Eddie Howe is confident Newcastle can turn around their Champions League promise

eDidi Howe later admitted he wasn’t really thirsty but that failed to stop the Newcastle manager from unscrewing the top of his small water bottle in front of him and taking a very long, slow sip. It was such an obvious time-wasting tactic that by the time he put it back on the table, laughter filled the room.

“I drink water easily,” Howe joked, after being asked if he’d rather finish the Premier League or win the Carabao Cup. The 45-year-old has apparently forgotten that, in an unguarded moment, after last Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup victory over Bournemouth, he admitted: “The Premier League is our priority.”

It certainly should be. With Newcastle back in third place after being suspended from the World Cup, the club’s Saudi owners, who make up the majority in next season’s Champions League, should feel within striking distance.

A lot can change in 23 games, but Howe sounded cautiously optimistic as he prepares for Monday’s trip to Leicester. He said, “It is in our hands.” “I would like to think that we are ready for what comes next. I would like to think that the team is ready to play in different ways and I don’t just mean in a systemic way.

“I’m sure the second half of the season will be tougher but that’s healthy. We’re confident. We’ll accept the challenge.”

Allan Saint-Maximin, the French winger for Newcastle, recently revealed that he had spoken to his compatriot Marcus Thuram, the France and Borussia Mönchengladbach striker, about the benefits of joining Newcastle. “Thank you, Maxi,” said Howe, who is expected to finally welcome his £60m Swedish striker Alexander Isak back from injury next month. Thuram is one of the players I looked up to during the World Cup but this is far from it.

Eddie Howe dismissed suggestions Newcastle could fund new signings by selling Allan Saint-Maximin. Photo: Owen Humphreys/Penn

“I don’t know what our window will look like. I have to be careful not to do anything that upsets the group but you also don’t want it to get old. But it will be difficult to improve our starting line-up without spending serious money and the financial fair play rules will make that difficult.”

And Howe quickly debunked suggestions that Newcastle might fund new purchases by selling Saint-Maximin. “For me, any time Maxi is unavailable is a disaster because he’s so unique,” he said, hoping the winger has cleared the hamstring problems that have held up the first half of the season. “He has skills that no defender would want to match. Maxi is a huge player for us and there is a lot to come from him.

“For me, he’s the best dribbler in the Premier League. He has the ability to put any opponent in the back. The team did really well in his absence but he undoubtedly has the characteristics we’ll need in the second half of the season. When he’s fully fit, Maxi has been a key player since The beginning. It’s not impressive at all.”

In Howe’s perfect word, Saint-Maximin and Brazil’s Bruno Guimaraes exchanged passes with James Maddison at St James’ Park. The Leicester midfielder in England remains at the top of Howe’s shopping list, and although finalizing a deal next month could prove very difficult, he hasn’t completely ruled out the idea.

“I never talk about players for other clubs,” said Howe, who, although he frequently showered Jonjo Shelvey with praise, could have conceivably sold the playmaker, some of whose predecessors found it highly difficult when he was out of the first-choice line-up. “But…James Maddison has been absolutely fantastic this season…he’s a great advertisement for the Premier League.”

Like it or not, Newcastle are in fact unofficial ambassadors for Saudi Arabia. At some point in the coming months, they are expected to attend a warm-weather training camp at the extravagant new futuristic Red Sea resort that is rapidly taking shape along the kingdom’s west coast, 300 miles north of Jeddah. It is not only meant to lure sun-starved northern Europeans towards its glorious winter climate, but to help change international perceptions of the country.

That may seem an unrealistic ambition, but a year ago also the idea that Howe and Newcastle would give Jurgen Klopp, Erik ten Hag, Antonio Conte, Graham Potter and company a real cause for concern.

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