Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe says he will talk about the Champions League “for fun” if his side secure qualification – but not before.
Howe’s team moved one win away from qualifying for Europe’s leading club competition with a deserved Premier League victory against Brighton and Hove Albion.
“The Champions League is so close, but so far away as well. We will enjoy tonight but we are focused on our next match,” said Howe, who has been reluctant to discuss his side’s top-four chances.
“We were just pleased with the performance, to beat a side of their quality. We are not looking too far ahead.
“When it’s done, I’ll talk about it for fun if you want.”
Newcastle took the lead when Brighton forward Deniz Undav flicked Kieran Trippier’s corner into his own net, before the Magpies skipper picked out Dan Burn from a free-kick to head in the second.
Miguel Almiron was denied a third for Newcastle at the start of the second half by Brighton keeper Jason Steele’s smart stop and, just 45 seconds later, Undav slotted in at the right end to give the visitors hope.
Suddenly, after being in complete control for 50 minutes, Newcastle had to dig in.
But the home team managed the game professionally and eased any lingering tension through Callum Wilson’s composed late finish.
The mood turned even more celebratory when Bruno Guimaraes emphatically converted Wilson’s pass in injury time.
The win puts Newcastle on the cusp of a return to the Champions League for the first time since they were knocked out at the qualifying stage in 2003-04.
Eddie Howe’s side, who consolidated third position in the table, know one win in their final two games will secure a top-four finish.
The Magpies are three points clear of fourth-placed Manchester United, who have played a game fewer, and four ahead of fifth-placed Liverpool, who also have two games left.
Brighton remain sixth and qualifying for the Europa League – which would be their first taste of European competition – remains in their own hands with three matches left.
Newcastle on verge of getting Champions League party started
While the Saudi-backed consortium which bought Newcastle in late 2021 brought optimism and excitement about the club’s future, few expected a team in a relegation battle at the time of the takeover to be contending for Champions League qualification this season.
Howe said before Brighton’s visit that he would have “snapped the hand off” someone offering him the prospect of a top-four finish at the start of the season.
What was then a fanciful thought is now so close to becoming a reality.
Newcastle’s rapid improvement has been down to Howe’s management and astute signings, with strong home form providing the bedrock of their success.
The Magpies had only lost two league games at St James’ Park this season before Thursday’s crucial fixture, and knew victory against the Seagulls and another home win against Leicester on Monday would seal their place among Europe’s elite next season.
Howe’s team started positively, playing with energy and purpose, and fully deserved their 2-0 half-time lead.
The atmosphere among the home fans turned slightly tenser when Brighton halved the deficit, but the noise increased to thunderous levels again after the two late goals removed any lingering doubts.
Party time had arrived. The beaming smiles from the faces in the stands, matched by those on the Newcastle players at the full-time, was an indication the city is confident of welcoming Europe’s elite again next season.
Uncharacteristically sloppy Brighton still have Europe in sight
Like Newcastle, Brighton have also enjoyed a spectacular season which has seen them exceed fans’ expectations as they challenge for European qualification.
Fears of the Seagulls’ progress stalling when head coach Graham Potter left for Chelsea in September have proven unfounded.
Roberto de Zerbi has built on the platform created by his predecessor, instilling a vibrant attacking style which has taken Brighton to the brink of the highest top-flight finish in their 121-year history.
Victory at Newcastle would have ensured they would finish higher than last season’s ninth place, but achieving that notable landmark remains on hold after a poor first half proved costly.
Uncharacteristic sloppiness when playing out from the back invited Newcastle pressure and, although De Zerbi’s side improved after the break, they never seriously threatened an equaliser.
Brighton were without some key players through injury, and rested others including Argentina midfielder Alexis Mac Allister, in what was their seventh match in 26 days.
“We are not in the best condition to play so many games in a row. I think we deserved to lose the game,” said De Zerbi, whose team play their final three games in the space of seven days.
Despite this defeat, Brighton know they remain well placed to secure European qualification.
A home game against already-relegated Southampton on Sunday offers an opportunity to move closer to achieving that goal.
“It was a tough night and the first half killed us,” said Brighton skipper Lewis Dunk.
“We’ve got three games left and we’ve got to move on. We need six points to secure European football and it’s up to us to guarantee history for this club.”
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