As the Europa League quarterfinal against Benfica draws nearer, Newcastle United find themselves closer to a relegation dogfight than they thought they were going to be. The defeat at Manchester City at the weekend, coupled with other teams’ results going against them have left the Magpies just three points above the drop zone with two days to go until they meet Benfica in Lisbon.
Before they were outclassed against Roberto Mancini’s side, the Geordies were sitting relatively comfortably above the relegation battle and looking forward to pitting their wits against European veterans Benfica.
Now, though, Newcastle have Premier League status to concentrate on consolidating as they head into crucial games against Fulham and bitter rivals Sunderland after both legs against the Portuguese side.
It’s been a familiar problem for manager Alan Pardew this season, as he constantly tries to figure a way to balance his side and compete evenly on two fronts. In short, he has done a good job in Europe, but Newcastle’s league position simply should not be as poor as it has been for the majority of the campaign.
But is it fair to base Newcastle’s league position purely on having to compete on two fronts?
As well as the Europa and Premier League, Pardew has had to deal with well-publicised problems such as injuries and a small, inexperienced squad.
However, the teams picked for Thursday nights on the continent have been sufficiently weakened—or so one would think—to allow the manager to rotate his top players back for league duty on a weekend.
Players like Tim Krul, Fabricio Coloccini, Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse were all allowed enough rest in the group stages of the Europa League and brought back into the side when the domestic campaign resumed. However, a lot of the time the squad still looked tired and were soundly outplayed.
The truth could be that the squad simply aren’t used to playing twice a week for most weeks and a season of bedding in could be what they need to acclimatise to competing so often.
Unfortunately, Newcastle won’t be playing Europa League football next season and they will have to qualify with a better 2013-14 Premier League season in order to prove that they can balance European and domestic campaigns equally.
With the team they have and the French contingent likely to grow in the summer, that shouldn’t be too much of an unrealistic target.
The squad possesses the quality that it needed to at the start of the season, when the task of competing on two fronts evenly was first facing the Magpies. If anything, Newcastle have been six months behind in their development, meaning one of the competitions would always suffer as a consequence this season.
So heading into their quarterfinal with Benfica, the Geordies will undoubtedly have a go at progressing into the last four and select the strongest side available to them.
They will have to learn from their mistakes earlier in the season though and win the upcoming crucial Premier League games in order to regroup next year and concentrate solely on a league campaign.
The next two weeks could be the most important in Newcastle’s recent history, with a chance of winning a European competition for the first time since 1969 being slightly overshadowed by their potential domestic plight.
It's time for Pardew to lead his team out of those shadows.