With their Premier League safety almost assured, Newcastle United find themselves with a unique opportunity to make their season a success. The Magpies take on Benfica in the Europa League quarterfinal April 4 and should Alan Pardew’s side pull off another against-the-odds victory, the 2012-13 season may well be remembered for something other than a poor domestic showing.
Benfica are one of the biggest names left in the competition at this stage, with Chelsea and Tottenham also bidding for European success.
But with all three of the above teams also attempting to balance their European schedule with their domestic aims, Newcastle may have more of a chance of progressing in the competition than one may think.
The two other English sides are battling for Champions League qualification for next season and with the race hotting up, the added distraction of the Europa League may not benefit either of the London residents.
Newcastle have the advantage when it comes to balancing their calendar though, as they sit in midtable mediocrity, clear of any real relegation danger and with half an eye on moving into the top half of the table by the time the season ends.
The Europa League can now be Pardew’s number one priority, while his only stand-out fixture in the Premier League is the derby day clash with Sunderland on April 14.
Newcastle can also take great heart from their last European outing, when a last-gasp header from Papiss Cisse sent the Geordies through at the expense of Guus Hiddink’s expensively assembled Anzhi Makhachkala.
The Magpies showed grit and determination to hang on in the first leg against Anzhi, before frustrating their opponents and nicking a late winner in the second. Seeing as the Russian giants were one of the favourites to lift the trophy in Amsterdam in May, Newcastle now knows they can live with the best the competition has to offer.
With that kind of confidence, the Magpies can be a real force in the Europa League. Another solid away leg in Portugal against Benfica will be required before the return leg will determine whether Newcastle can go through to the last four.
From a tactical point of view, Cisse seems to be returning to some kind of form after netting in two of his last three games, while Tim Krul and Fabricio Coloccini are expected to return in time for at least the second leg against Benfica.
Massadio Haidara—one of the stars of Newcastle’s European run—is likely to miss the rest of the competition after suffering a horrific injury when he clashed with Wigan’s Callum McManaman but depending on the rate of recovery, could return for the final should his side reach it.
In just over one week’s time, we will be slightly closer to knowing if the Magpies have what it takes to continue their dream adventure. Regarded as dark horses, Newcastle have a particular set of circumstances which could transpire to leave the Toon Army galloping towards the Europa League final in May.