In this strangest of years and football seasons, who would bet against Steve Bruce - boyhood Newcastle fan, Double-winning Captain of Manchester United and the unlikely and unpopular successor to Rafa Benitez - ending the 50-year trophy drought at the famous Geordie club following a season halted for 100 days by a global virus pandemic as the club is on the brink of a takeover?
Nostradamus never mind Dean Koontz had trouble predicting 2020's crazy events so far and Newcastle United face Emirates FA Cup holders Manchester City at an empty St. James' Park tomorrow in the Quarter Final due to the Covid-19 outbreak that has robbed football of fans watching in stadia and forced all games to be played behind closed doors.
What was predictable was that the introduction of VAR technology would spell the end of Manchester City as the Premier football force in England - for some reason the richest club in the League and country had always enjoyed very favourable decisions from referees and linesmen including a string of such decisions against Newcastle - remember the horrendous and wrong disallowance of Cheick Tiote's 25-yard volley? Or the Sergei Aguero 'goal' that was a metre offside that relegated NUFC in 2016?
It was no surprise the levelling of the playing field by the introduction of Video Assistant Referees has upset Man City's applecart and they now look distinctly second-best domestically as they always have on the continent when their influence over refereeing decisions has always abruptly stopped at the English channel.
Congratulations to new Champions Liverpool who raised the bar this season to claim a first ever Premier League crown but Jurgen Klopp wouldn't have thought in his wildest dreams the Reds would be 23 points clear and have wrapped it up with seven games left. Without their usual string of offside goals and soft penalties, Man City have been brought back down to Earth with a bump in the Premier League as UEFA set to compound their constant misery on the continental front by rejecting their appeal against financial irregularities and ban them from the Champions League for two years.
Man City enjoyed similar advantages in the FA Cup they 'won' last season benefitting from two very dodgy decisions - a penalty wrongly given & an offside goal that should have been disallowed - to scrape past Swansea in the Quarter-Final & leave Pep Guardiola facing uncomfortable questions on why VAR wasn't used despite the Liberty Stadium being equipped with it and its presence in other key Cup games to the extent that TalkSport's Adrian Durham thought Man City should offer Swansea a replay.
Interestingly, the very same referee for last year's Quarter-Final - Andre Marriner - is the VAR official for the Quarter-Final between Newcastle and Man City.
Referee Marriner has proven a thorn in Newcastle's side so many times over the years that Rafa Benitez was actually fined £60,000 for the following comments on the appointment of Marriner for a Newcastle -Crystal Palace game in 2018:
"He has a lot of experience, even if his record with our players is not that great in terms of red cards.
"He is an experienced referee."
The same could be said for the referee of tomorrow's game, Lee Mason, who this season alone has turned down two stonewall penalties for Newcastle, one as referee in the Premier League for this blatant push on Andy Carroll in the final few minutes against Everton and the other for a blatant handball when he was the VAR official in Newcastle's home FA Cup clash against Oxford:
Back to the football and if the advantage of a home crowd roaring them on has been denied The Magpies, good fortune in their favour has been the injury of Sergei Aguero, a constant thorn in the side of the black and whites ever since arriving in English football after he was injured against Burnley ironically whilst winning a soft penalty.
With one of the best squads in the Premier League and world club football, Guardiola has a plethora of options to replace the injured Argentinean picking from Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane, Phil Foden, David & Bernardo Silva although they are without the suspended Fernandinho, who was dismissed for deliberate handball in Thursday's energy-draining and morale-sapping defeat to Chelsea.
Bruce has an ace of two of his own up his sleeve in the shape of the extremely in-form Allan Saint-Maximum, who has produced two electric performances since the restart, scoring the opening goal and inspiring the win against Sheffield United and showing some of his dazzling array of skills at home to Aston Villa on Wednesday night.
£40M striker Joelinton, who had a good game against Man City in the Premier League last November, has already been among the goals in Project Restart as has Dwight Gayle, who notched minutes after coming on against Aston Villa for his first goal of the season while Geordie Andy Carroll will be busting a gut to score his first goal of the season and send The Magpies through and onto Wembley.
Steve Bruce has called on his Newcastle side to reproduce their recent results against Man City at St. James' Park - the 2-1 win under predecessor Rafa Benitez in January, 2019 and the pulsating 2-2 draw in November of last year saying:
"The mindset has got to be the same. Whenever you play Man City, you know that you're going to have to be at your best. They've got some of the best players in the world performing and that's what makes them pretty formidable, especially the way they play. Whether it's the FA Cup, whatever competition it's in, Man City these days are the real deal, so we're going to have to be at our best. We managed to be somewhere close to it earlier in the season, let's hope we can reproduce that and see if we can pull off a shock."
On a level refereeing playing field, anything is possible for Newcastle tomorrow. FHWTL.