Having reached the halfway stage in their Europa League group stage campaign, Newcastle can reflect on their work done on the European front with more satisfaction than that of their league campaign.
Although their group was not the most challenging, Alan Pardew must be congratulated for getting this far without any major embarrassments – which is more than can be said for Tottenham’s Andre Villas-Boas, who saw his side fail to win any of their first three group games – and get positive results and professional, committed performances out of his players without ever having to deploy a truly full-strength side – which is more than can be said for Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers, who having lost to Udinese was forced to play a very strong team against Anzhi Makhachkala and thereby risk injury.
Although the performances against Maritimo and Club Bruges were efficient rather than outstanding, credit must all the same go to the players for not slipping up – and the performance against the much stronger Bordeaux (who admittedly are still far from the side they were in winning Ligue 1 in 2009) – was very impressive.
As such, all things considered, Newcastle’s campaign so far has been very pleasing in the sense that results have been achieved, squad players and youth prospects have been given game time, and no key players have received serious injuries.
The Europa League is a competition which, for all its criticism and deriding in England, is still of a very high standard, and one only has to see how much effort the likes of Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid and Porto have put into winning it in recent years to understand that it is held in very high regard in most other countries.
That said, the group stage is still fairly tedious, often featuring unnecessarily large numbers of long arduous trips to clubs who are, with all due respect, of a far lower level, and perhaps the qualification system should be improved in this respect to improve the standard of the competition proper – the competition would be far more popular if every group consisted of more teams like Newcastle, Lyon, Marseille, Atletico and Inter Milan and less teams like Neftchi and Hap Kryat Shmona.
This is not to suggest that such teams do not deserve to be there; however it must be said that given the ease with which most top teams who take the competition seriously tend to beat them, they should perhaps be given more of a challenge in qualifying for the tournament.
So how are Newcastle’s prospects shaping up for the rest of the competition?
Well, provided potentially tricky away fixtures in Belgium and the Southwest of France do not prove to be too much for the players Pardew chooses to use in those fixtures, they should finish top of their group, which will probably allow for a much easier tie in the knockout stage, and will avoid potential Champions League dropouts.
The most potentially difficult 2nd placed teams out there are currently Anzhi Makhachkala – although Liverpool beat them at Anfield, it remains to be seen how they will fair in the away fixture in Russia – and Inter Milan – who despite not being the force of two years ago will still be a formidable opponent. Of the two Inter are probably the more preferable draw – the glamour and sheer name of the opponents will bring a fantastic atmosphere out of St. James’ Park and will draw a lot of motivation out of the players themselves.
So, in conclusion, a job well done for Newcastle so far, and although they have a long way to go before they can guarantee qualification from their group, it is now worth thinking about what may be to come for them in by far the most enjoyable part of what is a very underrated competition.
What do you think? Are you happy with the progress we have made?