Dan Ashworth sees £400m FFP nightmare as Newcastle 'hunters' trouble Manchester United and Spurs

Wolves, Brighton, West Ham and Manchester United were all sitting above Newcastle United in the table as Eddie Howe showed his players the standings. "Can we catch them?" the Magpies boss asked. You bet.

Newcastle, in truth, have long embraced the role of 'hunters'. Rather than worrying about Manchester United or in-form Chelsea below them, such is the mentality at the club now, Newcastle will have their eyes on chasing down fifth-placed Spurs in the race for Europe.

That would have been a fanciful thought just a couple of months ago. Newcastle were 10th and Jamie Carragher had suggested that the black-and-whites 'looked like a team almost ready for the end of the season' - even before their FA Cup quarter-final defeat against Manchester City. However unexpected that 2-0 loss at the Etihad may have been, it was no less painful as Newcastle's crippling wait for silverware went on.

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It left players and staff alike asking some searching questions going into the final international break of the season in March. Not least - what next?

However, the break did give the group the opportunity to 'reset' in new surroundings after those not on international duty flew to Dubai together. The squad returned to Tyneside desperate to prove that the season was far from over with 10 matches still to play. "It was perfect for what we needed," stand-in skipper Dan Burn said. "Everyone came back ready to attack the final few games."

Newcastle have certainly done that. Since returning from their warm-weather training break, Newcastle have suffered just one defeat - away at resurgent Crystal Palace - and picked up 16 points from a possible 21. Newcastle, remarkably, are now two points above Manchester United in sixth place having previously been seven points behind the Red Devils in the table.

Faltering Manchester United have only won one of their last seven games in the Premier League and Erik ten Hag's team suffered a damaging 4-0 defeat at Selhurst Park on Monday. On a night Andre Onana, Antony and Mason Mount could barely hide their displeasure as they walked off the field, ten Hag lamented how his players did not follow 'the script'. "Professionals shouldn't allow this," the Manchester United boss hissed.

Ten Hag, in mitigation, highlighted how injury-hit Manchester United were missing 'almost the whole backline'. However, there was still more than £400m worth of talent in that starting line-up, which highlighted how desperate Manchester United's recruitment record has been for so long now.

£85m has been wasted on Antony; Casemiro is a pale imitation of the serial trophy winner who arrived in a deal worth up to £70m; and Mason Mount certainly does not look like a £55m player.

A penny for Dan Ashworth's thoughts. The outgoing Newcastle sporting director previously admitted it was 'really difficult' for the Magpies to compete commercially with clubs like Manchester United, who have been 'global brands for decades', but the Red Devils have not made those huge revenues count and are in very real danger of finishing below Newcastle in the table for the first time in Premier League history.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe's assertion that it will take Manchester United two or three years to close the gap on the top feels a tad optimistic - regardless of whether an agreement is finally reached with Newcastle to cut short Ashworth's notice period. On this evidence, it is not just Manchester United's IT offices that need a clean up.

Trying to find buyers for Antony et al will be easier said than done, though, and you can't help but contrast how Newcastle have coped with their own long list of absentees after the Magpies rallied without Sven Botman, Kieran Trippier, Joe Willock, Sandro Tonali and many others. Nick Pope, Joelinton and Miguel Almiron, meanwhile, only returned to the match day squad last week following spells on the sidelines.

Newcastle have been without four of the five pillars who formed the meanest backline in the Premier League last season yet Emil Krafth and Dan Burn have both adapted at centre-back while Tino Livramento and Lewis Hall have flourished at full-back. Martin Dubravka, meanwhile, has only conceded five goals in his last six games after previously letting in 13 in his previous six.

That does not happen by chance. It is owed to hours of unseen work on the training ground and Howe and his staff have come into their own in the run-in. A fluid 3-4-3 system, for instance, caught Spurs off guard last month while an unexpected switch to 4-4-2 tore Burnley apart last week.

There may still be three games to go, including an almighty showdown at Old Trafford next week, but this is a side with precious momentum. No wonder Geordies are dreaming of Europe once again.