x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Goal is Europa League success for Newcastle United

English Premier League club have put a precedence on their European campaign against Anzhi Makhachkala for the moment, writes Richard Jolly.

Newcastle have the chance to knock the world's richest football club out of the Europa League. Stu Forster / Getty Images
Newcastle have the chance to knock the world's richest football club out of the Europa League. Stu Forster / Getty Images

The Europa League has defined Newcastle United's campaign. It has accounted for their underperformance in the Premier League, exposed the limitations of their squad and explained their January recruitment drive. It has threatened to break their season.

Now, instead, it could make it something special.

They host Anzhi Makhachkala tonight aiming to claim a victory over the world's richest club.

The hard work has been done, Newcastle securing a goalless draw with an obdurate performance in last week's uneventful first leg.

As much as the presence of the £30 million (Dh164.9m) midfielder Willian, who limped off, or the triple Champions League winner Samuel Eto'o in the Russians' ranks, it was the journey to Moscow and the subzero temperatures that rendered it an achievement.

Now regular travellers, who went still farther to face Metalist Kharkiv in the previous round, they are on the brink of completing a voyage into a first European quarter-final for eight years.

Having gone via Greece, Portugal, Belgium, France, Ukraine and Russia, Newcastle have taken the long route, but there is no short way. The Europa League is a test of clubs' endurance and adaptability.

Few dominate it from start to finish. Instead, as Newcastle manager Alan Pardew has done, they look to progress with mix-and-match line-ups.

Youngsters, squad players, men who are suspended for domestic duty: all are involved. And then, when an opportunity presents itself, they parachute in those who have been spared the most gruelling trips to far-flung locations.

Some get knocked out of Europe to concentrate on all things English. Newcastle's Premier League status was endangered as a result of their continental exertions.

Last season's surprise package were this year's unexpected strugglers, the extra workload producing the conclusion that while Pardew had a strong starting 11, when it was disrupted by injuries and exhaustion, some of the alternatives were inadequate.

And so summer deals were accelerated. While Anzhi were spending £30m - and immense wages - on Willian alone, Pardew paid £18m in January for Mathieu Debuchy, Yoan Gouffran, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Massadio Haidara and Moussa Sissoko.

The first two of the French invasion are ineligible in Europe. The other three played 90 minutes in Moscow and should be involved again tonight.

But so should Papiss Cisse and Jonas Gutierrez, spared 36 hours in Moscow, and Cheik Tiote and Steven Taylor, required only as substitutes. Newcastle's has been a season of shifting priorities and, as Cisse's last-minute goal against Stoke City on Sunday clinched their fourth win in six league games, Europe can take precedence.

With 33 points, they are almost safe. With progress, they would bring comparisons with Newcastle's recent golden age; in 2004, Sir Bobby Robson's team were semi-finalists, denied a trophy by Didier Drogba and Marseille.

Then, it was an ever-present topic of conversation that, despite their success under Kevin Keegan and Robson, Newcastle had not won a trophy since 1969.

During a subsequent slide, it has seemed less of an issue.

Eliminate Anzhi and, especially if other favourites such as Chelsea, Inter, Zenit St Petersburg and Benfica join Atletico Madrid, Lyon, Liverpool and Napoli in exiting the competition, Newcastle could find themselves propelled into contention. "As we have seen in Europe in the last few seasons, especially with Chelsea [in the Champions League] last year, if you put yourself in the mix towards the end of a tournament anything can happen," said Shola Ameobi, the striker.

And, as with the finest stories, there is an improbable element. "It's a fairy tale," said goalkeeper Rob Elliot, who is deputising for the injured Tim Krul. "I was playing in League One [for Charlton] a year and a half ago, and now I'm trying to keep out the highest-paid player in the world [Eto'o]."

A glance at the list of recent Uefa Cup and Europa League finalists, including Braga, Fulham, Rangers and Middlesbrough, shows this is a competition that can reward persevering underdogs.


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