Newcastle United’s incredibly tough week of Championship action ended with a mightily impressive seven points from nine, with Rafa Benitez’s side leading the division by three points heading into the final nine games.
It’s a very good return when you consider the strength of the opposition the Toon Army have been pitted against – all away from home – over the past week or so and the Premier League is potentially but a few games away. Still, as the Spaniard will tell you, there are seven games to play in April and the nature of life in the second tier offers few guarantees.
While the manner in which Newcastle overcame this hurdle should be commended, an injury picked up by defender DeAndre Yedlin over the course of their busy schedule could provide them with one final issue heading into the final stretch of the campaign. Despite his largely unheralded arrival over the course of the summer, the seriously quick American international has established himself as one of the key members of the promotion charge.
Though he started the season operating as a second choice behind Vurnon Anita at right-back, the former Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland man’s performances bombing up and down the flanks have added another layer to the Magpies’ game. With Matt Ritchie sometimes straying inside to more central areas in support of the striker, Yedlin offers some genuine chalk-on-boots width when pushing forward.
Obviously, his main asset is the pace he offers when breaking behind enemy lines, helping Newcastle in tight games against teams from up and down the division. His attacking enterprise was just as important in getting behind a packed Rotherham defence back in January as it was in giving his side an outlet when the tide turned on the south coast against Brighton little over a month later.
Newcastle’s threat on the counter, something likely to prove a sewing motif in the closing stages of the Championship season, is markedly less devastating without Yedlin in the starting eleven. The aforementioned Anita is a good all-rounder, though not someone who offers the same direct outlet, while Jesus Gamez is getting to grips with life in England, as was evident in last night’s draw with Reading.
With the USMNT star likely to miss key games against Fulham and Birmingham (particularly the clash with the Cottagers) Benitez must rethink his tactics, especially when the Magpies are forced to bring the game onto the opposition at home. Performances at St. James’ Park have been somewhat patchy this season and not having a man who can wreak havoc within opposition ranks with sheer pace is a blow on that front.
There may be a feeling that Newcastle have all but sealed promotion following the last week and the manner in which they have conducted themselves in this tricky period is that of title winners at this level. Still, nothing can yet be guaranteed and Yedlin’s injury will provide Benitez with one final tactical hurdle heading into the closing stages of the campaign.