Newcastle United have been written off on a number of occasions this season, but Alan Pardew’s side continue to defy the critics with an attacking-style of football that is winning matches.
The Magpies were undefeated in 11 league games at the start of the season, coming unstuck against Manchester City after draws against Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
It’s their ability to bounce back from setbacks which has been particularly impressive though, drawing at Old Trafford after the defeat against City, and also beating the Red Devils again in January after a loss at Liverpool later in the campaign.
Indeed, the Magpies have only lost consecutive league games once this season – against Chelsea and Norwich in what was easily their worst run of the season at the start of December. A draw against Swansea and defeat to West Brom followed, with most pundits predicting that would be the end of the club’s European aspirations.
However, their form since the turn-of-the-year has been excellent, losing just three of their 14 matches and keeping seven clean sheets in the process.
Defensively, this side was under-rated at the start of the season, but Tim Krul’s performances between the sticks have been nothing short of exceptional, whilst the players in-front of him have also chipped in to make the difference.
Fabricio Coloccini is the big name, and the Argentine looks like a player transformed from the one who struggled in his debut season with the Toon as they were relegated to the Championship back in 2008-09. After deciding to stick with the team in the second tier, he now looks a much-more efficient player.
Mike Williamson, Davide Santon an Danny Simpson have also grown in stature as the season has gone on, whilst Ryan Taylor’s versatility – as well as goals – have proved invaluable during their recent charge up the table.
Newcastle aren’t short of a creative spark in midfield either, with Yohan Cabaye proving to be one of the signings of the season during his first stint in English football. Alongside Hatem Ben Arfa, who has really found form in recent months, Pardew’s side is creating a sack-full of chances.
And, whilst Cheik Tiote sweeps for the more adventurous midfielders, it’s his African colleagues up-front who have really helped elevate this side to one of the top sides in the country.
Demba Ba was a revelation at the start of the season, and the fear was that when he left for the African Cup of Nations in January, the wheels would come off the Newcastle wagon.
However, Senegal’s failure in the competition, coupled with the arrival of compatriot Papiss Demba Cisse up-front, has sparked a revival in the club’s fortunes again in 2012.
Whilst a number of clubs were linked with the talented 26-year-old, it was Pardew who took the gamble to bring the player over to England from Freiburg in the Bundesliga.
A goal on debut, against Aston Villa in a 2-1 win, was a great start. But it’s been his ability to settle into life on Tyneside quickly which has really done the trick. His three consecutive braces in wins against West Brom, Liverpool and Swansea, plus a goal in Monday’s win over Bolton, has helped Cisse score 10 goals in just nine matches thus far.
It’s a return that has in many ways taken the focus off the great efforts of his teammates, with the striker and Ben Arfa currently hogging the headlines with some breathtaking form.
But the secret to Newcastle’s success has been their ability to perform well as a team – from front to back. Johan Gutierrez, a player not mentioned in this article yet, has consistently performed well compared to in the past, where he was either brilliant or average.
It’s that consistency which can help a team reach the next level. For Newcastle, that would be European football. But, the real question is can they take a double step forward and jump into the Champions League places.
At the start of the season, the answer would have been no. But, with just five games left this season, they are level on points with Spurs in fourth, and two ahead of Chelsea who currently sit in sixth. The rest of the pack – including Liverpool - are well off the pace.
Make no mistake though, it’s a tough run-in for Pardew’s side, who face a trip to Chelsea and then host Manchester City in back-to-back matches at the start of May. They also face Stoke (A), Wigan (H) and Everton (A) in their other three matches.
On paper at least, the ball is in Tottenham’s court, with QPR (A), Blackburn (H), Bolton (A), Aston Villa (A) and Fulham (H) on their agenda. But will the FA Cup get in the way, with a semi-final against Chelsea the clubs next appointment on Sunday.
The Blues have the busiest schedule, with a two-legged Champions League semi-final to contend with, as well as that FA Cup date against Spurs. Arsenal away is next on the league schedule, with a west London derby against QPR (H), the clash against Newcastle, a trip to Liverpool and home finish against Blackburn their end-of-season conclusion.
What that all means is that Newcastle certainly have a chance, and with a game against Chelsea on the horizon, destiny lies in their own hands to some extent. That said, they need Spurs to slip-up somewhere along the line, and must be in a position to capitalise if they do.
They’ve got themselves within striking distance, and few would begrudge the Magpies a chance to return to Europe’s top table with a fine finish to the season.