The Premier League relegation race seems down to two teams for one place, as moribund Newcastle and newly-slumping Fulham head down the stretch two points apart.
The Magpies have a match-in-hand and arguably better talent, but Fulham’s shown far more mettle since a terrible start to the season and two scrappers are headed for a final day meeting at Craven Cottage.
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The key word there is scrapper, as Fulham certainly fits the bill but Newcastle has shown little fight on the pitch in recent weeks and reports out of England say manager Steve Bruce is not going anywhere despite a clear lack of courage from his men.
The fact that Southampton, Burnley, and Brighton are hardly being considered as threatened anymore despite being no more than seven points clear of the bottom three shows just how poor the Magpies and Cottagers have been with less than two months left in the Premier League season.
If you want to indulge the idea of a third team entering the mix, wait until after Burnley meets Southampton and Newcastle on April 4 and 11. Clarets losses there would leave them within two points of the bottom three at a minimum, one if Fulham tops Villa and Wolves.
The road ahead
Here are the 16 matches left involving Fulham and/or Newcastle, and there are two common opponents in addition to the final day’s meeting between the relegation rivals in London.
Newcastle visits Burnley on April 11 while the Clarets head to Fulham on May 8, while Fulham goes to Arsenal on April 17 and the Magpies host the Gunners on May 1.
The order of these matches also matters. Tottenham’s shocking Europa League exit means Jose Mourinho has no congestion worries on April 4 at Newcastle, while Arsenal’s Europa League quarterfinal second leg at Slavia Prague comes three days before Fulham’s visit to the Emirates.
Should Arsenal advance to the UEL semis, it would play its first leg with Dinamo Zagreb or Villarreal three days before a trip to Newcastle.
Newcastle’s April 24 trip to Liverpool could be days before Jurgen Klopp leads his Reds versus Porto or Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals should Liverpool manage their quarterfinal with Real Madrid.
Fulham has not beaten anyone left on its fixture list, but is a much different team than the first half of the season. Newcastle has beaten West Ham and Burnley while drawing Liverpool and Spurs but they’ve devolved from that standard.
April 3: Aston Villa v Fulham (First meeting: Villa 3-0)
April 4: Newcastle v Tottenham (First meeting: 1-1)
April 9: Fulham v Wolves (First meeting: Wolves 1-0)
April 11: Burnley v Newcastle (First meeting: NUFC 3-1)
April 17: Newcastle v West Ham (First meeting: NUFC 2-0)
April 18: Arsenal v Fulham (First meeting: Arsenal 3-0)
April 24: Liverpool v Newcastle (First meeting: 0-0)
May 1: Newcastle v Arsenal (First meeting: Arsenal 3-0)
May 1: Chelsea v Fulham (First meeting: Chelsea 1-0)
May 8: Fulham v Burnley (First meeting: 1-1)
May 8: Leicester v Newcastle (First meeting: LCFC 2-1)
May 12: Southampton v Fulham (First meeting: 0-0)
May 12: Newcastle v Man City (First meeting: MCFC 2-0)
May 15: Man Utd v Fulham (First meeting: United 2-1)
May 15: Newcastle v Sheffield Utd (First meeting: Blades 1-0)
May 23: Fulham v Newcastle (First meeting: 1-1)
What about the match-up?
Newcastle has two wins since mid-December, a nine-match league winless run broken up for three matches before their current six-match winless run began with a 2-0 loss at Chelsea on Feb. 15.
Fulham’s now lost three of four March matches after going on a 15-match run that saw two wins, three losses, and an eye-popping 10 draws.
Digging deeper into those numbers shows some back luck, like the 2-1 loss to Leeds on Friday, but also that xG says the Cottagers would’ve been deserved losers in five draws and winners in another five. Right now, they’d take the extra five points.
Furthermore, the expected goals table shows that Fulham has been exceptionally unlucky in converting well-produced chances into goals but very fortunate in terms of opponents turning good opportunities into goals. Newcastle’s goals total is basically the same as xG while their conceded goals is almost four more than expected.
Expected goals: Fulham, 34.16-27.34
Goals: Newcastle, 28-23
Expected goals conceded: Newcastle, 43.38-44.51
Goals conceded: Fulham, 38-48
Expected points: Fulham, 35.75-29.64
Points: Newcastle, 28-26
Well, there are some big conditionals here.
Newcastle will have Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin back from injury before the end of the season and Miguel Almiron has also returned to the fold. Fabian Schar has also been a significant absence and will be back.
Wilson and Saint-Maximin missed a stretch of games that could’ve been wins with them in the lineup, while Almiron was not enough to swing the balance against a better manager and system in Brighton.
Fulham’s only notable injury of any length has been Tom Cairney, with all due respect to backup keeper Marek Rodak.
The first meeting was shocking stuff from Newcastle, who only managed a goal in a 1-1 against the 10-man Cottagers at St. James’ Park despite holding the man advantage for a half-hour.
All that said, Fulham needed an own goal to get their point and were out-produced in expected goals by a team that’s not great in producing expected goals.
Head-to-head personnel breakdown
Goalkeepers: Even, perhaps slight edge to Fulham’s Alphonse Areola
Center backs: Even
Defensive midfield: Fulham. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa the best of all midfielders
Attacking midfield: Newcastle. Shelvey, Almiron, Saint-Maximin a handful
Phases of the game
Newcastle is equal opportunity bad, minus -18 in open play goal differential and also minus in goals off corners and set pieces.
They’ve been best in a 4-4-2 and have been out-scored in every 15-minute span of 90 minutes, including a ridiculous minus-7 mark coming out of halftime (46th-60th).
Fulham’s been nearly as bad in open play, though xG says the Cottagers have been unlucky in scoring in open play but fortunate in what they’ve conceded. Scott Parker’s men have also allowed all six of their penalties while scoring just two of five.
The Cottagers are also dreadful after halftime, minus-9 with 12 goals allowed after the break, though their numbers are a little more unfortunate than the Magpies’ figure.
Follow the matchday grid above and you’ll see that both teams seem likely to be in the drop zone over the final two months. Fulham’s target will be to stand above Newcastle heading into the final day while the Magpies will likely set their goals to be within three points of the Cottagers before meeting Sheffield United and Fulham over the final two match days.
We think Fulham just knicks it, perhaps even on goal differential, as Parker’s plan is clearer and the Cottagers holding far more belief in it than Bruce’s Magpies are with his ideas.