If the number of sides involved in the title-race appears to be thinning, the battle to avoid relegation looks set to go down to the wire. Discounting a pathetic looking Villa side, the final two relegation places look like a straight fight between Norwich, Sunderland and Newcastle.
With just a point separating the three teams, any edge that can be gained could be vital. Mike Ashley and Newcastle have already acted in getting rid of a hapless Steve McClaren, bringing in former Real Madrid, Liverpool and Chelsea boss Rafa’ Benitez in an effort to drag themselves out of the dreaded drop-zone.
And whilst they may not have got any points against Leicester in the Monday night game, their performance brings cause for optimism. Looking more solid and more organised than at any point in the season so far, the Magpies will at least give themselves a fighting chance of survival should they continue to perform like that in their final nine games of the campaign.
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The next two games will be crucial – a home tie against bitter rivals Sunderland, followed by a trip to Carrow Road to take on the Canaries. Rafa’s organisation and experience in these, and other, games will be crucial, as will the performances of the players. And one player in particular could hold the key in Newcastle’s fight for survival.
Georginio Wijnaldum is easily the Magpies most naturally gifted player but has struggled to perform on a regular basis, as inconsistently as his side indeed. His class has shone through on occasion – his four goal haul in the 6-2 win over Norwich, and the Man of the Match performance in the 2-1 win over West Ham particularly memorable – but he needs to demonstrate his innate talents more often.
Benitez is an intelligent man and he will have no doubt seen the potential in the Dutch international already, and was almost certainly aware of his talents even before he was appointed boss at St James’ Park. And he is likely to have pin-pointed getting the best out of the former PSV and Feyenoord player as a priority, the potential in the 25 year-old to produce big performances arguably enough to help keep the Geordies in the Premier League.
The dribbling skills, range of passing and eye for goal that Wijnaldum possesses will be all the more important over the final two months of the season. As the lowest scorers in the division, Villa aside, Newcastle will undoubtedly need to improve in that area if they are to give themselves a chance of winning games, but Benitez is likely to concentrate on the defensive side of the game initially, organising the team and making them hard to beat, giving them a chance in games.
Therefore, the side will be even more reliant on the occasional flash of brilliance from their more talented attacking players, and this is where Wijnaldum comes in. Whether utilised on the left or, as has been more often, through the middle as an attacking midfielder, Newcastle’s No.5 will provide that extra goal threat and bit of class that could make all the difference in the relegation scrap.
Having reached double figures in three of his last four full seasons, ‘Gio’ will be hopeful of achieving that again, currently on nine in the Premier League to this point. And if he can utilise his talents to set up others all the better, the lack of goals from Newcastle’s plethora of strikers a major factor in shaping their current predicament.
Mike Ashley sure left it late to pull the plug on McClaren’s tenure at St James’ Park, but there is still plenty of time to get out of trouble. ‘Rafa’ may be more used to challenging for honours as opposed to rescuing sides, but his tactical nous and experience in football generally will be vital for the Magpies, but get the most out of Wijnaldum and far from grinding out draws, the Spanish manager has a true world class match winner on his books.