Anzhi Makhachkala vs. Newcastle United, Thursday March 7
Europa League Round of 16
Venue: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET
Having never crossed paths in European competition before, Thursday’s Europa League meeting between Anzhi Makhachkala and Newcastle United brings with it a sense of enigma.
With the Russian transfer window finally slamming shut last week and the domestic season now back underway in that part of Eastern Europe, one can expect to see this week’s hosts fully fired up for a climactic close to the campaign.
In quite opposite fashion to their opponents, Alan Pardew’s Newcastle currently simmer somewhat disappointingly six points above the Premier League’s drop-zone and undoubtedly head into their Europa League duties as underdogs.
Having come on as a substitute in the last round's fixture against Hannover, it’s possible that Lacina Traore will return to Guus Hiddink’s starting lineup against the Magpies in a move that would see Samuel Eto’o shift further back.
The Russians have no serious injuries or suspensions to worry about and should have a fully fit squad at their disposal for Newcastle’s midweek visit.
On the other hand, Alan Pardew has a few more dilemmas on his mind and will be without both his first- and second-choice goalkeepers, Tim Krul and Steve Harper, suffering with ankle and knee injuries, respectively.
This leaves Rob Elliot to once again take up residence between the Magpies’ sticks after having filled in at No.1 for some of the earlier Europa League outings.
It’s also a doubt that Fabricio Coloccini will make a recovery in time for the trip to Russia after having come off with a recurring back problem in the 4-2 win over Southampton almost a fortnight ago.
Further up the field, it remains dubious as to whether Hatem Ben Arfa will feature after taking his time in recovering from a long-term hamstring issue, which has led Pardew to say he is disappointed with Ben Arfa's conditioning (via the Guardian).
A constant talisman amongst Anzhi’s Europa League campaign, picking up two man of the match awards along the way, Jucilei will be responsible for restricting the Magpies’ chain of command this Thursday.
Although the English side aren’t faring too well domestically, it’s the Tyneside club’s midfield that has the power to instantly change a game’s outcome.
Talents such as Yohan Cabaye, Moussa Sissoko and Hatem Ben Arfa (should he feature) will all be probing the opposition defence, and unless Jucilei can stop such notions, he risks allowing the likes of Papiss Demba Cisse running free.
Functioning from defensive midfield, the Brazilian has also proven valuable in an attacking sense this season, and with a passing success rate of 88.3 percent this season (via WhoScored), he can be expected to venture forward against Pardew’s men.
Newcastle: Moussa Sissoko
As aforementioned, Sissoko has been somewhat of a danger man for Newcastle since moving to St. James’ Park in January, or at least that would be putting it mildly.
The former Toulouse dynamo has made just seven appearances under Alan Pardew but already has three goals and two assists to his name, although all have come in the English top flight.
Against Anzhi, one can expect to see a large portion of the Newcastle attack flowing through Sissoko, although the Frenchman will also be present in a more defensive aspect for the visitors, too.
A well-rounded “engine room” player, the likes of Yoan Gouffran, Shola Ameobi and Papiss Demba Cisse will be looking to their midfield teammate to break up the play before initiating attacks for them to latch onto.
On the night, Newcastle will need to be firing on all cylinders if they’re to come away from the Luzhniki Stadium with something to work with in the return fixture.
Projected Anzhi XI
Vladimir Gabulov; Yuri Zhirkov, Arseniy Logashov, Ewerton, Joao Carlos; Lassana Diarra, Jucilei; Willian, Samuel Eto’o, Mbark Bhoussoufa; Lacina Traore
Projected Newcastle XI (Revised)
Rob Elliot; Davide Santon, Vurnon Anita, Mike Williamson, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa; Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye; Papiss Demba Cissé, Moussa Sissoko, Hatem Ben Arfa; Papiss Demba Cisse
Update: Hatem Ben Arfa has travelled to Moscow with the Newcastle United squad
Newcastle have an impressive record in the Europa League, but their necessity to divert resources to their Premier League plight means Pardew’s side is susceptible to change.
Anzhi are in a far superior position in their domestic campaign and can afford to throw all they have at European competition, something the Magpies should be wary of given their opponent’s big-spending habits in recent years.
The cold climates of Eastern Europe can often prove too much of a trip for English sides, and while one can’t pin this result entirely on location, Anzhi Makhachkala will just have too much up their sleeve for Newcastle.
Prediction: Anzhi 2-0
You can follow me on Twitter @TomSunderland_.