LONDON, May 22 – Newcastle's hopes of avoiding becoming the biggest Premier League casualty since Leeds were relegated from the top flight in 2004 have been hit by an injury crisis that could have catastrophic consequences for the club.
Alan Shearer’s side go into their final match of the season, at Aston Villa on Sunday, needing to secure at least a point while hoping that a second-string Manchester United side is good enough to beat Hull, who kick off the final weekend in the last survival spot and with a one point edge over the Magpies.
With full-backs Habib Beye and Jose Enrique both very doubtful and centreback Sebastien Bassong suspended, Shearer could have only one member of his first-choice back four, Steven Taylor, available to contain a Villa side that is adept on the counter attack and still has a chance of finishing in fifth place.
Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel has warned Newcastle they will have to work extremely hard for what could be the most important victory in the club’s history.
"I know we’ve already qualified for the Europa League but we are professionals and we do want to do the best we can all the time and we do want to secure that fifth spot," the American said.
With West Brom already condemned to a return to the Championship, Newcastle are one of four clubs who will enter the final day in danger of filling the two other relegation places.
Of the four, Middlesbrough have the toughest task with Gareth Southgate’s side obliged to win at West Ham, hope that champions United beat Hull by a big enough margin for them to make up a four-goal deficit in terms of goal difference.
Sunderland are the best-placed in terms of points but Ricky Sbragia’s side have arguably the toughest final fixture with Chelsea, the visitors to the Stadium of Light, looking to sustain their recent form ahead of the following weekend’s FA Cup final.
The Black Cats will do down if they lose and both Hull and Newcastle win but Sbragia, a former member of Manchester United’s coaching staff, will field a squad capable of winning at the KC Stadium.
The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney are expected to be rested for a match that takes place barely 72 hours before United take on Barcelona in the Champions League final in Rome.
But this season has provided plenty of evidence regarding the depth of United’s squad and Sbragia is confident his old boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, will not let him down.
"Whatever team they put out will believe they can win the game and that is all we can ask for," Sbragia said.
Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink has promised that he will field all his top stars at Sunderland.
"I don’t want to rest a lot of people because they need to maintain their physical shape and also the way we want them to play," the Dutchman said. "If I rest too many people then I don’t think it’s good preparation for Wembley."
With Liverpool virtually assured of second place, the only unresolved issue in the top half of the table is the battle for seventh spot and the final slot in next season’s Europa League, the successor to the UEFA Cup.
Fulham, who entertain Everton at Craven Cottage, are in pole position but could yet be caught by Tottenham, who finish their season at Liverpool.
Fixtures (all 1500 GMT, Sunday)
Arsenal v Stoke, Aston Villa v Newcastle, Blackburn v West Brom, Fulham v Everton, Hull City v Manchester Utd, Liverpool v Tottenham, Manchester City v Bolton, Sunderland v Chelsea, West Ham v Middlesbrough, Wigan v Portsmouth