Can Newcastle United really compete here?
Newcastle had a truly fantastic season last year, surprising everyone by finishing 5th, above Champions League and FA Cup winners Chelsea and big-spenders Liverpool. Going into the new campaign, though, the squad are faced with an altogether different challenge, replicating their league form while sustaining a presence in Europe and given the problems that they’ve had with bringing in fresh faces all summer, is their relatively thin squad up to the task?
The Europa League is a competition that’s often belittled when compared to its older brother, the Champions League, but last season, if it was entertaining, competitive and unpredictable football that you were after, you most definitely plumped for the so-called inferior tournament.
Newcastle have the potential to go very far into the latter stages should they take it seriously, but already, the signs are ominous that Pardew is going to be the latest in a long line of Premier League managers to treat the competition with a measure of disdain, following in the well-trodden footsteps of Harry Redknapp, Martin O’Neill and to an extent, Tony Pulis, who failed to field a full bench in his club’s second-leg exit to Valencia last season. Isn’t European football really what it’s all about? Does it get any better for some sides? Why bother busting a gut to qualify only to then turn around and show a distinct lack of interest in taking it seriously and competing in it? It truly boggles the mind.
Here’s what Pardew had to say in the Sunday Sun last month, where he intimated a reluctance to play a full strength side against Greek outfit Atromitos: “It’s our first European game and then two days later at Stamford Bridge for a tough game. I can’t see me playing the same team in both games. Physically it is almost impossible. I might even leave five players behind and not make them travel because I’m hoping the squad is going to be good enough for two competitions.”
This just further presses home the need to add more depth to the squad this summer, with Pardew likely to throw the likes of Romain Amalfitano, Gael Bigirimana, Sammy Ameobi and Haris Vuckic right into the deep end with their side’s away trip to Athens – their first game in Europe since 2006-7 where a 4-4 draw on aggregate against AZ Alkmaar saw them miss out on a place in the then UEFA Cup quarter-finals under Glenn Roeder.
Looking at the current Newcastle squad, and while trying not to fall into the same trap as those that predicted a relegation battle for the side last term, they have a huge task on their hands to copy their league form during last term, which was carried on the back of Demba Ba in the first half of the season, then Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa in the second half – the pure power of a goalscorer.
Last season’s unexpected success story was built around several players performing out of their skins and it’s simply unrealistic to expect the likes of Danny Simpson, Ryan Taylor and Mike Williamson to perform as well again this time around, which is why Mathieu Debuchy, Douglas and Vurnon Anita have been rather understandably targeted this summer.
When you take a look at the first-choice starting eleven of Pardew’s side and it’s littered with strong partnerships all over the pitch – there’s Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini at centre-back, Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye in centre-midfield and the fluid attacking triumvirate of Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa further forward, not to mention the steady Tim Krul in goal.
The spine of the side is very strong, one of the best currently operating in the top flight, but like many teams are seeking to do before the transfer window closes, they do look worryingly short on depth, which is only more likely to be exposed when you play a European game on Thursday and a Premier League one just a few days later on the Sunday, not to mention all the travelling and extra game certain key squad players will be playing in.
Certain players that have found themselves struggling to get first-team opportunities such as Sylvain Marveaux, Dan Gosling and Gabriel Obertan (in the second half of last season anyway) may be called upon to drag the side through the group stages if they can. We just had to see the effect that travelling all around Europe had on Stoke’s league form last season – the chances are with such a thin squad, you’re going to forsake either one competition or another, and I very much doubt if Pardew will risk not building upon last season’s magnificent fifth-placed finish in the league if he can.
To say that Newcastle might potentially struggle in the Europa League this coming campaign is no slight on either the manager or the current squad, just a realistic assessment of a thin squad managing to perform to the best of their abilities over the course of 60 or so games – form will obviously drop and inconsistency will surely set in.
If the club are to move forward, it’s absolutely imperative that they strengthen this summer, because while they may have a few youngsters capable of filling in from time to time should the occasion call for it, they’re far from being the sort of relied upon first-team members you’d want to see playing every game for the club in Europe.
The club will priorities their league commitments over anything else, more out of necessity than want, and with such a threadbare squad beyond their excellent first eleven, you couldn’t really ask for anything else until more depth and cover is added.
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