Newcastle United hold the edge as they look to see out a memorable season. Chief sports writer Mark Douglas has five key reasons why the flying Magpies are heading back to Europe's big time.
NEWCASTLE have assumed pole position in the race for the Champions League but there remains a distance still to cover.
Tottenham and Chelsea are now playing catch-up but Alan Pardew has been keen to counsel caution in case Tyneside gets carried away.
However, they must now be regarded as favourites. Here are five factors in Newcastle’s favour as they look to close out a fantastic season with a Champions League place.
NEWCASTLE'S is a perilously difficult run-in.
After a dangerous trip to Wigan this weekend it is three of the top seven standing in the way of United and a Champions League place – and even in top form it would be astounding to get any more than seven out of the available 12 points.
But the difficulty of their fixture list will focus minds and guard against United’s great enemy: complacency. It will also ensure an electric atmosphere for the visit of Manchester City in a game that provides the most intriguing of Newcastle’s final few contests.
The narrative seems to be that if Roberto Mancini’s millionaires beat Manchester United on Monday they are champions elect. But what that cosy tale seems to neglect is a trip to St James’ Park that will be particularly treacherous. It is ten games since United lost at home – and 426 minutes have passed since the last goal was conceded on home turf.
With relegation, title and Champions League issues, three of these final four opponents have prizes to play for that they dare not lose. In-form Newcastle have already overachieved, so the pressure is off.
DO you remember when Hatem Ben Arfa was a riddle wrapped inside an enigma? He might only have been a fixture in the starting line-up since mid-March but those days already seem a long time ago.
Nobody ever doubted Ben Arfa’s ability but he is now producing it consistently in a system that has been tweaked to bring out the best in him. It is a measure of Alan Pardew’s faith in the French maestro that he has moved to a 4-3-3 – but it is also a reflection of his breathtaking ability.
It is said that Pardew gave the France midfielder a DVD of a Barcelona game and told him to ignore the technique and brilliance on show and watch the leg work put in when the European champions didn’t have the ball. The message has clearly been received.
At the moment, there is no creative force in the top flight as potent as Ben Arfa. It was once said about him that he had the talent to play for any team in the world if he put his mind to it. The good news for Tyneside is that time seems to have arrived.
ALAN Pardew’s greatest strength is his ingenuity. United have evolved over the course of the season from the defensive-minded 4-4-2 that started the season against Arsenal.
Now they are nearer Pardew’s initial vision of a team that presses and presses, putting teams on the back foot. And they possess goal threat in abundance, with January signing Papiss Demba Cissé in absolutely irresistible form.
But the key to making the 4-3-3 work is not Cissé and his attacking menace or Ben Arfa and his brio and imagination – it is the continuing commitment of Demba Ba.
Ba has 16 goals this season but if anything, his selfless performances since Cissé’s arrival have impressed even more. On Saturday Stoke had no answer to his industry and workrate, and while his goal didn’t come he was a gigantic part of Newcastle’s winning effort.
You can see that it is hurting the Senegal star to be on such a prolonged barren run, but his endeavours are a big part of why Cissé is scoring so freely.
Forget sensationalist talk of him being fed up or the amateur lip readers – Ba’s leadership, endeavour and lack of ego is making this 4-3-3 tick.