AS Newcastle United's players trudged from the field at Craven Cottage in the wake of Monday's latest Premier League defeat, it was hard to imagine a more disconsolate bunch. By the time the Christmas decorations come down at the start of the new year though, things could be a whole lot worse.
It has been a tough last month for the Magpies, with matches against West Ham, Swansea, Southampton, Stoke, Wigan and Fulham bringing a total of just three points, but it is hard to see the next four weeks providing any more solace. The fear, as we approach the traditionally crucial Christmas period, is that the really hard work is only just about to begin.
Christmas week will bring back-to-back away games at Manchester United and Arsenal, before fourth-placed Everton travel to Tyneside for a New Year fixture that is fraught with danger.
The home game with QPR on December 22 provides a decent opportunity for a much-needed win, but before that, Newcastle take on reigning champions Manchester City in Saturday's lunch-time kick off.
Hardly an appealing prospect at the best of times given that City have won their last five matches against the Magpies, this weekend's game threatens to be even more difficult given Roberto Mancini's side's desire to atone for Sunday's dramatic derby defeat to Manchester United. If you could hand pick a game to get your season back on track, this is not surely not the match you would choose.
“They (Man City) lost in the last minute against Man United, so I expect them to be aggressive to try to win the game because they don’t want Manchester United to pull away from them at the top,” said Vurnon Anita, who will continue to deputise for the injured Yohan Cabaye at the weekend. “They will come full of determination, but we must look at ourselves and bring our A game.
“They have good players and they lost at the weekend, so they will want to win. That’s the same for us and we will be at home, so it’s going to be a great game. The crowd behind us can help us and I hope we can do our best on Saturday.”
It will be interesting to see how Newcastle's players react to the home crowd's urgings at the weekend, as last month's home defeats to West Ham and Swansea revealed an edginess that is understandable given the club's position on the fringe of the relegation zone.
A failure to claim an away win has piled increased pressure on each and every home game, and while this month's win over Wigan turned into a relaxed affair, the tone of the evening might have been markedly different had the visitors kept 11 men on the field.
Newcastle need to keep their points tally ticking over at St James', and the hope is that Saturday's high-profile occasion will bring the best out of some of the more experienced players who have struggled to hit top form this season.
Cheik Tiote was distinctly out of sorts at Fulham, while Jonas Gutierrez also failed to fire. Throw in an under-performing Papiss Cisse and an increasingly error-prone Fabricio Coloccini, and you have a core of players who will surely have to improve on their recent efforts if the Magpies are to spring a surprise.
“We must win our home games, but we haven’t done that a lot,” said Anita. “On Saturday against City we must go at full strength to win the game at home.
“When we play at home, we know we have to give everything. The fans expect that we put teams under full pressure but I don’t know how we’ll approach it yet. I’m going to wait to see what our game plan will be to surprise City at home.”
Cutting out some of the defensive lapses that peppered Monday's defeat would clearly be a start, although Newcastle's players are attempting to draw confidence from some of the more positive aspects of their display at Fulham.
They created more chances than they have managed in a number of recent away games, and while they were unable to mount a second comeback in the wake of Hugo Rodallega's headed goal, the collective desire to get back on level terms again augurs well for the tests that lie ahead.
“We are doing all of the right things,” said full-back Danny Simpson. “We were sat in the dressing room afterwards and everybody felt like they had nothing left to give. It was like we had left everything on the pitch.
“We are still a good team and we have good players. We are missing one or two, but the team out there is more than capable of winning games.”