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Newcastle’s steady climb to safety was bolstered after Joe Willock’s equalizer earned West Ham a draw to extend their league unbeaten run to six games.

The hosts were lucky to take the lead through Craig Dawson’s header, but an instinctive finish from Willock was another step in the right direction for Newcastle under Eddie Howe.

Failing to beat Watford in January seemed like a blow to Newcastle’s hopes of avoiding relegation, but 10 points in the last four games eased their supporters’ fears and lifted them out of the bottom three.

West Ham’s inability to hold on to their lead has prevented them from moving up to fourth place and underscored a nagging feeling that the club’s lack of squad depth will prove costly in their pursuit of Champions League football. Kurt Zouma returned to the starting line-up after illness ruled him out of the draw at Leicester, with the defender the subject of derision from Newcastle fans for his inexplicable social media video of him abusing his pet cats.

Newcastle’s hopes of a fourth league win in a row have been hampered by the loss of Kieran Trippier after the defender broke his foot against Aston Villa, as well as the flair and pace of Allan Saint-Maximin, who is sidelined with a calf injury.

Joe Willock denies West Ham and boosts Newcastle survival hopes |  premier league
Craig Dawson opens the scoring for West Ham against Newcastle. Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

The visitors were also forced to travel by road rather than air on Friday due to the impact of Storm Eunice, but there were no signs of fatigue from their players. Howe’s side got off to an explosive start that almost resulted in a third-minute opener, but goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski blocked Joelinton’s shot from a sharp angle.

Willock went close with a deflected shot over the crossbar with West Ham wading timidly in the opening exchanges.

But West Ham, which looked much slower than the team forced on a 280-mile coach journey to London, finally started to come to life. Jarrod Bowen, playing with great confidence after scoring five goals in his last five league appearances, was only denied by Martin Dubravka’s exceptional save who drove his shot over the bar.

Willock was increasingly looking for a threat with his attacking attacks, but Newcastle needed more of a knockout blow in the final third, with striker Chris Wood still looking for a first goal since his transfer in January . Although David Moyes’ side struggled to get out of first gear in the first half hour, Craig Dawson took advantage of Aaron Cresswell’s free kick to take the lead with his second goal in as many games .

But Newcastle, unbeaten in the league since mid-December, deservedly equalized late in the first half after a poor defensive header from Declan Rice was seized by Willock, with his impeccably timed shot crossing the line via the post.

The second half grew increasingly scrappy and a flustered Saïd Benrahma appeared to vent his frustration at Moyes after being substituted in the final 20 minutes.

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West Ham found no ease for the remainder of the contest. It was another unconvincing performance, much to the annoyance of eager home fans, and one that suggested their top-four challenge was likely to fail.

But Newcastle have done admirably without two of their most influential players and their defensive improvement, inspired by recent signings Dan Burn and Matt Targett, has largely paid off. Their safety in the Premier League seems more secure every week.

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