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Is history repeating itself at relegation-threatened Newcastle?
WITH Newcastle United just two points clear of the relegation zone after a run of two wins from their last 14 league games, comparisons are being drawn to the 2008-09 season which ended with the Magpies dropping into the Championship. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson looks at the similarities and differences between the two campaigns.
Saturday's 2-1 defeat to Reading was Newcastle's 23rd Premier League game, and Alan Pardew's side find themselves in 16th position with just 21 points.
After 23 games of the relegation season, the Magpies were also lying 16th, but were two points better off with 23 points on the board.
However, four years ago, the end of January marked the start of a dreadful run that ultimately sealed Newcastle's fate.
After losing to Manchester City in their 23rd fixture of the 2008-09 season, United won just one of their next 12 games, a sequence that sent them crashing into the bottom three by late March.
A 3-1 win over Middlesbrough briefly raised hopes of a recovery, but successive defeats to Fulham and Aston Villa condemned them to a season in the Championship.
This time around, the rot set in earlier, with Newcastle claiming just two victories since the end of October.
A repeat of that form in the next three months will almost certainly see them relegated, but the hope is that things will pick up before the final few games of the season.
On paper, the run of games from the end of February looks crucial, with Newcastle due to face Southampton, Swansea, Stoke and Wigan in the space of three weeks.
At this stage of the relegation season, people were still saying that Newcastle were "too good to go down".
The squad contained a large number of experienced players, with Steve Harper, Steven Taylor, Nicky Butt, Damien Duff, Obafemi Martins and Michael Owen regularly featuring in the starting line-up.
Joey Barton and Mark Viduka were suffering from long-term injuries, but the squad appeared deep enough to cope, with the likes of Danny Guthrie, Alan Smith, Jonas Gutierrez and Shola Ameobi appearing on the substitutes' bench.
The problem was that a large number of key players were either de-motivated or out of form, and it is hard to think of a single performer who hit the peak of their talents in the final three months of the season.
In many ways, it is easy to draw parallels with the current squad, which has again been labelled as too talented for the drop.
There is experience throughout the side, but many of the club's most pivotal performers - Fabricio Coloccini, Cheik Tiote, Gutierrez, Papiss Cisse - have been out of sorts for the majority of the season.
Injuries to Steven Taylor, Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa have proved damaging, and if anything, the current squad is shallower than the one that went down four years ago. Far too often, Pardew has been forced to name inexperienced youngsters on the bench.
JANUARY TRANSFER WINDOW
Back in 2009, the January transfer window was undoubtedly a contributory factor to the disaster that unfolded in the second half of the season.
Two key players left Tyneside in January - goalkeeper Shay Given, who joined Manchester City for £6m, and midfielder Charles NZogbia, who completed a £6m switch to Wigan. They were both missed in the remainder of the campaign.
This season, Demba Ba has already exited to join Chelsea and there is a good chance that Coloccini will depart before the transfer window closes a week on Thursday. Successfully replacing them could be the key to survival.
Four years ago, Newcastle made three January signings - Kevin Nolan, Ryan Taylor and Peter Lovenkrands. Nolan in particular went on to enjoy a successful career on Tyneside, but the trio all failed to make an impact in the second half of the relegation campaign, with Nolan not even managing to score a goal.
Mathieu Debuchy has signed this month, and the Magpies are expected to add a centre-half and a striker in the next ten days, with Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Yoan Gouffran currently looking the most likely arrivals. They will have to hit the ground running if Newcastle are to turn their season around.
An abiding memory of the relegation campaign is the catastrophic effect of a succession of managerial changes. Kevin Keegan started the season, Joe Kinnear took over in September, Chris Hughton temporarily took charge after Kinnear suffered heart problems, and Alan Shearer eventually stepped into the breach for the final eight games of the campaign.
The constant upheaval had an unsettling effect, with Mike Ashley's knee-jerk response to setbacks contributing to the sense of chaos that gradually engulfed his club.
Hopefully, lessons have been learned, and while Pardew's survival cannot be taken for granted despite the recent award of an eight-year deal, there is currently no desire to remove the Newcastle boss from his position.
Ashley and Derek Llambias now adopt a much longer-term perspective, and Pardew's performance last season, as he guided the Magpies to fifth position, should shelter him from some of the pressure that might otherwise have accompanied this season's strife.
Newcastle were relegated along with West Brom and Middlesbrough four years ago, with Hull City finishing a point clear of the bottom three.
However, the Tigers sank like a stone in the final two months of the season and were never actually in a relegation place. Instead, it was Sunderland, Blackburn and Portsmouth who hauled themselves out of trouble.
The Black Cats were 17th with six games left, but a home win over Hull ultimately proved decisive. A Blackburn side that appeared strong on paper were in the bottom three until March, but a run of just one defeat in six games from the start of that month saw them safe.
Of Newcastle's main relegation rivals this time around, Reading and QPR are showing signs of life after previously appearing doomed, while Aston Villa and Wigan are arguably under-performing in relation to the strengths of their squad.
Perhaps Southampton will be the side that save Newcastle after last week's bizarre decision to dismiss Nigel Adkins.