Newcastle face Benfica at home with their Europa League hopes hanging in the balance, facing the difficult prospect of having to overturn a two-goal deficit in front of their own fans to have any hope of progressing to the final four, and while their European journey has been superb so far, are they in danger of getting their priorities muddled up with their top flight safety yet to be fully secured?
It’s clear that with 36 points from 32 games, the Magpies have had an extremely disappointing season on the domestic front, failing to fully build on last year’s quite brilliant fifth-placed finish, being hindered by a reluctance to spend any sort of money in the summer, a serious mistake which has since been corrected during the January transfer window. They currently occupy 13th place in the Premier League, where they sit five points above the drop zone, boosted up the table courtesy of Papiss Cisse’s 90th minute winner at home to Fulham, the Senegal striker’s fourth of the season in the dying moments of a game.
However, cast your mind back to early March and after beating a Stoke side in free-fall 2-1 at home, Pardew told reporters on the topic of relegation: “That’s done, we won’t worry about that now.” As it happens, it’s turned out to be a startlingly premature judgement from a normally cautious manager. With the Tyne-Wear derby game still to play, not to mention Liverpool, Arsenal and difficult games away at West Brom and West Ham, they are far from out of the mix down the bottom just yet and the magic 40-point mark this season may not be enough, with Wigan and Aston Villa showing signs of life the past month or so. This is not a time to count your chickens.
The club’s run in the Europa League this season has been like a breath of fresh air for the area and the fans and despite struggling to juggle his relatively thin squad prior to getting some much-needed new faces into the club in January, it’s good to see a manager taking the competition seriously and giving it the respect it deserves. The likes of Tony Pulis, Martin O’Neill and Harry Redknapp all treated it as a distraction in the past, which is an insult to those fans that travel thousands of miles and spend small fortunes of coming to see a weakened team turn out in a game the club seemingly couldn’t care less about, but they’re now within touching distance of the final four.
However, in all honesty, the club’s European adventure is all but over this season now and it’s time to focus more on the bread and butter of the league. They’re simply not going to turn around a two-goal deficit against a Benfica side that have won their last eight games on the bounce and have scored 107 goals in all competitions this season. That would mean they need to keep one of the competition’s most feared strikers in Oscar Cardozo quiet for ninety minutes and it’s unlikely that a somewhat inconsistent defence is going to be able to do that.
Where Pardew will find a crumb of comfort ahead of the game is that his side have conceded just once at home in six games in the competition this term – that goal coming during the 1-1 draw with Maritimo back in November, but Jorge Jesus’ side are a different kettle of fish entirely and a significant step up in quality.
Being stretched across two competitions all campaign has taken its toll on the squad, with Hatem Ben Arfa, Davide Santon, Fabricio Coloccini, Mathieu Debuchy and Cheikh Tiote all set to miss the game on Thursday night through injury. Of course, that isn’t to mention the significant time that Yohan Cabaye and Tim Krul have spent sidelined this term and it’s had a knock-on effect on their ability to compete consistently in the league.
Since welcoming the likes of Sissoko, Debuchy, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Yoan Gouffran to the club, Newcastle’s league form reads played nine, won five and lost four. They’re far from the finished article, but they finally have some depth in the squad now and Pardew has options to pick from, even if they still look a little light up front after the departure of Demba Ba.
Pardew argued in the aftermath of the Fulham win: “I inherited that West Ham team in the Championship [in 2003] that had gone down on 42 points. You can’t underestimate this year that it might be a points total like that you need, so we’re far from safe yet. The whole bottom half is looking over their shoulder, so we’ve still got work to do.”
Now that he has an accurate reflection of the task in hand and the magnitude of how close they still remain to the drop zone, while it may not prove to be the most popular move, the real big game this week is the clash against local rivals Sunderland, rather than chasing the pipe dream of Europa League progress. Resting players and rotating his squad to keep them fresh from what could be their biggest league game of the entire season is the smart move to make keeping in mind what promises to be a challenging run-in.
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