Rafa Benitez’s ploy of damage limitation away from home is piling the pressure on Newcastle at St James’ Park

Premier League survival is on a knife edge for all of the clubs in the mix and Newcastle’s fate looks certain to be decided by their home form

Martin Hardy@mhardysport
Sunday 04 March 2018 19:58
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Rafa Benitez is in a relegation battle
Rafa Benitez is in a relegation battle

There had largely been bemusement in the north east about the reaction to the Arsenal situation, but that changed when Arsene Wenger and his strugglers fell to Brighton on Sunday lunchtime.

Brighton, promoted with Newcastle, are now five points clear of Rafa Benitez’s side and stand seven points above the relegation zone. It was a Sunday afternoon where Tyneside was once more checking the Premier League table to assess their own worrying predicament.

Benitez’s first defeat against Liverpool as a returning manager on Saturday tea-time means Newcastle are just two points clear of danger. The nerves are once more set to be tested and the forthcoming visit of Southampton to Tyneside on Saturday now becomes the biggest game of a difficult campaign.

That they will do so without Islam Slimani and most likely Jonjo Shelvey, two key attacking players, will limit the options for Benitez, who again surrendered possession and the ball in the loss at Anfield.

Once again, at one of the Premier League’s biggest clubs, Newcastle went for damage limitation. That had been the approach at Manchester City as well, where Newcastle lost 3-1. Benitez believes that goal difference – and Newcastle’s is the second best of the bottom eight clubs at -13 (Huddersfield, newly promoted and one point above, are currently -25) – could prove crucial in the final shake-up. The margins, with just nine games to go, are becoming this tight.

Swansea taking 10 points from the past five games has seen them vault up to 13th in the table, on 30 points, while Brighton’s victory, their third in the last five games, has pushed them into the top half of the table.

Finding runs and form right now is like a godsend. Newcastle’s defeat at Anfield was actually only their second in the league in 2018, and the other was at the Etihad, against the champions-elect.

Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain admitted after Liverpool’s victory that Jurgen Klopp had altered training to find a way to break down and break through Benitez’s system.

“We’d been working on different ways in training to break them down,” he said. “Finding space in between the lines was hard. In the end the first goal was a bit of a ricochet in midfield and it broke to me.”

Whatever Newcastle have been found wanting for this season, it has certainly not been the thoroughness of Benitez and his staff’s preparation, nor, perhaps crucially the togetherness of the squad of players.

“We all worked our socks off,” said the Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles. "I don’t think that any team will make us look out of our depth. We always keep working.”

Southampton have won once in 2018, against the bottom club West Bromwich Albion, managed by Alan Pardew. They are a point behind Newcastle. Victory for either side next Saturday will be huge. Newcastle are currently 4/1 to be relegated. West Brom, Stoke, Crystal Palace, Huddersfield, Swansea ad Southampton are all reckoned to finish beneath Benitez's side.

That will not aid a nervous Tyneside this week. Two relegations in the last decade have placed a cloud of uncertainty over the club. The united backing given to Benitez has certainly been a factor this season, as it will be in those remaining nine games.

Newcastle actually have the third worst home record in the Premier League this season, but their fate will be decided at St James’ Park. After Southampton comes another gargantuan match, against Huddersfield and in April the hapless Gunners arrive in town before a game with West Brom, and perhaps Pardew, on 28 April.

Newcastle’s support is nervous, but expect a united front to help their side to safety; it remains the only option.

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