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Stoppage Time: Newcastle United playing with fire

This can't be how Newcastle manager Alan Pardew saw his season unfolding back in August.

Last term, Pardew's side finished fifth with an impressive 65 points, just five behind Arsenal for a coveted Champions League place, but this campaign, the club has managed just five victories -- all of which have come at St. James' Park.

The club's struggles may have reached an ultimate low point on Saturday when it suffered a 2-1 defeat to relegation-battling Reading on home soil.

If Saturday's disappointing setback shows us anything, it's that the Magpies are dangerously close to being tagged with the phrase no Premier League club wants to hear.

"They're too good to go down,"

It's true, looking at the squad on paper, there seems to be too much talent assembled for the club to get bumped down, but something has been amiss on the pitch for the Magpies.

In fairness, the Tyneside club has been hampered by a rather unfair amount of injuries to its first team, as defenders Steven and Ryan Taylor, midfield general Yohan Cabaye, fellow midfielder Jonas Gutierrez and winger Hatem Ben Arfa have all missed significant time.

But you can not pass consistent losing off on injuries alone.

Cabaye returned to action on Saturday for the first time since November in a must-win game, and scored the opening goal 35 minutes in with a fantastic free kick.

However, the Newcastle back line had no answer for Reading forward Adam Le Fondre, who came off the bench with 20 minutes to play and bagged two goals in six minutes, handing the Magpies a crushing defeat.

So, aside from the rash of injuries, what is different this season that sees Newcastle toiling in 16th place in the Premiership, just two points from the dreaded drop zone?

Not much. Many of the key players from last season's successful run returned to the side, but the under-performing has led the club to completely shift its objectives for the season.

Coming into the campaign, the Magpies had lofty expectations, hoping to build on the previous year's success and possibly challenge for a Champions League spot, but sitting four spots from the bottom after Christmas will usually cause some player movement.

Senegalese striker Demba Ba was the team's leading goal scorer with 13 tallies, but the club allowed him to move to Chelsea after the Blues triggered an $11 million release clause in his contract earlier this month.

It's feasible to think that had things been going a bit better on Tyneside, Ba would still be wearing the black and white stripes of Newcastle rather than Chelsea blue.

The Magpies have lost nine of their last 12 league matches and have not earned a positive result since claiming a 1-0 win over the bottom-of-the-table Queens Park Rangers on Dec. 22, including a 2-0 loss to Championship side Brighton in the third round of the FA Cup.

Newcastle did sign 27-year-old French international Mathieu Debuchy to a new 5 1/2-year deal from Lille during this transfer window, but that's about the only positive thing to happen in the northeast this month.

A run of such poor form also has negative effects when it comes to trying to bolster the squad for a run at avoiding relegation as striker Loic Remy was long rumored to be joining Newcastle from Marseille, but instead chose to move to QPR.

Remy would likely have been a prefect replacement up top for the recently departed Ba, but Remy's decision to go to the team on the bottom of the table speaks to just how bad things have gotten on Tyneside.

As in the case with Ba, it is possible that Remy would have chosen the famous black and white stripes if the club had been in better form.

Newcastle heads to Birmingham next Tuesday to tangle with Aston Villa, which sits just one point below the Magpies, in what could be a season-defining match. Should the squad earn its first road win of the season, it could go a long way toward giving the club some much-needed confidence.

In addition to the Aston Villa clash, The Toon will face Chelsea, Tottenham and Southampton over the next month, and will need to string together some good results if they hope to avoid playing next season in the Championship.

If they don't, one thing is for sure, Newcastle United is definitely playing with fire the longer it continues to underachieve.