PREVIEW: Newcastle United v Luton Town

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Newcastle United have just started to begin alleviating fears of heading straight back down to the Championship once more with an improved set of results over the Christmas period.

Struggling in third bottom ahead of the festivities, Rafa Benitez saw his side begin with a vital 3-2 win at West Ham on December 23.

They followed that up by running champions elect Manchester City close at home, losing 1-0, before a stalemate against Brighton.

However, Ayoze Perez bagged the only goal of the game in a vital 1-0 triumph at Stoke City on New Year’s Day to lift the Magpies up to 13th, although just two points above the drop zone, such is the closeness at the wrong end of the table.

Finding the net have been a real bone of contention for United though, as the Toon are the third lowest scorers at home with just nine from 11 games, with only basement side Swansea and surprisingly Burnley, worst off in the goals for column.

Away, they have fared slightly better, managing 11 strikes, although 17 conceded has seen them beaten six times on the road already.

Home form has been sticky to say the least recently as well, with the club on a run of six games without a win in front of their own fans, scoring just twice in that time, both coming in a 3-2 home reverse to Leicester on December 9.

The Toon have suffered defeats to Bournemouth, Watford, Leciester, Everton and Manchester City, with their only respite, a goalless draw against Brighton.

Manager Benitez has spoken for a while now about his desire and need to strengthen the squad during the January transfer window, but it doesn’t look like there will be any incomings ahead of the FA Cup clash, as he said: “At the moment, we don’t have any movement (in the transfer window), so we are waiting.”

Top scorers: Hatters: Danny Hylton (16). Magpies: Dwight Gayle, Joselu (3).

Team news: Luton have issues defensively after captain Alan Sheehan starts his three game suspension for the red card picked up against Lincoln last week.

Club captain Scott Cuthbert remains out, while Alan McCormack is injured too, although Dan Potts is hoped to have recovered from illness to feature.

For Newcastle, Aleksandar Mitrovic (back), Florian Lejeune (foot) and Jesus Gamez (ankle), are all expected to be missing.

Benitez has promised to take the competition seriously after making eight changes against Oxford last year, losing 3-0, as he said: “We will have a strong team. I will try to play a strong team to make sure that we put everything in and try to win.”

Milestones: Saturday’s clash will represent two years since manager Nathan Jones took charge at Kenilworth Road.

In that time, Jones’s record is 59 wins from 114 games with 29 draws and 26 defeats, scoring 209 goals and conceding 121.

Man in the middle: Neil Swarbrick. Premier League referee has had 14 top flight games this term, showing 37 yellows and no reds as his most recent clash was the 2-1 win for Liverpool over Leicester.

Had 34 games last season, with 126 yellows and three reds, including the Championship play-off final between Hudderfield and Reading.

It will be his first Luton game since February 2008 when he took the 4-0 defeat at Hartlepool in League One.

Assistant referees are Andrew Garratt and Billy Smallwood, with the fourth official Darren Handley.

In charge: Rafa Benitez. Vastly experienced Spanish manager who at 57, has been there, seen it and done it all in his long and glittering career.

During his brief playing days, had been a midfielder for both Real Madrid Aficionados in the Tercera División and Castilla CF in the Segunda División.

Sidelined for a year by injury, he joined Tercera División side Parla in 1981, moving to Segunda División B club Linares in 1985, but further injury problems saw him retire as a player the following year.

Joined Real Madrid’s coaching staff at the age of 26, going on to work as the U19 and reserve team coach, plus assistant manager for the senior team.

Then appointed coach of Castilla B, winning two league titles in 1987 and 1989 and a third with Real Madrid Youth B in 1990.

Took over as Real Madrid U19 coach midway through the 1990–91 season, winning the Spain U19s Cup in 1991 and 1993, along with the National U19 League too.

Left in 1995, having spells at Real Valladolid and Osasuna, before guiding Segunda División side Extremadura back to the Primera División in his first season in 1997, then coaching Tenerife in 2000.

Was appointed coach of Valencia and won La Liga in the 2001-02 season, adding a second title in 2004, plus the UEFA Cup by beating Marseille in the final.

Left Valencia in June 2004 to take over at Liverpool, guiding the Reds to Champions League glory in 2005 with an unforgettable penalty shoot out win over AC Milan, named UEFA Manager of the Year for the second successive season.

Won the FA Cup in 2006 and reached the 2007 Champions League Final, losing to Milan this time, as he left Anfield in June 2010, taking charge of Inter Milan for a short spell, winning the Supercoppa Italiana and FIFA Club World Cup titles.

Back in England in November 2012, appointed interim manager of Chelsea, as he won the 2013 Europa League.

Returned to Italy in 2013 to coach Napoli, where he lifted the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana, before moving to Real Madrid in June 2015, although only lasted six months.

In March 2016, Benítez was announced as the manager of Newcastle United and despite failing to stave off relegation, took them straight back up at the first attempt, winning the Championship last season.

Is the only manager in history to have won the UEFA Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup.

View from the opposition: Rafa Benitez: “We approach this year with the same idea - one game at a time. We know Luton Town are doing well in the league and will bring a lot of fans.

“We have experience in the cups in England, and every game is difficult. You cannot go into any game with overconfidence.

“We are playing against a good, well-organised team with lots of confidence, so we cannot underestimate them.

“We will try to win this game and see if we can progress.”

One to watch: Dwight Gayle - If selected, the 27-year-old striker has a history of knowing exactly where the goal is, ever since Dagenham & Redbridge snapped him up from Stansted in 2011.

Prolific loan spell at Peterborough led to a permanent move to the Posh, while Crystal Palace splashed out £6m for his services in 2013, as he bagged 26 goals in 74 matches for the Eagles.

Newcastle then came calling, as they spent 10m to take him to St James’ Park in July 2016, Gayle repying them with 23 goals in 34 games last season to win the Championship.

Has found the Premier League a tougher proposition, with just three goals so far, and hasn’t not scored in his last six games.

Played for both: Mick Harford - Town legend and current chief recruitment officer at Kenilworth Road, the striker headed to Newcastle from Lincoln in 1980 for a fee of 180,000, scoring four times in 19 games before a move to Bristol City in 1981.

Joined Luton in 1984 from Birmingham and went on to be a true favourite at Kenilworth Road, scoring 92 goals in 217 games over two spells and going on to manage the Hatters as well, winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy back in April 2009.

Friendly faces: Malcolm MacDonald - ‘Supermac’ as he is fondly known, started out at Tonbridge Angels, before Fulham boss Bobby Robson snapped him up for £1,000 in 1968.

Played a handful of games for the Cottagers, before moving to Luton in 1969, spending two years at Kenilworth Road, netting an impressive 58 times in 101 games.

Alerted the attentions of Newcastle and he went to St James’ Park in 1971 for £180,000, staying for five years where he finished top scorer in every season and won the First Division golden boot in the 1975-76 season as well.

Joined Arsenal for a fee of £333,333.34 in 1977 where he was similarly prolific, with another golden boot triumph that season, and then finished up at Djurgardens IF in Sweden.

Played 14 times for England too, scoring six times, with five of them coming during the 5-0 European Championship qualifier win over Cyprus in 1975, a feat that hasn’t been replicated since.

At the end of his playing days, managed both Fulham and Huddersfield Town and now the president of North Shields FC.

We’ve got form: St James’ Park contains very few good memories for Luton fans ever since matches began back in Division Two in 1898, when the Hatters went down 4-1.

They won their second trip 3-1 in 1937, before going 10 games and 36 years without success, including a 7-2 thrashing in 1947, until a 2-0 FA Cup triumph in 1973.

However that has been their last joy in the north east, as since then they have not triumphed in their past 13 trips, with five draws and eight defeats, making their overall record, two wins, six draws and 18 losses, scoring 28 and conceding 61.

In the FA Cup, Luton have made three visits, winning one, drawing one and losing one.

Last time out: Luton held Newcastle to a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park in their last visit, that also an FA Cup tie, back in 1994.

Tony Thorpe gave the visitors the lead 10 minutes before half time with a stunning 25-yard strike past Mike Hooper. However, the Magpies, with Andrew Cole in their ranks, levelled through Peter Beardsley’s penalty.

Town had the last laugh in the replay though, winning 2-0 thanks to goals from John Hartson and Scott Oakes.

Hatters: Juergen Sommer, Des Linton, Julian James, Alan Harper, Trevor Peake, John Dreyer, Paul Telfer, Scott Oakes, Kerry Dixon, Tony Thorpe (Jamie Campbell), David Preece.

Attendance: 32,216.