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Relegation Watch 2013: Newcastle Better Off Than They Look

Newcastle are six points clear of the relegation zone with eight matches left to play. That's not as bad as it sounds.

Steve Bardens

A fortnight ago, Newcastle had an opportunity set before them: a match with a team inside the relegation zone and a chance to put relegation talk out of sight and out of mind, seemingly for good. Alas, it was an abomination. Massadio Haidara was legally assaulted before Wigan used a blatant handball to score a stoppage time goal, winning the game and stealing three points. (We should also mention that Newcastle only managed to score one goal against a team that has now allowed 56 through 29 matches. There are only so many ways to earn points when you find the back of the net just once.) Instead, we find ourselves treading water once again. Just out of reach of the relegation zone so as not to cause a panic, but the wrong combination of results could send them into a tailspin.

Plc Team GP GR Pts GF GA GD ExPts PrPts
10 Fulham 29 9 36 40 44 -4 36.9 47.5
11 Stoke City 30 8 34 27 35 -8 34 43.1
12 Norwich City
30 8 34 28 46 -18 28.6 41.6
13 Newcastle 30 8 33 41 52 -11 34.7 42.3
14 West Ham 29 9 33 32 43 -11 32.1 43
15 Sunderland 30 8 31 33 42 -9 34.5 40.2
16 Southampton 30 8 31 42 52 -10 35.3 40.4
17 Aston Villa 30 8 30 31 56 -25 26.6 37.1
18 Wigan Athletic
29 9 27 35 56 -21 28.3 35.8
19 Reading 30 8 23 35 57 -22 28.9 30.7
20 QPR 30 8 23 26 48 -22 26.1 30

As always, ExPts and PrPts are based on Pythagorean Expectation, which is itself based on goal differential. The former number is the reasonable number of points a team can expect to have achieved at this point of the season, based on their goals scored for and against. The latter figure is that value scaled to a 38-game season, using existing point totals. In short, it's how many points they can reasonably expect to obtain if they continue to score and concede at the same pace.

As we mentioned above, Newcastle seem to be one bad weekend away from imminent danger, which is sort of a silly way to say that if things go wrong, they are close to things going wrong. It's not as bad as it seems. Our minds can play cruel tricks on us. It's easy to glance at the fixture list, see Manchester City looming, and think, "If they can't pull off a stunner, they're right back down with Aston Villa. That's only three points above the drop. This is quite perilous indeed." Well, imaginary narrator, that's not exactly the case. If Newcastle go out and lose 8-0 this weekend, they do not lose points. They'll still have all 33. A child understands this, but for some reason our brains go crazy when something as devastating as relegation is at stake. Maybe we hear "dropped points" and the subconscious fills in the rest. I don't know. But it is important to point out that the onus is on Queens Park Rangers, Wigan, etc, to catch up to Newcastle, not the other way around. Not only must they count on teams above them to drop points, they must in turn take advantage of that opening and steal some of their own. A six point gap is a lot larger than it appears. We're talking about teams that average a point or less per match. Earning six points in an eight game span will almost be something of an accomplishment, let alone catching a team six points in front.

Also, just to continue to assuage fears, we've noted all along that position is as important as place. The more teams there are in between you and the drop zone, the more things have to go wrong for things to go wrong. The current standing of 13th place is admittedly a tenuous one, since West Ham have a game in hand. Still, there are plenty of teams with more to worry about than Newcastle. I think that's important to remember.

Newcastle only have three matches left against teams below them in the table (counting West Ham), so they would do well to steal some points from their more accomplished opponents. Happily, three out of the five matches remaining against the top half are at home. The road has not been kind at all to the Magpies this season. Perhaps playing at home in front of a crowd excited about the team's performance in Europe will give them the edge they need to achieve some famous results and put this feature out of its misery for good.