Newcastle United fell to their sixth defeat of the season against Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day and also failed to hold onto top spot after Brighton & Hove Albion overtook them the following day.
This was also Newcastle’s second defeat in a month and came as no surprise as they had previously struggled past Burton Albion the week before.
The team, however, did enjoy success against a poor Wigan Athletic side and a lacklustre Birmingham City but fans of the Magpies demand the best from their side no matter who the opponent is.
In the coming weeks, they have a mixed bag regarding fixtures. At the time of writing Rafa Benitez’s side face Blackburn Rovers, Brentford, Rotherham and finally Brighton & Hove Albion all in January.
The big game in the list of fixtures is against Brighton & Hove Albion – their title rivals.
Brighton are now just a point adrift of The Magpies making the game at the Amex Stadium a “six-pointer” as both sides chase the Championship title and more importantly a return to the top flight.
Despite the battle between Brighton and Benitez’s men, there is still Reading who are hot on the tails of the two front runners.
With Reading eight points off 2nd placed Brighton, they’re also in contention for a place in the top two.
Apart from the hectic schedule, Newcastle have in the league; they also have an F.A Cup fixture against Birmingham City in January.
Rafa Benitez will have to utilise his full squad in a bid to keep his players fresh due to the team’s upcoming fixtures. However, Benitez is a firm believer of rotation and has stated how he wants to bring a trophy to St. James’s Park after a barren run of 61 years without a major trophy so that the F.A Cup will take some priority in Newcastle’s plans this season.
Newcastle, despite an ever so slight slump in performances, will be hoping to keep the wins coming in the next month. Benitez has hinted at a change to a 4-4-2 when playing in front of the Newcastle faithful; with the likes of Aleksandar Mitrović pushing to make more first team appearances in the famous black and white stripes.
However, with Dwight Gayle in such impressive form and Mo Diame finding his feet again, it will be hard to drop the pair as Benitez favours the 4-4-1-1 formation. Both players have been in brilliant form recently as Diame has two goals in his past three games but his strength and vision allow Gayle to find space and finish clinically; as he has done all season.
Gayle has been vital to how Newcastle play this season as he tops the goalscoring charts with 19 goals.
Gayle is always a firm favourite to score with the bookies as he averages a goal every 91 minutes, which is equal to a goal a game.
The former Crystal Palace striker also boasts an impressive 67% shots on target throughout this season and is one of the reasons Newcastle find themselves in such a strong position.
Benitez will be hoping to keep Gayle fit throughout January, but he will have to look at his alternatives, as Diame will be travelling with Senegal to represent his country at the African Cup of Nations in January. This is quite a blow to Newcastle and Benitez alike.
Ultimately, Newcastle have to continue the form they experienced at the end of September through to mid-November when The Magpies went on a winning streak of eight games.
If they can focus on winning the next five games, the title hopefuls can keep the pressure on Brighton and possibly overtake the Seagulls if they manage to secure victory over them at the end of the month.
But if the wins keep coming for the South Coast outfit then they can put space between themselves and Reading who are in 3rd place.
Newcastle will obviously be hoping to win the league, but I am sure they will be more than happy with an automatic promotion to the Premier League at the first time of asking and showing the rest of the league how they have bounced back since their relegation.