Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Testing Times Lie Ahead as the 'Big Three' Battle for Survival; It Was Supposed to Be the Season of Opportunity for Newcastle and Sunderland, but It's Turned into a Grim Battle for Survival. Mark Douglas Analyses What Needs to Be Done to Stave off Relegation

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Testing Times Lie Ahead as the 'Big Three' Battle for Survival; It Was Supposed to Be the Season of Opportunity for Newcastle and Sunderland, but It's Turned into a Grim Battle for Survival. Mark Douglas Analyses What Needs to Be Done to Stave off Relegation

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Douglas

IF there is one positive to be dredged from this wretched season for North East football, it is that the myth that Newcastle United supporters are impatient for success has been nailed for good.

That idea, perpetrated widely in the wake of Sam Allardyce's acrimonious departure, should wither in the face of how lustily those same fans have continued to back United in the face of a grim, dispiriting battle against the drop.

There is vocal discontent at the board for its perceived mismanagement of the club certainly, but that has not spread to the pitch, where supporters have shown understanding of the unfortunate position that the players find themselves in.

A core of good Premier League players should not have found themselves in this predicament, but playing against such an unceasing backdrop of turmoil and tumult, a struggle was inevitable. So it has proved.

The stark reality is that staying up is now the limit of the club's ambitions for a season which started with talk - however optimistic it might have been - of a top-six finish.

The bad news is that United, as they have illustrated in the first weeks of 2009, are not too good to go down. But the more positive news is that the odds are still in their favour as they attempt to salvage survival.

Ensuring key players remain fit is essential. The firepower of Oba Martins has been sorely missed in recent weeks and he must play on until May unhindered by further niggles, while injuries to Steve Harper, Sebastien Bassong or Jonas Gutierrez would be just as troubling.

Looking at the fixture list, United's salvation may come away from St James's Park.

The club have seven remaining fixtures that could be classified as 'must not lose' - against West Brom, Hull, Stoke, Middlesbrough, Tottenham, Portsmouth, Fulham - and four of those will be on opposition territory. Starting in the Black Country tomorrow afternoon, United must rise to the challenge as they did in the second half against Sunderland, if they are to pull away from the trouble they are languishing in.

In an ideal world, they must raise six points from the West Brom, Stoke and Hull trips to start pushing towards the 40-point barrier, although they will be left looking for something from a clutch of daunting spring fixtures against 'big four' opposition.

Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea all visit Newcastle before the end of the season but unless United are at full-strength, it is difficult to see many points being earned from those matches.

That leaves a middle tier of games against the likes of Aston Villa and Everton that, in theory, should be winnable but look troubling, given the sheer scale of United's problems.

It is a retreat of ambition for United to write off the visit of a team like

Everton but, as Joe Kinnear freely admits, these are desperate times and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that safety will be assured against their seven fellow relegation candidates. …

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