Newcastle United's season is resting on a precipice. Having already qualified for the last-32 of the Europa League, Alan Pardew must now decide whether to pursue the trophy or whether qualifying for it next season is more important.
Last season, the Magpies were one of the most exciting and adventurous teams in the Premier League. They started off in impeccable form and went unbeaten until late November before eventual champions Manchester City brought that run crashing to a halt.
Indifferent form, bad luck and a loss of confidence then conspired to work against Pardew and his team before they turned their season back on track. Heading into the home straight, Newcastle were just outside the European places. However, a stunning run of seven wins in eight games saw them eventually finish fifth on 65 points—just four points behind Tottenham Hotspur in fourth—and achieve qualification in Europe in the process.
After such an impressive season that had seen them brush aside the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, it was no surprise to see Alan Pardew claim both the Premier League Manager of the Year and the League Manager's Association Manager of the Year awards.
To put this achievement into context, only Sir Alex Ferguson (1999 and 2011) and Arsene Wenger (2004) have achieved this management double before.
Newcastle and Pardew were on the crest of a wave. While it shocked the football world that he was given an unprecedented eight-year contract in September—it was hardly surprising given his recent awards.
Moving into this season, most expected Newcastle to pick up where they left off last term. The truth could not have been more different.
Their Premier League form has all but collapsed, and after 13 games, they only have 14 points. Add in the fact that Newcastle have only won three matches all season and that they are just four points above the relegation zone and you begin to realise how poor they have been.
In direct contrast to their poor league form, Newcastle is unbeaten in the Europa League across seven games. They are also the only English team to have booked their place in the knockout stages.
The backdrop to their poor domestic form and their imperious away form is an injured list that would make most managers baulk at what lies ahead.
"We've got 11 senior players out and it looks like Steven Taylor could be another one out for a while with a hamstring injury, " he told BBC Sport's Nabil Hassan. He then suggested that his wafer-thin squad were being stretched by the constant barrage of matches.
"The difference between last season and this is playing in the Europa League," he said before adding, "I feel sorry for the young players like Shane Ferguson who are trying to find their feet in this league, they are trying to find some confidence and it us hard for them.
"We are not creating the chances that we did last season. Everything seems to be going against us and we have to be tough."
The main problem Newcastle and Pardew have is the importance of the players who are out injured. The Magpies do not possess the riches of Manchester United nor the squad depth of Manchester City so they will always struggle when key players are missing.
To address this issue Alan Pardew is going to have to be more than clever.
Most importantly he is going to have to decide what is more important; the Premier League or the distraction of the Europa League.
Make no mistake about it: The Magpies are in relegation form and have only won three of their last 15 Premier League matches.
In Europe, they are unbeaten and have a real chance at winning the Europa League. However, given the poor prize money on offer, an estimated £6 million if they are lucky, they might be better off concentrating upon their own domestic competition.
Pardew and Newcastle now run the very real risk of being sucked into Europe and taking their eye off the Premier League.
If this distraction should happen, their poor form, huge injury list and Europe will conspire together to leave the Magpies and Alan Pardew staring down the barrel of a very real relegation battle.
In an ideal world a long campaign in the Europa League would be just reward and a perfect way to move the club onto the next phase of their development.
The truth, however, is that Newcastle are in trouble and are now fighting fires in almost every department.
Fixture lists don't come much tougher than that and Alan Pardew will have to concentrate on which one he thinks is most important: Europa League or Premier League.
The elephant in the room while Pardew deals with his growing injury list and fixture pile-up is the potential loss of Demba Ba. The Senegalese striker has a buy-out clause in his contract and as January nears potential suitors will come out of the woodwork in a bid to capyure him.
He would be an excellent signing for any Premier League team but Liverpool. Chelsea and Arsenal are expected to be the main bidders.
Pardew is now fighting fires on all fronts and must put them out quickly.
Newcastle's future depends on it.
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