CRAIG HOPE: What Newcastle are achieving feels sustainable

CRAIG HOPE: Newcastle could be playing in the Champions League next season if they can maintain their winning run when domestic action returns… what Eddie Howe is achieving feels sustainable and his team are only going to get BETTER

  • Newcastle are third in the Premier League going into the World Cup break
  • Eddie Howe’s side beat Chelsea 1-0 at St James’ Park on Saturday evening 
  • They are two points off Manchester City in second and seven off leaders Arsenal
  • Sean Longstaff insisted that the players aren’t talking about European football

In the moments after Newcastle United’s fifth straight victory, World Cup-bound Callum Wilson hollered across the home dressing-room, ‘We’re four points off top!’.

Opposite the corridor, those in blue might well have been muttering about an eight-point defecit to the Champions League places. By contrast, that is nothing to shout about. Chelsea, we should remember, were European champions 18 months ago. They will be doing well to play in that competition next season.

But no historical reference works better right now than reminding ourselves that Newcastle were bottom of the Premier League a little over a year ago.

Newcastle have moved to within two points of Manchester City in the Premier League table

Eddie Howe’s side beat Chelsea 1-0 at St James’ Park on Saturday evening to stay third

In the hours after Saturday’s game, in the watering holes around St James’ Park, the Toon Army were shelling the televisions with expletives. Arsenal were winning at Wolves, meaning their team were now seven points off top. 

Not so long ago, they used to cheer goals scored by the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City, against what were their relegation rivals. Earlier in the day, Brentford’s late winner at the Etihad Stadium was met with a celebratory roar usually reserved for the Gallowgate End. 

How about that? Newcastle hunting down City, whom they now trail by just two points.

Newcastle are hunting City – who are five points off leaders Arsenal – and the league title

And here is another thing worthy of record that is happening in those pubs, where the queue for beer is outstretched only by the line for match tickets. For when Eddie Howe’s post-match interview appears on said screens, there is a collective hush and the barman is implored to dial up the volume. 

That honour was previously only reserved for Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson. If Howe wasn’t teetotal, he would not have to buy a drink on Tyneside between now and Christmas.

Across Europe, only the likes of Napoli and Bayern Munich can match the Magpies on form. That pair play in the Champions League, of course, and so, too, should Newcastle, if maintaining their winning run when top-flight football resumes.

That is not as big an ‘if’ as it may seem. What Howe and Newcastle are achieving feels sustainable. Once over, a victory against Chelsea would have been celebrated as a seasonal highlight. Not now. It is simply a seventh win in eight matches – and a deserved one at that – to keep them inside the division’s top three.

In Europe, only the likes of Napoli and Bayern Munich can match the Magpies for form

Howe’s side have made St James’ Park a fortress and look a far better side than Chelsea

So, are the players talking about European football?

‘No!’ comes the affirmative response from midfielder Sean Longstaff, one of several transformed under Howe’s management. ’Wils came in and shouted, “We are four points off top!” So he is the only one. Everyone just ignored him, to be honest.’

Given Wilson has talked, as well as played, his way into Gareth Southgate’s England squad, perhaps his club-mates would do well to declare their Champions League ambitions in public.

Longstaff would not be drawn on the subject, but he did say: ‘We have put ourselves in a really strong position. We need to make sure we back that up. There is no point in coming this far to come back and chuck it away. It has been a great start and the place is buzzing.’

Midfielder Sean Longstaff has denied that the players at the club are talking about Europe

Longstaff and match-winner Joe Willock, who finished superbly from 20 yards on 67 minutes, are a pair of Englishmen who were not in the reckoning for Qatar. Chelsea’s Mason Mount and Conor Gallagher, however, will be on the plane. 

Here, they were out-ran, out-thought and out-fought by their compatriots in midfield. Were they holding something back for the World Cup? Their boss Graham Potter cannot afford to carry any player, so precarious is West London job security on the back of losing runs.

This was only the second time this century they have lost three on the spin in the Premier League, and the first time in a decade they have gone five without a win. Such numbers usually add up to 45 at Stamford Bridge – P45, that is.

The new owners, you would hope, will not be so inclined. Potter was blown into the imperfect storm given events at that club this year. He should be given time and the break will be most welcome. But is there evidence of a turnaround? Well, yes, but only in the sense of a winning team deteriorating into a losing one.

Potter made five changes from last weekend’s 1-0 defeat by Arsenal, but it all felt the same – one shot on target last Sunday bettered slightly by two at St James’. Still, that is nowhere near good enough.

Graham Potter continues to struggle at Chelsea as his side fine it hard to create opportunities

Newcastle’s improvement, meanwhile, continues, and that is why a top-four finish is a realistic target. Week on week, they are getting better. The longer their players are exposed to Howe and his staff – and this is why the break can be a good thing for them – the more accomplished they become.

Howe may have no interest in taking over at England, should Gareth Southgate go, but he has done the Three Lions boss a huge favour by sending three players to Qatar – Wilson, Nick Pope and Kieran Trippier – in the form of their lives.

This was an eighth clean sheet for Pope and Trippier this season – and Howe was supposed to be a coach who could not organise a defence. That is what good coaches do, they improve themselves and their players.

Do not, then, bet against Newcastle returning next month even stronger than they currently are – and that should be a scary thought for the rest of the division.

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