Newcastle, Fulham and Brighton: the battle to avoid Premier League drop

Sport

Brighton P29, Pts 32
Reasons to be cheerful Crucial wins against Southampton and Newcastle before the international break have eased the pressure on Graham Potter significantly after a disastrous run that yielded one point from five matches. The 3-0 thumping of Newcastle – only Brighton’s fourth victory at the Amex since December 2019 – was particularly important given it has helped establish a six‑point cushion with nine games to go and showed that this team can have a cutting edge.

Before the defeat by Crystal Palace at the end of February threw them off course, Brighton had gone six matches unbeaten in the Premier League and looked like a team making progress. The challenge is whether they can pick up where they left off against Newcastle.

Reasons to be fearful A daunting run-in, starting on Sunday, that includes trips to Old Trafford and then Stamford Bridge before hosting Manchester City at home on the final day means that Brighton’s Premier League status is far from assured. The break came at the worst possible moment for Potter’s players given the momentum they had gained and it is up to the manager to ensure that his squad is prepared to dig deep once more. Home matches against Everton, Leeds and West Ham could be vital if both Brighton’s rivals can catch them, although form at the Amex has hardly been a strong point for this side.

Key player Leandro Trossard doubled his Premier League goal tally for the season in the space of six days against Southampton and Newcastle, and the Belgium forward also scored twice in his country’s 8-0 thrashing of Belarus in a World Cup qualifier – the first time he had started for the senior side. Signed from Genk in 2019, the 26-year-old has shown glimpses of his talent for Brighton and Belgium without quite fulfilling his obvious potential. But a developing understanding with Neal Maupay and Danny Welbeck has helped Trossard to flourish at club level as he attempts to force his way into Roberto Martínez’s star-studded team. Not scoring consistently has been a regular criticism and surpassing last season’s total of five goals and helping Brighton move up the table would certainly catch the eye of the Belgium manager.EA

Newcastle United P29, Pts 28
Reasons to be cheerful The imminent return to fitness of Allan Saint-Maximin represents a rare chink of sunlight amid an otherwise forbiddingly leaden sky. His expected reunion with Miguel Almirón in Steve Bruce’s attack offers hope of goals and points, pace and creativity, though Callum Wilson’s return has been delayed. Maybe, just maybe, they can paper over the cracks in other areas and ensure relegation is averted.

Reasons to be fearful Where to start? After winning two of their past 20 games in all competitions Newcastle have become estranged from victory. Even worse, Isaac Hayden, their midfield anchor, is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury and the dressing room is fractious. Some players have lost faith in Bruce and there was astonishment that the manager was not sacked after last month’s abject 3-0 defeat at Brighton. In a Newcastle Evening Chronicle poll, 95% of participants wanted him out – but a 60-year-old due a £4m payoff in the event of dismissal will limp on.

On-field confusion is exacerbated by Bruce apparently harbouring a different tactical vision to that of Graeme Jones, the coach parachuted in to assist him in January. Then there is the final game of the season: the trip to Fulham at Craven Cottage is precisely the sort of fixture Newcastle specialise in losing. The retail magnate Mike Ashley has a reputation as a gambler but, even by his standards, the Newcastle owner is taking an almighty risk in declining to dispense with Bruce.

Key player They say no one is indispensable but, without Callum Wilson’s contribution, Newcastle would long since have booked a place in the Championship. Bruce’s team have failed to win a single league fixture this season without the 29-year-old and have missed him desperately since his hamstring trouble in early February. The former Bournemouth striker has scored 10 of the team’s 28 league goals and tops the assists charts after creating a further five. It is no exaggeration to say Newcastle’s survival hopes hinge on his fitness. LT

Fulham P30, Pts 26
Reasons to be cheerful Fulham are unrecognisable from the shoddy side that reeked of naivety at the start of the season. They looked certain to go straight back down when they surrendered at home to Aston Villa in September, but Scott Parker has never been one to shy from a challenge. The manager was determined not to endure a repeat of Fulham’s miserable relegation two seasons ago and has improved his side’s durability, tactical intelligence and passing.

The transformation owes much to shrewd coaching from Parker. The 40-year-old has made some smart additions. Joachim Andersen has been a leader in central defence since joining on loan from Lyon, helping the inexperienced Tosin Adarabioyo, and Harrison Reed has formed an effective partnership with André-Frank Zambo Anguissa in midfield.

Zambo Anguissa is no longer seen as an expensive flop. Parker has given everyone a chance to impress and has built a united squad. Fulham, unbeaten in eight away games, do not roll over easily. They fought back to draw 1-1 at Tottenham, played Everton off the park when they won 2-0 at Goodison Park, and were bold when they beat Liverpool at Anfield. Two points below Newcastle, they can escape.

Reasons to be fearful Look at their position. Despite all the positives Fulham remain in the bottom three and time is running out. Frustratingly for Parker, they did not build on that memorable win over Liverpool. Although being thrashed by Manchester City in their next game was understandable, losing 2-1 at home to Leeds before the international break could prove costly. Presented with a chance to climb above Newcastle, Fulham froze, defending poorly and failing to take their chances. They are not ruthless enough in attack. Their deficiencies in the final third leaves the defence under a lot of pressure and they have wasted a lot of winnable games, squandering leads in draws with West Brom and Burnley and enduring dull stalemates with Brighton and Crystal Palace.

Fulham have to be more clinical. They need more from Ruben Loftus‑Cheek, Ivan Cavaleiro, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Josh Maja, who has not scored since a double against Everton after joining on loan from Bordeaux in January. Better finishing is imperative.

Key player Ademola Lookman has often provided inspiration since his botched penalty against West Ham in November. Fulham need him tormenting full-backs with his pace and trickery. JS