Written by Alex Snow August will see Newcastle take part in European competition for the first time since 2004-05 under the management of Grame Souness – when despite Alan Shearer finishing as top goalscorer with eleven goals, the Magpies exited at the quarter final stage following a 4-2 aggregate defeat to eventual runners up Sporting Lisbon.
However, their prospects are arguably brighter this time round, with a much stronger, better balanced side, and a more intelligent and tactically astute manager in Alan Pardew. Newcastle’s tactical flexibility certainly impressed many in their Premier League successes last season, with the fluid 4-3-3 generally employed to be a success, and their ability to switch to other formations according to opponent – such as their change to a flat 4-4-2 in the 2-0 win over Liverpool.
In a footballing world where more and more English teams are being undone by tactical inflexibility – the most obvious example from the past few weeks would be the way England were dominated by Italy and Andrea Pirlo in the Euros purely because Roy Hodgson failed to adjust his 4-4-2 to incorporate the allowing of a player to close him down and put pressure on him.
Rooney appeared to be doing this job, but gave up after half an hour and from then on England rarely left their half. However, as noted this is not an issue with the current Newcastle side, and that along with the general standard of the current squad means that provided they can hold on to their key players Newcastle should be a force to be reckoned with in next season’s Europa League.
However, their competition will be formidable. Unlike in England, the Europa League is for the most part greatly valued as a trophy on the Continent, and is viewed as being behind only the Champions League and the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga in terms of importance.
Indeed, teams in all the aforementioned leagues besides the Premier League tend to play very strong sides in the Europa League, unlike many English managers who are somewhat perplexing in their backwards views as to the importance of this competition – should they choose to take it seriously, many English players could gain invaluable experience of continental opposition which would greatly benefit the strength of the national side, as they would then be prepared for a different style of play to that which they were used to.
It was sad and bewildering to see, for example, Tony Pulis naming a severely weakened Stoke side with only 4 players on the bench for a knockout tie against Valencia – a side which would finish comfortably in the Premier League’s top 6. As it would seem that Pardew is far more intelligent in terms of appreciating the opportunity to compete in a trophy which is undervalued in this country, it would be worth assuming that he will take the competition seriously and I have as such decided to put together a small factfile of each of the teams competing in the Europa League that could provide Newcastle with the biggest problems.
Obviously it is impossible to give a clear favourite for the competition this early on as many potential transfers have yet to go through but it would still be well worth examining potential opposition – local opponents Spurs and Liverpool are excluded from this.
Bayer Leverkusen had by their standards a less than impressive season last term. The manager who had guided them into the Champions League in 2011, Jupp Heynckes, had left, and his successor, Robin Dutt, did not last the entire year, being replaced by his assistant Sami Hyypia as caretaker.
Although this did not lead to an upturn in fortunes, the team held onto their 5th position in the Bundesliga til the end of the year. Despite an impressive Champions League group stage campaign which saw them beat Chelsea and qualify ahead of Valencia, they were humiliated in the knockout round by Barcelona, losing 7-1 at Camp Nou and 10-2 on aggregate.
Their star player is without a doubt Andre Schurrle, the lightning quick and impressively hard working winger who has recently attracted the attention of Chelsea, although defensive midfielder and utility man Lars Bender and playmaker Renato Augusto also constitute key players. Should they get a good manager over the summer, they will represent a tricky tie for anybody they come up against.
The Spaniards: Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao
The two contestants of last year’s final will be no strangers to most English fans. Under former Argentine International Diego Simeone, Atletico sealed a solid 5th place finish last season, only missing out on the Champions League on the final day, as well as their well-publicised Europa League triumph.
If faced, their player to watch will undoubtedly be the majestic talent that is Radamel Falcao. A name that is surely familiar to most by now, he is one of the best of what could be considered “all-rounder” forwards – there are those such as the likes of Andy Carroll who are clearly strongest in the air, those such as Jermain Defoe who poach tap-ins, and those such as Luis Suarez and Robin Van Persie who are “false nines”, dropping deep to create as well as score.
However, Falcao is one of a rare breed – an out-and-out striker who can and frequently does score different types of goals from all over the pitch, be it 3 yards or 30. Ably assisting him are talented players such as Eduardo Salvio, Arda Turan and Adrian Lopez. They will very much fancy their chances of retaining their title.
Athletic Bilbao represent a much more familiar foe for English supporters. Their sensational destruction of Man Utd last season – the 5-3 aggregate scoreline doesn’t begin to portray their dominance – brought them very much to the public eye. Managed by the great Marcelo Bielsa, a mentor and hero of Pep Guardiola, they have combined a short passing style similar to that of Barcelona with the power, speed and intensity of many English teams.
However, they have suffered from their “Basque players only” rule – laudable though it is that they rely solely on homegrown talent, it leads to a very small squad and their physically and mentally exhausting style saw them burn out towards the end of last season to finish 10th in La Liga, 9 points from the Champions League spots, and get taken apart by the brilliance of Falcao in the Europa League final. There will be serious question marks as to whether they can keep hold of the likes of Llorente, Muniain and Javi Martinez, but if they can, they will without doubt be able to match their performance of last year.
The Italians: Napoli and Inter
Napoli enjoyed a fairly fruitful season last year – under the leadership of Walter Mazzarri and using their unorthodox 3-4-1-2 formation they won the Coppa Italia and finished 5th in Serie A, although they will have been disappointed not to have been able to qualify for the Champions League for the second year running and the departure of star striker Ezequiel Lavezzi to PSG may prove to be a big loss, despite the signings of Goran Pandev and exciting Chilean prospect Eduardo Vargas from Universidad de Chile.
Much will hinge on whether they can keep hold of the other jewels in their crown, namely Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik. However, with the likes of Gokhan Inler and Christian Maggio in their side, they will still represent a threat even without those two.
Finally, Internazionale. Finishing a disappointing 6th in Serie A last year, seeing 3 different managers (Leonardo, Gian Piero Gasperini and Claudio Ranieri) leave between June 2011 and the same time the following year, the club has not looked the same since Jose Mourinho and Samuel Eto’o left.
Wesley Sneijder has not looked himself since their Champions League winning season in 2010, Diego Forlan was signed from Atletico Madrid but scored just 2 goals and has sinced moved on, stalwarts such as Cambiasso, Maicon and the legendary Javier Zanetti are only getting older, and Philippe Coutinho has not lived up to the early promise he showed during Rafa Benitez’s short-lived reign.
Moreover, had it not been for Diego Milito’s 26 goals last season, they may have faced a first season out of Europe entirely since the 1992-3 season, which followed an 8th place finish. Despite all this, however, for many Newcastle fans they may still represent the pick of the bunch, due to the glamour that comes with any club with a history as rich as theirs, and the opportunity to play at the San Siro, undoubtedly one of the greatest stadiums in the world.
In conclusion, there was, sadly, too much to say to have been able to include all the clubs which have a strong chance of winning next season’s Europa League – honourable mentions go to Lyon, Lazio, Stuttgart, Sporting Lisbon and Marseille, but provided Newcastle can pick up where they left off at the end of last season they should go into the competition fearing nobody – and if they can do that they can certainly go far.