Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Alexander Isak: Sweden striker edging towards full fitness just in time to boost Newcastle’s top-four chase

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Newcastle finished the last batch of Premier League games on a high. Two wins on the spin got them back on track and there may have even been some frustration that the international break could stall that momentum.

Especially with their next opponents, top-four rivals Manchester United, on a run of just three wins in eight games in the Premier League.

That drop-off from Erik ten Hag’s side means a victory for Newcastle would move them up to third in the table, above their Carabao Cup final conquerors.

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But instead the past two weeks could in fact prove pivotal to Newcastle’s big push for Champions League football next season.

Straight after the last-gasp win at Nottingham Forest, Eddie Howe whisked the players not called up by their countries off to Dubai for a mix of relaxation and warm weather training. Callum Wilson describes himself and the group as “recharged” after the trip.

However, the period also allowed an important figure for this side to get more crucial minutes into their legs.

The start of Alexander Isak’s time at Newcastle was wrecked by a hamstring tear which kept him out of 16 games until January. The recovery process has been a long one – and even now the approach with him is cautious.

He played around 70 minutes in Sweden’s two internationals over the break, with national team boss Janne Andersson accepting “he is not 100 per cent match-wise”.

Isak went goalless in the Euro Qualifiers, although it was his cross which forced an own goal against Azerbaijan, in a match where he also saw a strike ruled out for offside.

The hope from Newcastle’s side is that the 23-year-old is edging back to where they need him to be for the final dozen games of the run-in.

His performances in their past two matches certainly demonstrated the impact he can have on this team.

After scoring the opener in the win over Wolves, he showed his technical skill to volley in against Forest before demonstrating his composure to convert a stoppage-time, match-winning penalty – his sixth goal in 10 appearances for the club.

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This week’s Gillette Precision Play is Alexander Isak’s improvised volley for Newcastle against Nottingham Forest

For a team which has been renowned for their defensive solidity, Isak’s displays were an example of the threat he can bring at the other end of the pitch. His stats per 90 minutes this season mark him out as one of the most dangerous forwards in Europe.

He is a much-needed addition to a Newcastle team which managed just three goals in a recent eight-game run.

Howe also credited his flexibility, praising his ability to switch out to a wide left role before his equaliser, when Allan Saint-Maximin needed to be moved in-field.

Clinical in the box, rapid breaking forwards – Isak has many weapons in his armoury and has shown why Newcastle paid Real Sociedad £63m for him last summer.

Alexander Isak has been a real threat for Newcastle when he has been able to get onto the pitch
Alexander Isak has been a real threat for Newcastle when he has been able to play

But crucially, it is that question about his fitness which remains the pressing one.

“Is he 100 per cent ready to play 90 minutes on a consistent basis? Probably not.” That was Howe’s assessment ahead of the Wolves game – before caveating his point.

“He’s fit to play 90 minutes for another team, so there’s no concern over his fitness. He’s very, very fit. He’s got a little bit more to go to be 90-minute fit for us, but that’s because we demand so much from our players. That’s no slight on him at all.”

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Newcastle manager, Eddie Howe says his players deserve huge credit for coming back to win against Nottingham Forest and is pleased with how Alexander Isak is getting fitter, sharper and stronger

Indeed, Newcastle are the Premier League’s top side when it comes to sprints. They are a ferocious, intense team with and without the ball.

Isak currently ranks 35th in the division for sprints per 90 minutes. “He will get there. We will build him to that level,” said Howe.

The Newcastle boss has options, with Wilson raring to go again after struggling to rediscover his pre-World Cup form since Qatar.

But a fit and firing Isak could hold the key to a top-four finish.

Against Manchester United on Sunday we’ll see whether his steps in Stockholm with Sweden have moved him closer to where he needs to be to propel Newcastle back into the top four.

Watch Newcastle vs Man Utd live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm.

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