Newcastle extended their unbeaten run to 17 league games with a 1-1 draw against Bournemouth on Saturday, but it would have undoubtedly felt like defeat to those who made the 350-mile trip down to the south coast.
Leicester’s 4-1 battering of Tottenham presented Eddie Howe’s side with a golden opportunity to stretch their lead over the top four chasers, with the Magpies still in pole position to qualify for the Champions League in what would be a historic season.
Of course, nobody likes losing, and draws can be an excellent way of masking disappointment, especially when coming from behind. Howe has forged a resolute and compact unit at St James’ Park and his side rarely know when to accept defeat.
Yet, despite losing just once this season so far, Newcastle have drawn half of their 22 matches, dropping two points almost a dozen times.
The one-point specialists are only one poor performance away from falling out of the top four as a result, with Spurs two points away despite losing seven more matches than the Magpies this term.
Few Newcastle fans would have genuinely expected to finish in the top four at the start of the campaign, but given Tottenham’s hot and cold form, Liverpool’s horror season and Chelsea’s on-field issues, the prospect of Champions League qualification is firmly within their grasp.
Perhaps even more pressing, Newcastle need to build positive momentum ahead of their blockbuster Carabao Cup final against Manchester United later this month, which presents the club with their first chance of lifting major domestic silverware since winning the FA Cup in 1955.
Faced with the most important second half of a season since 1995-96, when Kevin Keegan’s side fell agonisingly short of Premier League glory to Manchester United, it is perhaps surprising Newcastle chose not to dig deep into their Saudi-funded war chest in January, making just one signing in £45million man Anthony Gordon.
While their defence continues to look solid, the Magpies are inevitably leaking the odd goal here or there – and they are simply not scoring enough down the other end to win matches comfortably.
With that in mind, Sportsmail takes a look at the key concerns facing Howe ahead of the Carabao Cup final and Premier League run-in.
It’s fair to say that without Miguel Almiron’s goal-scoring heroics this season, Newcastle would be significantly lower down the table.
The Paraguayan has netted 10 times for the Magpies in by far his best season sporting black and white, accounting for almost a third of his side’s goals so far.
Despite struggling with inconsistency this campaign, Tottenham have been blessed with a consistent striker in Harry Kane, whose goals have almost single-handedly kept Spurs in the top four race.
Of course, by owning Kane, Tottenham are the envy of almost every Premier League side because they have a dependable and efficient goal machine in their ranks.
Glance around Newcastle in the table and, whilst not on quite the same level as Kane, their rivals all seem to have dependable figureheads leading the line, with free-scoring Marcus Rashford excelling at Manchester United, Aleksandar Mitrovic continuing to impress at Fulham and Ivan Toney frequently converting for Brentford.
Callum Wilson is no doubt a seasoned goal-scorer. His record for Bournemouth and Newcastle in the Premier League speaks for itself, with 68 top-flight goals to his name since winning promotion with the Cherries under Howe.
But injuries have forever plagued the striker, and Newcastle fans have grown increasingly frustrated by his hopping on and off the treatment table.
Despite making 16 appearances, Wilson has only completed 90 minutes twice in the league this campaign, starting 14 of Newcastle’s 22 matches this term.
The England international has failed to build any rhythm or momentum this season, starting no more than seven successive league matches in one go.
Alexander Isak was brought in over the summer to cover for Wilson should his unreliable fitness record persist, and yet ironically the Swede has spent even longer on the sidelines with a hamstring injury of his own.
Perhaps still feeling the after effect of his injury since returning, Isak has failed to live up to the hype he generated as Real Sociedad’s star forward, lacking both the strength to hold up the ball and the pace to hurt opponents in behind.
However, Wilson and Isak cannot shoulder all of the responsibility, and Howe must first look to boost creativity in his midfield, particularly without star man Bruno Guimaraes on the pitch.
Lack of midfield depth
Simply put, remove Guimaraes from Howe’s midfield and Newcastle struggle. The Magpies have yet to win a single Premier League match this season without the Brazilian midfielder.
Thanks to his creative instincts, intricate dribbling and range of passing, Guimaraes offers Newcastle a little bit of everything going forward, and his versatile skillset is proving almost irreplaceable.
Let’s look at Newcastle’s midfield trio against the Cherries. Joelinton has impressively revamped his career in a new midfield role but is not tooled with the passing range to hurt opponents.
Sean Longstaff, despite breaking into the first team after a string of productive performances, is not an elite dribbler in the engine room and struggles to get out of tight spaces when pressed by the opposition with any real intent.
Finally, Joe Willock has proved he can be a streaky player in terms of providing goals and assists, but his efficiency in front of goal has dwindled so far this season, netting just twice in 22 appearances.
All three are hard-working, dedicated central midfielders prepared to put in a shift for the team, but none of them have a killer pass in their locker capable of opening up the defence.
Guimaraes is midway through serving his two-match suspension after receiving a straight red card in the Carabao Cup semi-final against Southampton, and the midfielder will miss the Magpies’ home clash with Liverpool as a result.
The only league game Newcastle have lost all season came at Anfield, and another defeat could see them fall out of the top four should Tottenham beat West Ham next weekend.
Newcastle’s business during the January transfer window did not help Howe’s headache in midfield, with long-serving midfielder Jonjo Shelvey heading off to Nottingham Forest.
Although Shelvey was far down the first team pecking order, his presence in the dressing room as a club stalwart was valuable and the Englishman still possesses the passing range to operate as a deep-lying playmaker.
With Joelinton, Willock and Longstaff comfortable running the hard yards in midfield, perhaps Shelvey would have been the most appropriate replacement for Guimaraes during his absence, as Howe is missing the Brazilian’s creativity above all else.
After years of turmoil, Newcastle are finally flirting with the Premier League’s elite once again. But perhaps the change is taking some getting used to.
Fans would expect a Champions League contender travelling to the Vitality Stadium to attack Bournemouth with all their power, fly out of the gates on the front foot and settle for nothing less than three points.
Of course, Newcastle do not yet boast the firepower of Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea, but their tactical approach to Saturday’s clash seemed somewhat tentative at times.
Howe’s appointment has proved fruitful, with Newcastle’s Saudi chiefs opting for a younger manager rather than a trophy-laden one. But it is important to remember that the ex-Cherries boss has never managed a club of the stature before.
As new Everton boss Sean Dyche will tell you, keeping compact and grinding out results is an essential part of Premier League survival. Nevertheless, winning matches and taking all three points is what qualifies teams for the Champions League.
Howe has always been considered an attack-minded coach, but perhaps he is a little cautious about holding on to one point rather than gambling for three.
Extending their unbeaten run to 17 matches is no doubt impressive, but sooner or later these draws will catch up with the Magpies.
During their last 13 matches, Newcastle have only scored twice in the last 15 minutes, proving they are happy to hold what they have rather than push on and put teams to the sword.