It’s been another season where us fans have been forced to look over our shoulders and hope there’s three teams worse than us this year, but, for the first time, I am now convinced we’ll beat the drop.
As things stand, the Premier League table has us in a incredibly precarious position, however I am not overly concerned..
Here’s a few of the key reasons behind my confidence as far as our survival prospects are concerned:
We’ve really struggled to build on wins and create genuine momentum this season, but I feel like belief has finally returned on a few fronts.
The convincing win over Cardiff was a much needed start when it came to getting back to winning ways at home, but a 2-1 win over Man City in our following league game at St James’ felt like the real turning point for me – just as last season’s home win over Man Utd was exactly a year ago to the day.
Those two wins were then followed by the club record arrival of Miguel Almiron and Antonio Barreca – moves which finally gave Rafa new options in the number 10 role and at left-back.
Time will tell just how good they’ll be, but signing both (especially Almiron) offers us a much needed boost both on and off the pitch, giving supporters a spring in their step off the pitch and players an extra source of motivation on the pitch. It’s also been reported in the Chronicle this week that Rafa’s noticed an improved intensity in training as a result of the increased competition – so it seems the positive impact is already underway.
Not only that, it’s easy to forget that we’ve been without our three first choice central midfielders over the six weeks. Longstaff and Hayden have done brilliantly, with the former looking particularly impressive, but the imminent return of Diame, Ki and Shelvey will give us yet another boost.
As a result of us building this momentum both on and off the pitch, I am genuinely hopeful of a decent result going into tonight’s tough trip to Wolves – and that says a lot give it’s 7th vs 17th.
Favourable Fixtures – & the Rafa factor..
We’ve had a tough set of fixtures over the last 6 weeks, facing the likes of Spurs, Man City, Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool, but our run in between now and the end of the season is very favourable – especially when our record against the league’s bottom 7 is outstanding.
Some would say it could go either way, with winnable games against fellow relegation rivals having the potential to go horribly wrong, but this is when the Rafa Benitez factor has often played a huge part.
Not only do we have a brilliant record against the ‘lesser’ teams, our relegation rivals have much tougher run ins than us. While we play at home to Huddersfield and Burnley in two of our next three, the likes of Southampton play Arsenal, Man Utd and Spurs in three of their next 4. We have a huge chance to surge towards safety.
Huddersfield and Fulham look as good as gone, meaning there could be a mini league between ourselves, Southampton, Cardiff, Burnley and Brighton where the loser goes down. Can I see us finishing bottom of that pile? I could have a month or two ago, but not now – and here’s another reason why..
Rock solid defence – & more options in attack
Huddersfield look set to go down because they can’t score and Fulham look likely to go down because they can’t defend, but the combination of our rock solid back line and increased options in attack (providing Rondon stays fit) give me real hope at both ends of the pitch.
We have the 6th best defence in the Premier League, with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal conceding more than ourselves this season.
We kept out Cardiff, didn’t give Man City a sniff for 94 minutes after conceding within the first minute and would’ve got a well deserved draw at Spurs if it wasn’t for a rare mistake from Dubravka.
The game with Spurs was also one where we could’ve scored a couple of goals if it wasn’t for a few poor final balls. If Almiron can prove to be a significant upgrade on Atsu and combine well with Rondon and Perez then our previously toothless attacking options could be transformed.
That said, we may only need to score once or twice in games to get all three points if our defence continues to perform. Rafa Benitez is an expert when it comes to making a team organised, disciplined and hard to beat, but our defence look stronger than ever right now.
Despite the odd recent mistake, Dubravka is one of the best all round goalkeepers we’ve had at St James’ Park (only 4 keepers have more Premier League clean sheets than him this season) and I can’t remember a time where we had so many reliable centre-backs.
Lejeune’s return from injury has been a welcome return – and the fact Lascelles’ form has improved considerably as a result is no coincidence. Then we have the likes of Schar and Fernandez – two players who already look like superb signings, both looking the part at this level and fitting in seamlessly whenever they’re called upon. Even Clark has done a good job when called upon, with the returning Paul Dummett also a dependable option – whether it be at left-back or a left-sided centre-back.
Yedlin has often been the weak link when it’s come to defensive errors, but we’ve seen less of that since Rafa’s used him as a wing-back and played with three centre halves.
On the other side, Ritchie’s tenacity, work rate and ability to tirelessly track his man have seen him slot in well at wing-back, however the signing of Barreca and return of Paul Dummett have finally given us some more natural options at the left-side of defence.
We have renewed momentum, a reliable defence, improved attacking options and favourable fixtures – something which plays right into our hands given Rafa’s record of finishing strongly and coming out on top in these ‘six pointers’ at the bottom.
What happens beyond this season is anyone’s guess, but one thing I am confident about is our Premier League status ahead of the 2019/20 season.
Let’s hope we can get that survival ball rolling with a good result at Wolves tonight!