RAFAEL BENITEZ admits he is “concerned” by Newcastle’s nose-diving form, but will be stressing to his players that they still have their promotion fate firmly in their own hands.
Today's 3-1 defeat to Ipswich means the Magpies have now picked up just one point from their last three games, but Huddersfield’s failure to beat Derby means they are six points clear of their closest rivals, Reading.
Huddersfield continue to boast a game in hand, but Benitez’s side now need to claim just five points from their final three games to guarantee promotion.
A repeat of today’s performance could yet undermine their hopes, with Newcastle having been comprehensively outplayed by an Ipswich team who were claiming back-to-back victories for the first time this season.
While Daryl Murphy’s second-half equaliser briefly threatened to spark a fightback, the Magpies’ defensive frailties were exposed repeatedly as goals from Freddie Sears, David McGoldrick and Emyr Huws condemned them to defeat.
Having played reasonably impressively in Friday night’s draw with Leeds, this was a return to the kind of performance that saw Newcastle deservedly beaten in their previous away game at Sheffield Wednesday, and Benitez admits their lack of consistency is becoming alarming.
“I am concerned about the change of the team, in terms of the performance against Leeds and then our performance today,” said the Magpies manager. “That is the only thing I am thinking about. We know that we have to win games to do our job, so we will have to change and improve a lot.
“We knew it could be this kind of game today. I thought that we were ready, but it seems that we were not. We were not focused and mentally ready.
“When we were reacting, we scored the goal, and it seemed that we had more control of the game, but then we made another mistake. We are making some mistakes, and we are paying for that.”
Newcastle paid a high price for their individual errors, with Matt Ritchie conceding possession cheaply in the build up to Ipswich’s first goal and Karl Darlow’s miscued clearance enabling Mick McCarthy’s side to reclaim the lead midway through the second half.
“In both of the last two away games, we have been punished for our mistakes,” said Benitez. “That is it. They are mistakes that we were not normally making. When we played at home (against Leeds), we had so many chances to win, but then we made another mistake and conceded. We have to learn from that.”
Cutting out individual errors would be a start, but Newcastle also need to eradicate the general nervousness that characterised their performance at Portman Road.
Having looked promotion certainties for the vast majority of the season, Benitez’s side are suffering a crisis of confidence at the worst possible moment, and their hugely-experienced manager concedes a lack of end-of-season nous could be hampering their efforts.
Brighton guaranteed themselves a place in the Premier League yesterday, having missed out in the play-offs last season. Chris Hughton’s side boast a host of players with extensive experience of life in a promotion race; Newcastle are badly lacking in that department.
“Brighton have been in this situation challenging for promotion four times in the last five years,” said Benitez. “This is the fifth time that they have been in this position. Does that make a difference? It is simple.
“But we all have to take responsibility. We win together and we lose together, and now we have to be sure that in the next game, we will win together.”
That next game will see Newcastle host Preston on Monday, with their two other matches taking them to Cardiff before Barnsley visit St James’ Park on the final day of the season.
Five points from a possible nine will guarantee the Magpies a place in the top-flight thanks to their excellent goal difference, and for all that yesterday’s result and performance have understandably set the alarm bells ringing, Newcastle continue to be masters of their own destiny.
“It is still in our hands – it still all depends on us,” said Benitez. “We have to win the first game first though, then after that we can start thinking about the other two.
“I thought at half-time that we could do it (against Ipswich), even though we were 1-0 down. I had confidence because so many games have proved we can do it. It is difficult to explain (why they lost). We will analyse, but that is the reality.
“I am not a manager that will be blaming players here in the press conference. We know what I told them at half-time and at the end, we know that something was wrong - now we have to analyse this and change quickly. We have played so many good games during the season – now we have to get back to playing at the level we were playing at before.”