By support

26th Feb, 2017 | 2:24pm

Why are Newcastle face the defining period of their promotion campaign

COMMENT By Matt Farr

Newcastle have spent much of their season at the top of the Championship table, battling it out with rivals Brighton for automatic promotion to the Premier League.

Rafa Benitez’s side remain one of the favourites to seal their place in the top-flight, while they have also made a strong case to take the Championship crown with them.

However, they were dealt a minor setback on Saturday with a disappointing 2-2 draw with Bristol City, which allowed Brighton to regain their place at the top of the table.

The Magpies still remain undefeated in their last eight league games, but all their hard work could go to waste if they don’t come through the next fortnight unscathed.

With three high-profile ties on the horizon – visits to Brighton, Huddersfield and Reading, Newcastle could open the door to their promotion rivals if they fail to secure the full nine points available to them.

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Only five points separate them from the play-offs, with Huddersfield making up swift ground on the league’s top two; and that deficit could be cut even further when Newcastle take on Brighton on Tuesday.

The potential title-defining clash is the first item on the agenda for Benitez and Newcastle. There has been very little to separate the two sides so far this season, and Tuesday’s encounter at the Falmer Stadium has the potential to be a mouth-watering affair.

While Brighton are ahead on points, have fewer defeats, and conceded fewer goals, Newcastle have won more games and are ahead on goal-difference.

It will be a huge opportunity for both sides to stamp their authority over the other and they must be up for the challenge.

The importance of a victory over Brighton is increased by the fixtures that follow. Just four days later, Newcastle travel to third-placed Huddersfield, who have been in excellent form.

David Wagner’s side have performed beyond all expectations this season, and with 20 league wins this season, have shown that they deserve to be considered among the elite this term.

Their draw with Barnsley at the weekend ended a six-match winning run, but they still remain unbeaten since January 14, and will give Newcastle a run for their money.

Huddersfield were victorious when the two sides met at St. James’ Park on the second day of the season, and they have made vast improvements since.

Momentum will be key for Newcastle, as a win away at Brighton could do wonders for them heading into the Huddersfield tie.

But there will be little time to dwell on any potential victory, as Jaap Stam’s Reading will provide another substantial challenge.

Their recent back-to-back defeats to Huddersfield and Brighton are no indication of the true quality Reading have shown this season, and they must not be underestimated by Newcastle – especially at home.

But Newcastle showed they were no pushovers in their last meeting, running out 4-1 winners in August. They must conjure up a similar performance at the Madejski on March 7.

Newcastle will have some big games to play over the course of the season, but given the swift turnaround, their position in the table, and the fact that all three ties are away from home, it is the next fortnight that provides the biggest threat to Newcastle promotion bid.

Right now the ball is in Newcastle’s court. But come March 11, they could find their position at the top of the table in jeopardy. They must win at all costs.

In other Newcastle news, Benitez has revealed when Dwight Gayle could return to action.

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