NEWCASTLE have assumed pole position in the race for the Champions League but there remains a distance still to cover.
Tottenham and Chelsea are now playing catch-up but Alan Pardew has been keen to counsel caution in case Tyneside gets carried away.
However, they must now be regarded as favourites. Here are five factors in Newcastle’s favour as they look to close out a fantastic season with a Champions League place.
NEWCASTLE'S is a perilously difficult run-in.
After a dangerous trip to Wigan this weekend it is three of the top seven standing in the way of United and a Champions League place – and even in top form it would be astounding to get any more than seven out of the available 12 points.
But the difficulty of their fixture list will focus minds and guard against United’s great enemy: complacency. It will also ensure an electric atmosphere for the visit of Manchester City in a game that provides the most intriguing of Newcastle’s final few contests.
The narrative seems to be that if Roberto Mancini’s millionaires beat Manchester United on Monday they are champions elect. But what that cosy tale seems to neglect is a trip to St James’ Park that will be particularly treacherous. It is ten games since United lost at home – and 426 minutes have passed since the last goal was conceded on home turf.
With relegation, title and Champions League issues, three of these final four opponents have prizes to play for that they dare not lose. In-form Newcastle have already overachieved, so the pressure is off.
DO you remember when Hatem Ben Arfa was a riddle wrapped inside an enigma? He might only have been a fixture in the starting line-up since mid-March but those days already seem a long time ago.
Nobody ever doubted Ben Arfa’s ability but he is now producing it consistently in a system that has been tweaked to bring out the best in him. It is a measure of Alan Pardew’s faith in the French maestro that he has moved to a 4-3-3 – but it is also a reflection of his breathtaking ability.
It is said that Pardew gave the France midfielder a DVD of a Barcelona game and told him to ignore the technique and brilliance on show and watch the leg work put in when the European champions didn’t have the ball. The message has clearly been received.
At the moment, there is no creative force in the top flight as potent as Ben Arfa. It was once said about him that he had the talent to play for any team in the world if he put his mind to it. The good news for Tyneside is that time seems to have arrived.
ALAN Pardew’s greatest strength is his ingenuity. United have evolved over the course of the season from the defensive-minded 4-4-2 that started the season against Arsenal.
Now they are nearer Pardew’s initial vision of a team that presses and presses, putting teams on the back foot. And they possess goal threat in abundance, with January signing Papiss Demba Cissé in absolutely irresistible form.
But the key to making the 4-3-3 work is not Cissé and his attacking menace or Ben Arfa and his brio and imagination – it is the continuing commitment of Demba Ba.
Ba has 16 goals this season but if anything, his selfless performances since Cissé’s arrival have impressed even more. On Saturday Stoke had no answer to his industry and workrate, and while his goal didn’t come he was a gigantic part of Newcastle’s winning effort.
You can see that it is hurting the Senegal star to be on such a prolonged barren run, but his endeavours are a big part of why Cissé is scoring so freely.
Forget sensationalist talk of him being fed up or the amateur lip readers – Ba’s leadership, endeavour and lack of ego is making this 4-3-3 tick.
HOWEVER this season ends, Alan Pardew must be rewarded with the manager of the year award.
To take Newcastle from simply keeping their heads above water to making waves in the European race is quite some achievement. He has done it through taking care of the little details – last week’s invitation to the Newcastle Eagles a prime example of an ingenious way of relieving the pressure – to showing little fear when taking the big decisions.
His substitutions are almost always spot on, too.
Behind every great general there is a crop of fine lieutenants and John Carver deserves a huge amount of credit too.
His day-to-day work on the training ground is consistently praised and he has experience of Newcastle in the Champions League.
UNITED have done it themselves in the race for the Champions League but it helps to have a bit of outside assistance.
That is just what they’ve got with the implosion of Tottenham, which can be laid fairly and squarely at the door of England manager-elect Harry Redknapp.
In mid-February Redknapp cut a particularly self-satisfied figure when he was being congratulated by all and sundry for swatting Newcastle aside 5-0 just after his acquittal on tax charges. However much he tries to suggest the opposite, he has clearly taken his eye off the ball in the meantime.
His latest proclamation – that Newcastle will run out of momentum in the final weeks of the season – seems bizarre and peculiarly ill-advised. He gives the impression of a man who’d rather be planning for Euro 2012, and that can only be good news for United.
At this juncture, Tottenham look a spent force. It would take some revival to get them back in the running.
And there’s another reason, Lionel Messi re-discovering his shooting boots.
The threat from Kings Road is two-fold. Chelsea could yet finish fourth or even – unbelievably – below Newcastle and win the Champions League.
It still seems unlikely but Barcelona weren’t great in El Clasico and Chelsea believe they have the Indian sign over them. We must hope Barca boss Pep Guardiola is on his game at the Nou Camp tonight to ensure a top-four finish is definitely enough.
Saturday, Stoke (a)
May 5, Norwich (h)
May 13, West Brom (a)
Saturday, Wigan (a)
May 2, Chelsea (a)
May 6, Manchester City (h)
May 13, Everton (a)
Saturday, Blackburn (h)
May 2, Bolton (a)
May 6, Aston Villa (a)
May 13, Fulham (h)
Saturday, QPR (h)
May 2, Newcastle (h)
May 8, Liverpool (a)
May 13, Blackburn (h)