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EFL Cup: Nick Pope's improvement key to Newcastle's chances of success

Nick Pope's incredible form continued as he kept a 10th straight clean sheet in all competitions to help Newcastle win the opening leg of their EFL Cup semi-final at Southampton.

The determined Saints made life tough for the stopper but, as he has done so often this season, he stood up to the test as the Magpies claimed the early advantage in the tie courtesy of Joelinton's second-half strike.

Joelinton also saw another goal ruled out for handball, as did the Saints' Adam Armstrong, but as the home side came on strong, the away goalkeeper formed a fierce barrier, making save after save and most notably frustrating substitute Che Adams.

Sat third in the Premier League, Eddie Howe's men are now just one game away from a first Wembley final outing since losing the 1999 FA Cup final to Manchester United, who face Nottingham Forest in the second EFL Cup semi-final.

Pope's form has been a significant factor in their improvement, with colleague Bruno Guimaraes describing him as "the best goalkeeper in the world" after his own Player of the Match performance at St Mary's.

The questions are, has he now moved into the elite? And have his performances elevated Newcastle to a similar standing?

At 6/5 to win the EFL Cup Outright and 8/11 to finish in the top four, it feels like a resounding yes to both queries.

Another sensible signing by Newcastle 

The 30-year-old's confidence must be lightyears from where it was this time last year when he was part of a Burnley side destined for relegation.

However, despite the Clarets' demotion, he was hardly without suitors and Newcastle won the race for his signature, paying an undisclosed fee reported to be £10m as he joined on a four-year contract.

In a similar vein to Guimaraes' signing from Lyon last January, the deal was a shrewd one as the club picked up a top-quality operator perhaps playing at a level below where he belonged.

While the Magpies' riches have inevitably led to talk of blockbuster signings, the board and Howe have instead looked to build a talented yet cohesive squad.

Alongside Kieran Tripper, Fabian Schar, Sven Botman and Dan Burn, three of whom have arrived in the last year, Pope has been part of the best defensive record in the Premier League, conceding just 11 times. 

To put that into context, the second-best tally belongs to leaders Arsenal, who themselves have improved significantly but have still seen 16 goals go past them.

More new names could come through the St James's door before the January transfer window shuts on Tuesday but with the solid foundations built by Howe and co, Newcastle's 20/1 to finish in the top two might not be so farfetched.

How has Nick Pope improved?

Although not without previous accolades, including being named in the PFA Team of the Year in 2019-20, Pope's game has always seemed to have deficiencies.

Arguably the most impressive facet of his form this season has been his distribution. At Burnley, he was often criticised for staying on his line but that may have been down to the Clarets' style.

Under Sean Dyche, the Lancashire club were happy to sit deep and absorb pressure before springing on the counter-attack. The quality of Newcastle's squad means they can rely on themselves in possession, allowing them to push higher.

This puts greater emphasis on Pope to play as a sweeper keeper, with his starting position often on the edge of his area. Meanwhile, Schar and Botman's ability to play from the back means he must also be available to receive possession if required.

One thing that has never been in doubt is the Soham-born star's shot-stopping. To date, he has made 51 saves in the Premier League, a tally that ranks 13th in those standings. However, when you consider how few goals he has conceded, that might be more than he would have liked.

Pope has kept a division-best 10 clean sheets in the league, with the last goal he conceded in all competitions coming on 6th November, in the form of a late consolation for Southampton in Newcastle's 4-1 win at St Mary's in November.

Both statistical and visual evidence suggests that the former Charlton man is closing in on becoming a complete goalkeeper.

Can Nick Pope displace Jordan Pickford for England?

He remains behind Jordan Pickford in the England pecking order but his improvements, especially in his distribution, must be giving Gareth Southgate food for thought.

Despite being selected for the World Cups in both 2018 and 2022, Pope's tally of 10 England caps seems short of what it should be. In fairness, Pickford, who has made 50 appearances, has rarely put a foot wrong for the Three Lions and deserves his place.

He has even looked good in an ailing Everton team, making 73 saves in the league this season, but his situation echoes his rival's from 12 months ago. If the 19th-placed Toffees, 8/13 To be Relegated, go down, he will have to move on.

That could create a window for Pope to grab the gloves. Pickford's distribution is up there with any goalkeeper in the world but the Newcastle man's development means it could be him between the sticks for England at Euro 2024, which they are 7/1 To Win Outright.

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