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International break comes at the right time for bruised Newcastle United

Thursday 23rd March 2017
Saturday's 0-0 draw at struggling Birmingham City marked the first time this season that Newcastle United have gone without a win in three consecutive league games. The Championship leaders are showing signs of stuttering to the finish line with eight games to go.
After taking maximum points from nearest title rivals Brighton and Huddersfield in late February and early March, Newcastle looked set to finally pull away from the chasing pack. However subsequent stalemates at Reading and now Birmingham, sandwiched in-between a 3-1 loss at home to Fulham, has breathed new life into the race for automatic promotion, and the Championship title, once again.

Thankfully for Newcastle, both Huddersfield and Brighton both dropped points this weekend, with the former losing 4-0 to relegation candidates Bristol City and the latter losing 2-0 away to Leeds United.

This means that seven points separate first placed Newcastle from third-placed Huddersfield, who have a game in hand. Brighton are still only a point behind in second.

With quiet worry over this sudden stumble in form, the international break has become a kind distraction for the North-East club, who now don't take to the field again until 1 April when they host second-bottom Wigan Athletic.

The 14-day break gives the senior squad time to clear their heads after an intense schedule that has seen 38 games of the 46 already completed by mid-March.

Despite boasting the most impressive squad in the Championship, Rafa Benitez's side has shown signs of frailty that such a long season inevitably provides.

Both Vurnon Anita and Paul Dummett battled through injuries to play on Saturday, whilst the likes of Isaac Hayden, DeAndre Yedlin and now Grant Hanley are all currently sidelined.

More significant, however, is the loss of top scorer Dwight Gayle, who has struggled on and off with injury since January. The 26-year old was named on the bench Saturday and made an unsuccessful cameo appearance as Newcastle failed to break down a resilient Birmingham team. In his absence, Ireland's Daryl Murphy has admirably led the line but it is clear that the team miss their primary weapon of attack in the dynamic Gayle.
In addition, Newcastle's most creative player, Jonjo Shelvey has racked up a whopping 2,754 minutes of game time this season in league fixtures alone and was withdrawn after 13 of those against Fulham before coming on as a late sub at Birmingham with concerns over his match fitness.

The pair, along with winger Matt Ritchie, are viewed as the club's most valuable assets and their immediate contributions will be vital as Newcastle look to reach the finish line in May with both hands on the league title.

Crucially, five of the remaining eight games will be at St. James' Park, including the crunch visit of promotion hopefuls Leeds United. Away from home, sixth-placed Sheffield Wednesday is the standout fixture as they look to reach Wembley for the second consecutive season.

If Newcastle can reinvigorate themselves and navigate their way through these fixtures, as well as picking up maximum points against the likes of Wigan, Burton, and Ipswich, then promotion should be assured.

Then again, nothing is ever assured in the Championship.
John Howell

A graduate of Media & Cultural Studies from the University of West of England, I am a 26-year-old sports fanatic based in Bristol and an avid supporter of Newcastle United. I have written for several sites before joining It's Round and It's White and although I write primarily on the subject of football, you can catch me playing rugby on the weekends, no pun intended.

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