FOX Soccer Exclusive
Newcastle faces growing predicament
It’s been a long time since Newcastle United last won a trophy.
It did, it’s true, lift the Intertoto Cup in 2006 but by then it was a strange competition, essentially a preliminary for the UEFA Cup; 11 teams making it through to the more important tournament, with the side that went the furthest in it lifting what was by then not a trophy but a plaque (Newcastle won by reaching the last 16).
Realistically, though, Newcastle’s last success came in 1969 in the Fairs Cup, the forerunner to the UEFA Cup, which itself is now the Europa League. And it is the hope of repeating that success that has kept what might otherwise have been a hugely disappointing season alive.
Newcastle faces Benfica in Lisbon in the first leg of the Europa League (live, FOX Soccer 2Go, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET) with the possibility of glory now distinct. Yet at the same time, there is an awareness that relegation from the Barclays Premier League remains a possibility. Queens Park Rangers and Reading are both seven points adrift and, with seven games remaining for each, are surely as good as down, but the third relegation position remains hauntingly open. Seven teams are separated by just four points and one of them will go down.
A splurge in the transfer window in January seemed to have arrested the downward momentum, but consecutive defeats to Wigan Athletic and Manchester City have brought the possibility of relegation nearer once again. Newcastle stands three points clear of third-bottom Aston Villa and although it did win four matches out of six in a run from the end of January, it has lost 14 of its last 21 in the league. With a Tyne-Wear derby against Paolo Di Canio’s Sunderland, a place below it in the table, coming up a week come Sunday, this Sunday’s league game at home to Fulham is vital.
This makes balancing the twin demands of the two competitions extremely difficult, as the Newcastle manager Alan Pardew admitted. “We have done well in the Europa League, but it can't detract from the Premier League," Pardew said. "We have to make sure we are safe. We need two victories at least, and maybe a third or a fourth to get ourselves into a strong position. The Europa League is going to put us under pressure, because we are missing some big players at the moment.”
The central defender Fabricio Coloccini and the forward Hatem Ben Arfa are long-term absentees, while Cheick Tiote, Davide Santon and Mathieu Debuchy are all major doubts for the Benfica game. Remarkably, Massadio Haidara could return in Lisbon just two and half weeks after being on the receiving end of that horror tackle from Wigan Athletic’s Callum McManaman.
Teams in the past – Aston Villa under Martin O’Neill and Bolton Wanderers under Gary Megson – have fielded weakened teams in the UEFA Cup, effectively sacrificing the chance of glory for financial reasons. Villa missed out on its goal of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League, while Bolton’s immediate response to a European exit was to embark on a run of five games from which it took a single point although it did recover that season to avoid relegation. And that’s the problem with prioritizing one competition over another.
The danger of fielding a full-strength team is exhausting players; the danger of fielding a weakened team is not merely that the chance of a trophy slips away again, but that it can disrupt a team’s rhythm and a defeat can diminish confidence. "We need everybody to be positive about us,” the defender Steven Taylor said after Saturday’s meek 4-0 capitulation to Manchester City. Our form has been good since January since the new signings have come in; we need results on the board.”
And for him at least, that includes against Benfica. "It's a massive game for Newcastle and hopefully we can nick a goal out there," Taylor added. "It's important to get that goal because the Anzhi game was advantage to them coming to St James' [after a 0-0 draw in Russia] and very difficult in the second leg. Hopefully we'll go to Benfica confident and playing better than we did against Manchester City."
Newcastle is one of three English clubs in action in the last eight. At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea's Rafa Benitez continues his attempt to pluck the “great season” he discussed after Monday’s FA Cup quarterfinal replay victory over Manchester United from a mess of a season against Rubin Kazan (live, FOX Soccer, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET). The Russian side, based around the holding midfield pair of the Spaniard Pablo Orbaiz and the Israeli Biibras Natkho, has conceded just once in seven games since returning after the winter break and has shown its durability by outlasting Atletico Madrid and Levante in the last two rounds.
Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, is at home to an FC Basel side (live, FOX Soccer Plus, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET) that seems surprised to be in the last eight and is intent on enjoying the ride. “We have nothing to lose,” said the coach Murat Yakin. “We have earned the opportunity to play against teams like these. It's already a huge accomplishment to be in the last eight of the Europa League.”
The other quarterfinal sees Lazio travel to Istanbul to face Fenerbahce (live, FOX Soccer 2Go, 2 p.m. ET) with the Serie A club favored to advance to the semifinal round. "Of all the teams competing in the Europa League this season, Lazio just seem to be one step ahead of the rest," said Fenerbahce coach Aykut Kocama. "It will be an extremely challenging game and one that is so valuable to us. Therefore, playing as a team will be crucial and we will have to score."