The Chronicle's Newcastle United reporter Chris Waugh gives us the lowdown on Rafa Benitez's side ahead of Southampton's trip to St James' Park...
What is the current mood like at the club as the season edges closer to its conclusion?
There was a bit of nervousness on Tyneside after the surprise 1-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace earlier this month - but the Magpies’ relegation fears were all but ended with an excellent 1-0 victory away at Leicester City last time out. It was Newcastle’s first away win since mid-December, and it moved United on to the 38-point mark which manager Rafa Benitez had previously declared would be enough for safety. No-one on Tyneside realistically expects Newcastle to go down now, so it’s very much a case of planning for the Premier League next season. Sorting out Benitez’s contract situation is essential - because, alongside the question marks over whether Mike Ashley is going to remain owner long term, there is too much uncertainty on Tyneside at the moment. Fans want a greater degree of clarity.
It is mooted that Rafa Benitez could sign a new deal in the coming weeks. How much of a boost would that provide given the job he’s done?
I’m not sure we’re quite at the stage yet where we can conclusively state that Benitez will be Newcastle manager next season, but we are certainly heading in that direction. The 59-year-old wants to stay at St James’ Park and eventually turn Newcastle into a regular top-eight club, but he will only commit his long-term future to the club if he genuinely believes the hierarchy match his own ambitions. Negotiations are on-going, and I do hope a positive resolution can be reached before the end of the campaign, so that fans can head into the off-season with at least some clarify on the future direction of the club. Supporters desperately want Benitez to stay - and he would ideally like to as well - so it would be incomprehensible for them to currently consider a future without the Spaniard at the helm. It is up to the club’s hierarchy to ensure that is a reality, however, by offering him the reassurances he is seeking.
Who have been the key men for Newcastle in recent weeks, and what sort of impact has January signing Miguel Almiron made?
Newcastle’s front three have thrived over the past three months - and that is largely down to Almiron and the impact the Paraguayan has made since joining from Atlanta United in January. Almiron has helped transform Newcastle as an attacking outfit, and that has created space and opportunities for his fellow strike partners Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez. The trio have been affectionately nicknamed ‘the Three Amigos’ by United fans, given that they are all Spanish speakers, and they have complemented each other nicely. At St James’ Park in particular, Rondon and Perez have been finding the net with regularity since Almiron arrived, thanks to the assists and space created by their new teammate.
The Paraguayan playmaker himself could do with a goal, however, because, although he is playing well, he is snatching at chances and looks desperate to score. Newcastle fans will see the best of Almiron next term once he has a full pre-season with his team-mates under his belt, but supporters are already excited by the glimpses of his undoubted talent they have seen so far.
What sort of game are you expecting?
With both Southampton and Newcastle on the brink of safety, I am hoping for a relatively open and entertaining affair. The Saints like to press high, which should allow Newcastle to play the style which they prefer by getting the ball from front to back as quickly as possible - while Southampton will believe they have an opportunity to steal possession in the United half and cause the home sides problems. I do think there will be goals in it, and I am tipping Newcastle to win 2-1 in what should hopefully be a typical end-of-the season game during which both teams feel free to play in an open and expansive way.