnable.
The Whites have had a couple of dramatic late wins but they’d need to raise their levels again to make it three in a row.
Prediction: Tottenham 3-1 Leeds
West Ham vs Leicester (Saturday, 3pm)
That Carabao Cup loss to Blackburn in midweek just turns the pressure up another notch on David Moyes and West Ham.
It's been one of those campaigns so far where nothing seems to really go right and they are playing Leicester at the worst possible time.
Brendan Rodgers has really turned the Foxes around after their own difficult spell and I expect them to leave East London with three points.
Prediction: West Ham 0-2 Leicester
Newcastle vs Chelsea (Saturday, 5.30pm, Sky Sports)
As discussed above, this is a huge opportunity for Newcastle to put a healthy buffer between themselves and Chelsea.
It's hard to see the Magpies not turning up with the likes of Miguel Almiron and Bruno Guimaraes playing right at the top of their game.
However, I think the Blues will put in a performance and earn a share of the spoils.
Prediction: Newcastle 2-2 Chelsea
Wolves vs Arsenal (Saturday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports)
It's been hard to have much confidence in Wolves at the best of times this season, never mind against the league leaders.
You couldn’t fault the way Mikel Arteta’s men went about their business at Stamford Bridge last week and they just keep turning in really impressive performances.
I’m confident Julen Lopetegui will turn things around at Molineux once he has settled in but this looks a stern challenge for the hosts.
Prediction: Wolves 0-2 Arsenal
Brighton vs Aston Villa (Sunday, 2pm, Sky Sports)
After a rocky start, Brighton have now seamlessly switched into life after Graham Potter and I think huge credit has to go to all parties involved.
It was some start for Unai Emery at Aston Villa, though I think that may have been a good game for him to start with low expectations and a buoyant home crowd.
Their confidence will be high but Brighton are playing some lovely stuff, so I’ll lean towards a home win.
Prediction: Brighton 2-1 Aston Villa
Fulham vs Manchester United (Sunday, 4.30pm, Sky Sports)
Fulham will be gutted not to have nicked a point last week but they were only denied late by the best team in the land.
We've seen time and time again that you can’t write the Cottagers off this term but they may well be facing a Manchester United side determined to deliver a reaction.
The Red Devils were well below their usual standards against Villa last weekend and I expect Erik ten Hag's men to be upbeat after getting revenge in the Carabao Cup.
Prediction: Fulham 0-2 Manchester United
Joleon Lescott was speaking to Matthew Hill