AFTER another weekend spent bullying hapless opponents at St James’ Park, Newcastle United may have landed a psychological blow to one of the pretenders for the title they covet.
For some time now, the Championship title race has looked like a three-way contest between West Bromwich Albion, Nottingham Forest and the Magpies.
But now the manager of one of those sides, West Brom’s Roberto Di Matteo, admits Newcastle could be out of sight by April.
Acknowledging what is becoming a widely-held view, the manager of arguably the division’s best football side believes Chris Hughton’s men have an “extra gear” compared to their rivals.
After surrendering the 10-point lead built up by December, United have entered March having almost rebuilt it although West Brom’s 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday last night keeps them six points behind the Magpies.
And Newcastle’s form appears to have sown seeds of doubt in the mind of former Chelsea midfielder Di Matteo.
“I have been saying for a while now that it is probably going to go down to the last few games,” he said. “But I think this month will probably be decisive in terms of Newcastle pulling away or not. If you look at their squad they have a gear more than anyone else.”
The Baggies have no further chances to disrupt Newcastle’s momentum, having drawn both league meetings between the pair. Before last night’s matches Forest were the only top-six side United were yet to face. They meet in a televised St James’ clash on March 29.
In a league praised for the unpredictability of its results, the destination of this season’s title is looking increasingly inevitable.
“Swansea are still hanging in there and Leicester and Cardiff aren’t far off,” said Di Matteo of the sides currently in the play-off positions. “It’s difficult to say because there are still a lot of points to be played for and this crazy league teaches us that crazy things happen.”
Meanwhile, Joey Barton will not be rushed back into the team despite taking an initial step on the comeback trail this week.
The controversial midfielder played the first half of a behind-closed-doors friendly against Hibernian on Monday. It was the first football the England international has played since breaking his foot at home to Plymouth Argyle in September. Afterwards manager Hughton was already talking about the 27-year-old’s next game – but it too will be away from the heat of competition. “We will look to see what other games are available for Joey,” he commented. “We’re pleased he’s played 45 minutes of the game with Hibs and he came through it comfortably.
“He now has to continue training and we’ll see what other games he can play in.”
Not that Hughton will be in the least bit concerned, but Barton is in danger of missing out on the winner’s medal which seems to be heading the way of his team-mates. The former Manchester City player has featured in only six league matches this term.
Getting fit is only part of the puzzle for Barton. Once he has convinced Hughton he is up to the rigours of Championship football, his next task will be to break into a winning side.
Alan Smith and Kevin Nolan have formed a formidable central midfield partnership this season, but Danny Guthrie’s form when he has deputised there – most notably in his man-of-the-match performance in Saturday’s 6-1 hammering of Barnsley – is threatening that.
If Barton can get past those three he then has the small matter of Newcastle’s captain and one of English football’s most decorated players – Nicky Butt – to displace.
Ryan Taylor, Leon Best, Fitz Hall and Nile Ranger also played against the Hibees.