Newcastle United are genuine contenders for Champions League qualification, but it is a fragile challenge and a mission that may well prove beyond them as we enter the spring.
If Newcastle’s shock FA Cup defeat to Sheffield Wednesday was painful to watch, it was also a useful reminder that the team have massively overachieved under manager Eddie Howe. It was also a timely sign of the lack of squad depth in the middle of a transfer window, revealing players who have hardly played this season for a reason.
The takeaway message was loud and clear. Newcastle do not have a squad of the same quality as any of the other Europe-chasing teams – this includes those competing for the Europa League, not just the Champions League.
Indeed, in terms of depth in key positions, they still have a team that spent most of the last four years battling relegation under both Rafa Benitez and Steve Bruce. When asked to play together in large numbers, they struggle and their limitations are obvious. It’s that simple.
One or two could be included in a squad alongside successful new signings such as Kieran Trippier, Sven Botman, Dan Burn and Bruno Guimarares. But if they play in a group like they did against Wednesday, there are too many weak links.
Howe played Saturday night and played so many because he had to. The same players start every week in the league and Tuesday night’s home Carabao Cup quarter-final against Leicester is far more important than the FA Cup third-round tie. Rotation was necessary to protect his best players. On this occasion it was a bet he lost.
Newcastle’s progress and growth has been so rapid under Howe that it is easy to forget at the start of his reign that he won just one game with the players he inherited from Bruce in the space of two months.
There has been so much joy and excitement on Tyneside this season, fueling talk of European tournaments and even dreams of lifting a trophy – such as the League Cup – that an element of perspective is in danger of being lost.
It’s obviously not helped by the likes of Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola, as well as some pundits claiming Newcastle are genuine title contenders. Newcastle’s ability has been exaggerated and if you were cynical it was done deliberately to destabilize.
It’s been a fantastic campaign up to this point and a defeat, albeit to a team two divisions below them, shouldn’t and won’t change that.
Newcastle lost to Sheffield Wednesday because they didn’t take a number of chances in front of goal. They missed at least five golden opportunities, with record signing Alexander Isak, Elliott Anderson, Jacob Murphy, Matt Ritchie and Chris Wood all guilty on a frustrating night.
But the performance was poor, the defense looked shaky and Sheffield Wednesday deserved their magical FA Cup night. It happens.
While it shouldn’t be forgotten in the boardroom, where a reluctance to spend this month is probably now being questioned, fans should move on quickly.
They have had to endure defeat in the league all season and have a crucial Carabao Cup game on Tuesday to look forward to.
If you said Newcastle would reach their first domestic cup semi-final since 2005 at the start of the season but would be knocked out early in the second, every supporter would have taken that deal. The Leicester game is by some distance Newcastle’s biggest of the season so far.
As for the board, led by sporting director Dan Ashworth, there is now a decision to be made in the next few days.
Howe has warned them that injuries to key players such as Bruno, Botman and Trippier, as well as striker Callum Wilson, would expose the squad and make European qualification far more unlikely. Do they now bring forward the summer spending if there is a player they really like?
We’re only halfway through the campaign. Newcastle could easily tumble down the table with Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Liverpool all currently below them but with far more strength in depth.
There is a reluctance to spend money in January because the club is pushing the boundaries of Financial Fair Play, with more than £200m spent on new players in the last 12 months and not one sold. The wage bill has also increased dramatically with no new major sponsors announced to boost income.
The club’s owners are extremely wealthy and would spend extravagantly if they could, but FFP, and the tightening of sponsorship deals related to owners, was introduced to stop – or at least hinder – clubs like Newcastle. Magpies have been caged, so far at least.
This is the context needed to understand the Sheffield Wednesday defeat, but also why the Champions League could prove to be a step too far for Newcastle this season. It wouldn’t be a disaster if they miss something, and no one should frame it as such.
There is still so much reason for optimism. The Sheffield Wednesday defeat stung, but it was pain to be expected at some point.
It’s okay to lose sometimes, every team does and will. This was one of those occasions. In the grand scheme of things, Newcastle are still enjoying a wonderful season at the start of an incredible journey – no one on Tyneside should forget that.