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Newcastle back in Champions League after draw with Leicester

A 0-0 draw at home to Leicester City meant Newcastle will finish in the Premier League’s top four. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON – Qualifying Newcastle United for the Champions League was not even in manager Eddie Howe’s thoughts at the start of the season, but on Monday the team’s remarkable transformation saw them secure their place back among European football’s elite.

A 0-0 draw at home to Leicester City meant the Magpies will finish in the Premier League’s top four and will be mixing it with the continent’s big guns for the first time since 2003.

After celebrating on the St James’ Park pitch with his players, Howe was asked what the targets had been back in August.

“Certainly wasn’t (top four),” he told Sky Sports. “You always hope and always believe and you have to dream. But we didn’t feel we were ready for that.

“After last season’s battle against relegation, it really was whether we could consolidate and become a better team and not flirt with relegation like last season.

“I can’t praise (the players) enough for that mentality, their attitude and what they’ve given me and the club.”

When Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bought an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle in October 2021, the initial task was to keep them in the top flight.

Newcastle were 19th in the table and without a win and Steve Bruce was shortly sacked and replaced by Howe.

Even then it took them until the 15th game of the season to get a league win, but after that, with the help of some astute signings such as right-back Kieran Trippier, midfielder Bruno Guimaraes and defender Dan Burn, the fog that had shrouded the club finally began to lift.

The Magpies eventually finished 11th and the momentum carried into this season with the club splashing some of the Saudi cash on club record purchase Swedish striker Alexander Isak.

While, on paper, Newcastle have riches to rival any club in the world, they have not yet signed the sort of galactico players the fans might have been dreaming about.

But the likes of Isak, former Burnley keeper Nick Pope and defender Sven Botman have enhanced Howe’s squad.

They began to turn a succession of draws at the start of the season into wins and Newcastle have generally been a model of consistency.

The fact they have finished above the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, speaks volumes for Howe’s impact and he can now start planning for the next step.

“We have to recruit wisely which we have done in every window so far,” he said. “But the next window will be the hardest. We know next season the challenge will be bigger.”

Howe also said the next step is to deliver a first major trophy since 1955 after falling in the League Cup final to Manchester United – who are hoping to secure the last top-four spot – earlier in 2023.

“I feel like we’ve achieved something great but there’s no trophy,” he said. “We want to bring silverware here in the future.”

Leicester are on the verge of being relegated from the top-flight for the 12th time in their history.

They sit two points behind 17th-placed Everton and will go down if the Toffees win their last game against Bournemouth, regardless of Leicester’s result in their final match against West Ham. REUTERS, AFP