Newcastle within touching distance of Champions League but Eddie Howe remains cautious
Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe still refuses to admit the job of Champions League qualification is done, despite the Magpies taking a giant leap toward a top-four Premier League spot with a home victory against sixth-place Brighton & Hove Albion on Thursday.
Howe’s side is within touching distance of a place of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time since the 2003/04 season thanks to a 4-1 win over their fellow high-fliers.
An own goal from Deniz Undav and a Dan Burn header, against his former club, put Newcastle well on the way to victory in the first half before Undav reduced the arrears just after the break. But a late blitz from Callum Wilson and Bruno Guimaraes ensured all three points remained on Tyneside.
With that win, Newcastle moved four points clear of fifth-placed Liverpool, with both teams having two games left to play. It’s fair to say it would take a dramatic swing, with the Magpies losing both of their remaining games — at home to Leicester and away to Chelsea — to even stand a chance of dropping out of the qualification spots from here.
“Yeah (we are close) but it is still so far away,” Howe said of the club’s Champions League chances. “We will enjoy tonight but then turn our focus towards Leicester.
“I think we were just pleased with the performance tonight, to beat a side of their quality. We are not looking too far ahead.”
When asked when he will turn his thoughts to the top four, Howe joked: “When it’s done, I’ll talk about it for fun if you want.
“We were outstanding tonight. In that first period was us at our best. I thought we were relentless. It is very difficult to maintain that for the full game. We tried. I thought we were fantastic in the details. As a first half goes, we were delighted at half time. The crowd helped get us over the line. The third goal was crucial.
“It would be incredible if we could (qualify for the Champions League). This is the Premier League and we take nothing for granted. We know how good Leicester are; they are fighting at the other end of the table and our intention is to be the best we can be in this game.”
The starting line-up unchanged on the day, the Magpies got off to their usual fast start as they peppered the visiting goal at will. Pressing high and forcing errors, both Miguel Almiron and Joelinton squandered gilt-edged opportunities to snatch the lead, before a Kieran Trippier set-piece game came to the fore.
Clearly targeted for service, Trippier kept firing deliveries right down the throat of Seagulls goalkeeper Jason Steele — and it paid dividends when an Undav flick at the front post ended up beating everyone and finding its way into the far corner to make it 1-0.
The lead was doubled soon after when another Trippier delivery, this time from the right, found the towering frame of Burn, who nodded in a goal that deservedly sent the Magpies in at the break with a two-goal cushion.
As has so often been the case on Tyneside, total control quickly turned to panic stations in the second 45 as a straight ball down the center resulted in Undav outpacing Fabian Schar and tucking the ball under Nick Pope to halve the deficit.
Half an hour of angst and nerves then gripped St James’ Park and the Magpies had to use all of their guile and gamesmanship to ensure they remained in front. But then a Brighton implosion opened the door for goals three and four.
A burst from the back-to-his-best Miguel Almiron down the right set Wilson free and, breaking the offside trap, he fired past Steele to all but seal the win. The icing on the cake came in added time when Wilson turned provider and laid one on a plate for Guimaraes.
“(It was a) really strong performance,” Howe said. “(We would have) probably been kicking ourselves if we didn’t take some of the chances. It was always going to make it a bit nervy at 2-1.
“That’s how we want to play: Fast action, high intensity work. To maintain that rhythm throughout is not easy and takes a risk, and sometimes they benefit from that risk. Credit to the players.
“It was great to see two come off and great to see Dan (Burn) score again, and then in the late moments it made it a bit more calm for us.”