Newcastle's safe slumber fast becoming a nightmare in the Premier League

Steve Bruce's side have been dragged into major relegation trouble

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The Premier League’s fixture list for the final weekend has become rather more newsworthy.

Partly because the British government’s road map out of lockdown opens up the possibility some fans make their belated return to grounds on May 23.

But partly also because what could have been one of the more meaningless games, between two teams whose destinies had already been decided, has started to loom large.

Fulham versus Newcastle could be huge. It could complete a great escape. The fear around St James’ Park is that it seals an ignominious decline. Even for such a seismic occasion, Craven Cottage may not be a cauldron of noise but the sounds emanating from Tyneside are distinctly panicky.

Fulham took seven points in as many days last week, narrowing a 10-point gap to three. Newcastle host Wolves on Saturday and could be dumped into the bottom three on Sunday.

A seemingly finished relegation battle has been revived. Newcastle risk the third demotion of the Mike Ashley era; it would be another milestone of mismanagement.

Fulham have the momentum, the spirit and the slicker football, all engineered by Scott Parker, one of Newcastle’s best midfielders of this millennium.

For months, they have looked a better team than Newcastle. None of which seemed to matter when Fulham’s fine displays only yielded draws, Newcastle could conjure wins in between, or occasionally in, poor performances and there was a gulf between them.

Newcastle have spent much of their time under Steve Bruce confounding the statisticians, ranking among the stragglers in most charts – shots for and against, possession, pass completion rate – but safely in lower mid-table in the standings that mattered most. That illogical formula looks less failsafe now.


What the Newcastle stars earn


Callum Wilson’s seemed a £20 million guarantee of safety. When he is fit, the striker ranks as one of Ashley’s shrewder deals. Wilson has scored in five of Newcastle’s seven wins, plus two of their draws. A return of 10 goals from 16 shots on target, plus five assists, makes him remarkably productive. He was outstanding in their best display of the season, the victory at Everton.

So his absence with a hamstring injury, potentially for much of the remainder of the campaign, is potentially fatal. He is the anti-Joelinton and the £40m Brazilian has one Premier League goal for the season and three in his career.

Bruce has responded to criticism of Newcastle’s negativity by trying to make them attacking.

They have registered 25 shots on target in their last six games – a dramatic improvement on a return of 11 in the previous six – aided by the return to fitness of Allan Saint-Maximin and the loan signing of Joe Willock, but changing both the brand of football and the results is no simple task.

It is rendered tougher by the reality Newcastle’s strangely-compiled squad do not really suit any one system.

The defenders’ fondness for three centre-backs, dating back to Rafa Benitez’s day, is clear, but can make them duller. Bruce’s preference for a back four has tended to be accompanied by a midfield diamond and two strikers of late, even if the winger Saint-Maximin has been crowbarred in as one of those front men.

There is a question if it leaves Newcastle more open. Goalkeeper Karl Darlow, who kept the score down early in the campaign but has looked more fallible of late, could be replaced by Martin Dubravka, who made the most saves last season: in itself, another sign of the side’s struggles.

That only one of their remaining seven home games is against a bottom-eight team indicates that their fate could be decided on the road. They have four remaining trips, including the next three, to potential relegation rivals.

Or it could be determined in the boardroom. Ashley tends to be reluctant to sack managers – after all, it costs money – and should have dispensed with Steve McClaren earlier in the demotion campaign of 2015-16. Bruce was never a popular appointment anyway and opposition to him has mounted, but seemingly not with his employers.

Arguably he confounded his critics last season, with results if not performances. Perhaps that encouraged Newcastle to believe that history would repeat itself.

But the criticism is that they are guilty of complacency, of sleepwalking into trouble. And what looked like a safe slumber could become a nightmare.