Have Newcastle underachieved despite being poised for promotion to Premier League?
By Andrew Dickson
Last Updated: 20/04/17 5:19pm
Despite assembling one of the most expensive squads in England, Newcastle are set to miss out on the Championship title.
Should Brighton win at Norwich on Friday, Chris Hughton's side will win the division and Newcastle would have to go for second place, which they can seal on Monday if they defeat Preston and other results go their way.
While Premier League riches are arguably a bigger prize than the title itself, could Newcastle have done more?
In the beginning
Following relegation last season, Newcastle's key aim was to go straight back up and they are about to do exactly that.
That is not much of a surprise. While we have seen Rafael Benitez win major trophies more recently, he went through several second-tier campaigns first.
After spells at that level with Real Madrid B and Osasuna, he led both Extremadura and Tenerife into La Liga.
Although many Newcastle fans will stress - correctly - the aim was promotion, Benitez clearly wanted silverware.
Before the season, he said: "I like to win in almost everything. My wife tells me I don't even allow my daughters to win when we play cards or something.
"I like to win in the right way if it's possible, so I will try to be sure I am ready and to enjoy it. It will be difficult, but sometimes because it's difficult when you win it's much better."
Benitez's confidence - and confidence in Benitez - was reflected in how much the Newcastle boss spent in the summer.
The Spaniard parted with £54.1m, the most notable arrivals being Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie, who signed for a combined £22m.
The club made over £80m in sales, but their outlay gave them the most expensively-assembled Championship pool in history.
With the highest wage bill too, their spending was greater than that of 13 Premier League clubs.
There was plenty of optimism on Tyneside, with Mark Jensen - of Newcastle fanzine The Mag - telling skysports.com last August: "Most fans don't see promotion as a formality.
"But the reality is remaining in the Championship more than one season would be a failure. Rafa Benitez will not fail."
Newcastle went into the season at 7/4 to win the Championship, the shortest odds ever given at that level.
With two matches gone, the table did not look the way many of their fans had envisaged.
Starting with a 1-0 defeat at Fulham was disappointing but following up with a 2-1 home loss to Huddersfield was worse.
That left them 17th and Benitez's side responded the way you would expect title challengers to: with five consecutive wins taking them second, a point behind early pacesetters Huddersfield.
Yet from there Newcastle proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot, losing 2-0 at home to Wolves then drawing 1-1 at Aston Villa and falling back to fifth. A lack of consistency was notable.
Newcastle finally found momentum and from late September showed the sort of form which wins titles.
A 4-3 victory over Norwich at St James' Park was a turning point, not just for the result but how it was achieved.
Trailing 3-2 four minutes into stoppage time, they scored twice to win 4-3 and further successes came against Rotherham and Brentford before a 2-0 win at Barnsley sent Newcastle top.
Another quartet of wins reinforced their position at the summit so much they were still there after defeats to Blackburn and Nottingham Forest.
Indeed, they only fell briefly into second at the start of January before moving back up and have spent more time leading than anyone else.
With back-to-back wins at their closest challengers Brighton and Huddersfield leaving them eight points clear having played once more by March 4, the title was Newcastle's to lose.
Where it went wrong
Even after a 0-0 draw at Reading - which allowed Brighton to make up two points - Newcastle were still the clear favourites.
Three days later, the Sky Sports predictor - which uses an algorithm to rank results, previous displays and the difficulty of upcoming games - gave them a 68 per cent chance of the title.
Brighton's prospects came in at 29 per cent but as they won six of their next seven matches to guarantee a top-two place, Newcastle crumbled.
Brighton have been persistent opponents and their current haul of 92 points would be enough to win seven of the previous 10 Championship titles.
Even so, Newcastle gave way too easily, taking just nine points from a possible 24 and winning just twice.
Championship top six - form in last eight games
|Team||Won||Drawn||Lost||For||Against||Points||Form table position|
|Sheff Wed (5th)||4||2||2||9||8||14||6th|
United are 17th over the last eight matches but four of the other five in the top six - Brighton, Fulham, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday - are in the top six of the form table.
While they have found a rhythm at the most crucial time, Newcastle have lost theirs in spectacular fashion.
Overall, home results have been a big issue. Of the current top eight, Newcastle's results in home games are the second worst.
Although they have enjoyed wins at home and away against Brighton, they also lost both of their fixtures with Fulham and Wednesday as well as relegation-threatened Blackburn.
An over-reliance on Gayle and Ritchie's goals has been clear too, especially when the former has suffered injury issues recently.
Championship top eight - home results only
|Team||Played||Won||Drawn||Lost||For||Against||Points||Home win %|
|Sheff Wed (5th)||21||14||2||5||33||19||44||66.67|
A better start or run-in would have given Newcastle real fulfilment and their failure to go up as convincing champions lends weight to the argument they have underachieved.