JONAS Gutierrez has urged Newcastle United's players to maintain a united front as their season threatens to unravel around them.
The Magpies tumbled to 14th in the Premier League table after Sunday's 2-0 loss at Southampton made it three league defeats in a row for the first time since 2008.
Things are unlikely to get any easier tomorrow as Alan Pardew's side head to the Britannia Stadium to take on a Stoke team that were back to their hard-edged best as they saw off Fulham at the weekend.
While the Potters have improved after a patchy start, Newcastle's form has slumped alarmingly, but Gutierrez remains confident things will improve as long as the spirit that swept the club to Europe last season remains intact.
"We need to stay together," said the Argentinian midfielder, who will cede the captain's armband to Fabricio Coloccini tomorrow as his compatriot returns from a three-match suspension. "We know it's been a tough season for us because we've had a lot of injuries and we don't have a big squad."But we know that nothing can change on that front right now. The players we have are players who are ready to fight for the next few weeks to get back to winning ways.
"The most important thing is to get back the confidence of the players. When you have players with confidence, you feel better and things are easier.
"But that is football. Sometimes it happens (that players lose confidence). Every team has times when they are not feeling in their best form.
"At Southampton, we deserved to lose the game because they were better than us. We have to try to get back to winning ways and be all together as a group."
That could be easier said than done at Stoke, despite Newcastle producing one of their best displays of last season at the Britannia Stadium to claim a 3-1 win.
The Potters' aerial strength has long been a key facet of their game, and Newcastle's defensive insecurities were repeatedly exposed as Southampton's strikers ran amok at the weekend.
Coloccini's return should help, although it will be offset by the absence of Steven Taylor, who tweaked a hamstring in the latter stages of Sunday's defeat.
Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye will also be unavailable - the latter underwent the first half of an operation yesterday and will have further surgery later today - and Gutierrez accepts Newcastle will face a stiff examination as they attempt to get their season back on track.
"When you look at the fixtures at the start of the season, you know Stoke is so difficult because of the style of football they play," he said. "I'm not saying it's wrong or good because anyone has to play their football in the right way for them to take the points.
"Stoke kick a lot of long balls and play a style that gives them a lot of points. But last year we went there and got the three points so we have to know we can get the three points there again.
"Their set pieces are so special, so good. We have to focus on set pieces because we know what to expect. If we concede set pieces, we will know what to expect."We have to really concentrate for 90 minutes and not concede set pieces, not give silly fouls near the box - and with Stoke the halfway line is near the box. We have to be really focused."
With Newcastle short of midfielders, Gutierrez was switched to the right of midfield at the weekend with Shane Ferguson lining up on the opposite flank.
The switch was not particularly effective, but a lack of squad depth means Pardew will have to continue shuffling things around for the next few matches.
"At the moment, lots of players are having to play in different positions because that's what we have in the squad," said Gutierrez.
"We have a small squad and a lot of young players trying to find their opportunities. It's hard for everyone but we have to just think of the team and try to do our best to fight our way back to winning ways."