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Stoke City-Newcastle United Preview
By SANTOSH VENKATARAMAN
(AP) -- LONDON (SE) - Newcastle United have employed some unorthodox training methods with a lengthy break before their run-in as the Champions League hopefuls welcome Stoke City to Sports Direct Arena on Saturday.
The Magpies are the Premier League's form team with five wins on the trot, although they have not played since their third successive 2-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers on April 9.
Last week's trip to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea was postponed because of the FA Cup semi-finals, and Liverpool's win over Everton has virtually guaranteed Newcastle at least a place in the Europa League.
Now the focus is on finishing fourth and earning Newcastle's first place in the Champions League since 2002-03. The Magpies are level on 59 points with Tottenham Hotspur, with Chelsea in sixth on 57.
"I have never actually ruled it out," manager Alan Pardew told Newcastle's official website. "The press kept saying to me, 'Are you going to make the Champions League?', and I said we were just looking to win the next game."
With no fixture last weekend, Newcastle attempted to lighten the mood this week by playing basketball and football against local side Newcastle Eagles.
"We just wanted to change that, to freshen it up for the players at the this stage of the season," first-team coach Steve Stone said. "Sometimes you want to take them away from the training ground just to break things up, and that has been the feeling this week."
Pardew has several in-form players at his disposal, with Senegalese forward Papiss Demba Cisse netting an amazing eight goals over his last five matches. All of Cisse's 10 goals since arriving from German club Freiburg have come since Demba Ba's last goal Feb. 5 against Aston Villa.
"They signed Ba at the beginning of the season and before Christmas he was scoring on a regular basis," Stoke City boss Tony Pulis told the Magpies' website. "He seems to have dried up a little bit, but they have taken Cisse and he is now scoring the goals."
Midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa has two goals and four assists over his last four matches, including his stunning solo effort against Bolton two weeks past.
Pulis' side, meanwhile, will ensure a fifth straight Premier League campaign with three points. The Potters, however, are winless in their last seven away fixtures since beating Blackburn Rovers 2-1 on Jan. 2.
Stoke also had the weekend off with their match against Everton postponed due to the FA Cup.
The Potters won twice and drew twice against the Magpies since returning to the top flight in 2008 before falling 3-1 in the reverse fixture at the Britannia on Oct. 31 as Ba had a hat trick.
Now Cisse is the danger man for Newcastle, unbeaten in eight home matches this year.
"He is a very talented player and the fact that he is averaging better than a goal a game shows the tremendous qualities he possesses," defender Ryan Shawcross told Stoke City's official website. "I enjoy playing against these sort of players though - it's a test for me and for the other defenders."
Updated April 19, 2012