'Sir Bobby Day' unlikely to halt Red tide

St James' faithful to honour local hero but odds are firmly against a weakened Newcastle upsetting the form book
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It is a noon kick-off, a mere 40 drowsy hours since the Boxing Day games ended and Newcastle United lost at Wigan for the fourth season in a row. Clattered by fresh injuries to both full-backs, Newcastle, two points above third-bottom Stoke, now face Liverpool as 7-2 outsiders on their own turf.

We have not even touched on the overall state of the club. Apprehension should be guaranteed therefore, yet St James' Park may produce an atmosphere to remember today.

Unofficially, fans have turned this fixture into a tribute to Sir Bobby Robson. For a few minutes at least – perhaps until Steven Gerrard begins orchestrating affairs – organisers hope that St James' will be a sea of black and white. Robson, 76 in February and suffering his fifth bout of cancer, will hear his name ring out from his seat in the directors' box. Despite undergoing chemotherapy, Robson will be present again.

Amid the poignancy, however, Robson may reflect that as 2008 becomes 2009, Newcastle will be into year 82 since they last won a League title. There has been a lot of focus on Liverpool's long wait, but it is a couple of minutes at the bus stop compared with Newcastle's meandering staggeracross the decades.

A legitimate concern for the vast majority of today's 52,000 supporters is that they will witness a statement of intent from Liverpool. Friday's impressive 3-0 win over Bolton at Anfield kept the Reds top of the Premier League, the first time they have been there at this stage of the season since 1996. (Then they finished fourth, two places behind Newcastle).

Friday's win also meant that at the halfway stage Liverpool are five points better off than last season. That offers no guarantees in the season's second half, but a growing consensus is that this is Rafael Benitez's best squad.

Four years into the post, the manager entered this season with Liverpool not having won under him at any of their three main rivals' grounds in the League. In October, Liverpool changed that record at Chelsea, last weekend they drew at Arsenal. Manchester United are still to be visited – in March, four days after Real Madrid have been to Anfield – but there is proof of progress.

"It is good to still be top and we hope to still be there going into the new year," Benitez's assistant, Sammy Lee, said after the Bolton match. "It will be tough against Newcastle, a very difficult task, but on this form we are looking forward to it.

"What was pleasing was the quality of our play and the patience we showed in possession. It is only December, nobody should be getting carried away. But being top of the table shows the improvement this season."

After consecutive stuttering draws at home to Fulham, West Ham and Hull, that shade of opinion was in doubt. But the convincing nature of Friday's win was greeted as much as the points. On Merseyside, much was made of the fact that the Kop started to sing about being the top of the League with some gusto. There are stirrings of belief.

"It was a statement from us," said Robbie Keane, Chelsea and United having played earlier in the day and won. Keane's sudden confidence is one of the reasons why Liverpool fans are beginning to believe. In his past two performances the Irishman has displayed why £20 million was spent on him. Another reason, possibly worrying for Keane, is that Fernando Torres has missed December so far, and Liverpool are top of the League without a goal from the Spaniard since early October.

That Keane has blossomed in Torres' absence is noted by all. How Benitez accommodates both – or not – could define Liverpool's challenge. "I enjoyed the position I played against Bolton [off the front man]," Keane said. "That's my best position and where I have played for the last 10 years, I enjoy it." Diplomatically, Keane added: "But wherever the boss wants me to play, I will do it for the team, that's the most important thing."

There is speculation that Torres may make his return today from the bench. The strength of Liverpool's squad would be reinforced if he does. Javier Mascherano, who has missed the last two matches, is also expectedto come back.

Compared to Newcastle's thin and thinning squad, this would be a demonstration of Red power and continuity. Joe Kinnear, like Kevin Keegan before him, has lamented his decreasing options. At various points in the past few weeks Kinnear has discussed incoming players in January, and has said that he wants to recruit "four". Michael Owen's true feelings on his present and former club would be fascinating to know.

As for Bobby Robson, he can sit back and enjoy a generous outpouring of affection.

Today's matches

Arsenal v Portsmouth (2.0)

The return of Tony Adams and Sol Campbell to their old club comes on the back of a chastening 4-1 home defeat by West Ham, leaving Pompey 11th but only three points above the mire. Arsenal, having failed to bridge the gap with Aston Villa in a thriller on Boxing Day, bring back Emmanuel Adebayor after suspension and should be able to trouble a defence that has conceded 32 goals and will still be without Glen Johnson and Younes Kaboul.

Blackburn Rovers v Manchester City (Sky Sports 1, 4.15)

The reception for Mark Hughes as he takes his Great Unpredictables back to Ewood Park is unlikely to be as good as Tony Adams's at the Emirates. In his absence, Blackburn have struggled but a win here after four points in two games under Sam Allardyce, could put them level on points with three teams above them. Roque Santa Cruz (calf) is set to be spared the embarrassment of playing against a team he would like to join, and captain Ryan Nelsen is doubtful. City give fitness tests to Micah Richards and Felipe Caicedo.

Bolton Wanderers v Wigan Athletic (2.0)

Like West Brom at Chelsea, Bolton left out their main striker (Kevin Davies) for a tough away game on Boxing Day and will restore him for the more important home match today. Gary Cahill may need replacing in defence – facing Emile Heskey with sore ribs is not recommended. Wigan, concerned about how many more games Heskey will play once the transfer window opens, have Lee Cattermole banned and may bring in the equally abrasive Michael Brown.

Everton v Sunderland (2.0)

Sunderland's new manager, Ricky Sbragia, ought to be able to avoid the fate of his predecessor Roy Keane, who lost this fixture 7-1 last November, but it still looks like a good opportunity for Everton to record a second home win at last. Although weaker in attack than a year ago – still no Yakubu or Louis Saha – Victor Anichebe is ready to return, allowing Tim Cahill to drop deeper. Craig Gordon and George McCartney are out for the visitors.

Fulham v Chelsea (2.0)

With their excellent home record, plus a string of successive away draws, Fulham approach the west London derby in better heart than normal; they have won only one of 14 meetings in the Premier League. Having Jimmy Bullard and Brede Hangeland fit would help their cause, but both will have to be checked this morning. Chelsea's captain, John Terry, is suspended, though Ricardo Carvalho, out since October, could return in the FA Cup on Saturday.

Newcastle United v Liverpool (Sky Sports 1, 12.0)

Robbie Keane's pointed remark about scoring two goals against Bolton from his proper position, just off the front man, will doubtless cut no ice with Rafa Benitez once Fernando Torres is fully fit. Torres may be a substitute here, with Javier Mascherano returning in midfield. Newcastle will need a remodelled defence without Habib Beye, Jose Enrique and the suspended Sébastien Bassong. Mark Viduka is also injured, so Andy Carroll may partner Michael Owen.

West Bromwich Albion v Tottenham Hotspur (2.0)

Just as well that Harry Redknapp has galvanised Spurs, since even with his 18 points from 11 games they are only just above that thick black line at the bottom of the table. The thin white line that is the Spurs defence will have Jonathan Woodgate back for Ledley King and will face a more adventurous Albion attack than the feeble one fielded at Chelsea on Friday. Centre-half Abdoulaye Meite is out for some time.

West Ham United v Stoke City (2.0)

Out of the bottom three for two months, Stoke returned there after defeat by Manchester United and will do well to escape again for any such prolonged period. With Andy Griffin injured and Andy Wilkinson suspended, they will need a third-choice right-back today, who could be up against a returning Matthew Etherington unless West Ham stick to the starting XI from that welcome win at Portsmouth.

Steve Tongue