The Championship Playoff final is often billed as the most lucrative game in world football but what about those teams who target slightly higher than the playoffs? What about those sides who are going for automatic promotion to the Premier League? Surely the games that these sort of teams play against each other could have just as much significance as the day out at Wembley.
Tuesday night saw one of those such games take place between Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United, at the AMEX Stadium. Both are riding high at the top of the Championship table with both sets of players knowing that a win in this game would see their team take top spot, with a draw being enough for Brighton to stay one point clear of their rivals.
Very poor defending from a corner lead to a penalty being awarded to Brighton, after Ciaran Clark paid more attention to grappling with Glenn Murray than actually defending the ball coming in. The resulting spot kick was firmly dispatched by Murray for his 16th goal of the season. This did seem to spur the away team into life but it wasn’t until stoppage time in the first half that David Stockdale was forced into a save, reacting smartly to a Christian Atsu drive when the winger should have scored. Although they were behind at half time, Newcastle were definitely the team in the ascendency.
After half time, the visitors started to turn the screw more and more but did not really create many chances. Slack distribution from Stockdale almost gave Gouffran a chance to score but the Englishman recovered well. It was only when manager Rafael Benitez swapped midfielder Jack Colback for target man Daryll Murphy that Newcastle finally managed to draw level. Firstly, with a big man in the middle, the Toon were able to put crosses into the box, and one was met by Murphy’s head before being pushed behind by Stockdale. From the resulting corner, the keeper failed to punch cleanly, only sending the ball to Atsu on the edge of the box, whose volley was going way off target before it struck the heel of Mohammed Diame and looped into the top corner of the net. A freak goal but the travelling Black and White fans were not complaining! His team finally level, Benitez threw on another attacker in Ayoze Perez who would then go on to score the winning goal. A pinpoint Matt Ritchie ball, which must have travelled over 60 yards, found Christian Atsu on the left wing who in turn pulled the ball back to Perez to find the bottom corner. The Premier League experience and quality had shown in the end although Brighton can count themselves unlucky to not have held out for the point.
The Premier League experience is something that could be Brighton’s downfall next season if they were to be promoted. Their starting XI against Newcastle have got only 321 Premier League appearances compared to the 879 that their Tuesday counterparts had. 200 of these appearances have come from midfield stalwart Steve Sidwell. This shortfall is likely to be addressed in the summer, once promotion is confirmed but they are already playing catch up. Some managers like to keep faith in the players that send clubs up, however this normally leads to disappointment. Without serious investment this Brighton side will ultimately struggle in what would be their first top flight campaign since 1983. This investment would need to be done throughout the whole team but their first port of call should be the strike force. As previously stated, Murray does have 16 goals this season but a return of only 11 goals in 52 Premier League appearances will not have fans believing that he could fire them to safety next season. A shape up in midfield is needed as well as majority of the creativity has to come from the flanks, with no option B, which would soon get found out in the top flight.
Unlike their Promotion rivals, Newcastle have bags of top flight experience with majority of their players being able to walk into a lot of top flight squads. Only Darlow and Atsu have fewer than 10 Premier League appearances. Therefore a mass rebuild is not needed for the North East side, meaning that Benitez would just need to tighten the ranks and plug any weakspots that he might see in his team. Like Brighton, however, it is upfront where they need to buy in the summer. In Dwight Gayle, they have a brilliant goalscorer who is currently top of the Championship goal charts. After him though, they have an ageing target man in Murphy and the eccentric Mitrovic who has flattered to deceive on many occasions both this season and previously. Since losing Gayle to injury on 14 January, Newcastle have struggled to kill off side, drawing against QPR, Norwich and Bristol City, as well as narrow victories over Derby and Wolves. Either Benitez needs to find a way to get the best out of Serbian Mitrovic, or he needs to buy a strike partner for Gayle, who has proven scoring ability in the Premier League. Another position that Newcastle may need to strengthen is in goal. Karl Darlow and German Matz Sels have shared the job in the sticks this season and both have been criticised for high profile mistakes. They do have Tim Krul out on loan but a lack of action since his return from injury may mean that Mike Ashley will have to open his chequebook and sign a proven top keeper. Any frailties in goal will be found out in the top league against world class strikers.
If both teams were to be promoted this season, I could only see one side remaining in the top flight. Brighton have been knocking on the door for a couple of seasons but I don’t think that their current squad is strong enough to challenge higher. I predict a very challenging first season in the Premier League unless significant money is spent on the squad. Newcastle, however, arguably already have a squad that would see them safe next season. A couple of personnel changes here and there and maybe they could start challenging at the right end of the Premier League.