sport

Year makes all difference for Toon

Newcastle boss Alan Pardew is happy to be dealing with a different sort of headache to the one which plagued him 12 months ago.

The 52-year-old will send his side into Barclays Premier League battle with Arsenal on Sunday, just as he did on December 29 last year.

But this time around, he will do so with the Magpies sitting in sixth place in the table and with competition for places as strong as it has been during his three-year reign to date.

That is in stark contrast to the situation in which he found himself last year when injuries left him trying to patch together a team and hoping against hope owner Mike Ashley would help him out during the January transfer window.

Pardew said: "Last year, it was difficult to try to find 11 players to play. At the minute, it's difficult to find players to leave out.

"We are in great shape and we take it into the next game. That's all you can do in my experience of this league."

Newcastle will welcome the Gunners to St James' Park having collected their seventh league win in nine attempts on an eventful Boxing Day with a remarkable 5-1 victory over nine-man Stoke.

That was achieved without midfield enforcer Cheick Tiote, who sat out through suspension, and his absence was exposed during the early stages as Stoke took full advantage before their hopes were dashed by the premature departures of Glenn Whelan and Marc Wilson.

Pardew admitted afterwards that his team had misfired in the early stages against the Potters, and while Tiote's replacement Hatem Ben Arfa starred in an impressive second-half display, Tiote will return to the fold against Arsene Wenger's men.

Asked if he faced a difficult decision over his team selection with Tiote available once again, he said: "Well it is and it isn't because Cheick will play, there's no doubt about that."

The Gunners returned to the top of the table with a 3-1 victory at West Ham on Thursday, and Pardew knows only too well the talent Wenger has at his disposal, particularly among a pool of midfielders which includes Mikel Arteta, Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott, who scored a hat-trick in a 7-3 victory over the Magpies at the Emirates last December.

However, with Tiote and Yohan Cabaye - reportedly once again a target for Wenger during the forthcoming transfer window - also at the top of their respective games, Pardew is confident Newcastle can more than give them a game.

Asked about the Gunners good form, he replied: "Yes they are, but so are we and I think they will be as fearful of us as we are of them.

"We are at home and we will be expected by our fans to win the game."

Skipper Fabricio Coloccini played in that defeat at the Emirates, in which the scores were level at 3-3 with 21 minutes to play, but is certain the Magpies will make a better fist of things at St James' Park, where they lost 1-0 to the Gunners on the final day of last season.

He said: "We are looking forward to Arsenal as we have a lot of confidence. The spirit is very high and the team is working hard together. That's why we are going the right way.

"Arsenal are fighting to win the league. It's good, because we have played well against big teams.

"We try to play a similar way - we want to play good football. I think it's going to be a nice game to watch."