Newcastle battles to avoid season of missed opportunities

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — After exceeding expectations for much of the season, Newcastle is now fighting to avoid another campaign of disappointment.

The team coached by Eddie Howe has gone from battling relegation to challenging for Champions League qualification in a little over a year. But it will be difficult to shake the sense that an opportunity has been missed if the Saudi-backed club fails to secure a top-four finish after flirting with the upper reaches of the Premier League for so long.

At the turn of the year, Newcastle was in third place, nine points behind leader Arsenal and in position to make an unlikely title challenge. Going into Sunday’s game against Wolverhampton, the team in sixth place and four points behind fourth-place Tottenham with two games in hand.

A five-game winless run has Newcastle heading in the wrong direction. That included the loss to Manchester United in the League Cup final last month, which means the club is still waiting for its first major domestic trophy since 1955.

It was a familiar story for Newcastle, which lost back-to-back FA Cup finals in 1998 and 1999 when another era that promised so much came to nothing.

Back then, a spending spree that included a then-world record $23 million from England great Alan Shearer sparked hope of a new wave of success, but only produced a series of near-misses.

Now the club is awash with money again and among the richest in world soccer after being bought by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in 2021.

Financial Fair Play spending regulations mean its new owners have so far been restricted in the transfer market, but that wealth is eventually expected to see the club consistently compete for the biggest trophies in Europe.

Few predicted the strides made by Howe in his first full season in charge, but he could now become a victim of his own success. His team is ahead of schedule, and that raises expectations.

Failure to finish in the top four, along with the setback in the League Cup final, could shift focus to what Newcastle has lost, rather than the gains made by Howe and his players.

While $330 million has been spent on signings since the buyout, Newcastle has felt like a triumph of Howe’s coaching and astute transfer business. Recruitment has largely been sensible, with the club resisting the temptation to try to lure star names that could disrupt Howe’s building process.

Players like Nick Pope, Dan Burn and Kieran Trippier have been key to the team’s success. Even one of the higher profile signings, Bruno Guimaraes, was bought for a relatively modest $41 million from Lyon.

Newcastle rose up the standings on the back of solid foundations. It has the best defensive record in the league, conceding only 17 goals, while Pope had a run of 10 straight shutouts in all competitions earlier in the season.

It is the team’s struggle to score at the other end that has been the problem. A total of 35 goals in the league is the fewest of any of the top nine teams.

Newcastle hasn’t scored more than one in a league game since a 3-0 win over Leicester on Dec. 26 and Howe’s team has lost its last three without finding the back of the net. Newcastle hasn’t won in the league since beating Fulham 1-0 on Jan. 15 and has been overtaken in the standings by Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool.

Howe had looked like benefiting from a campaign in which two of last season's top four had endured slumps, with Liverpool and Chelsea both struggling for consistency. Now it is Jurgen Klopp's team that appears to be the greatest threat to Newcastle's bid for Champions League qualification.

Liverpool is finding form at just the right time to salvage its season, including last week's 7-0 rout of United. On Saturday, Liverpool plays a Bournemouth team it beat 9-0 earlier in the season.

While Newcastle can move above Liverpool if it wins its game in hand on the Merseyside club, the momentum is with Klopp.

The Champions League could speed up Newcastle's bid to join the elite of the game, increasing its spending power and making it more attractive to the best players. Even if few expected Howe to qualify for club soccer's biggest tournament at the start of the season, failure to finish in the top four now would feel like a chance missed.


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James Robson, The Associated Press