Newcastle United face a vital few days for their season when two visitors depart from their respective Stadium of Lights bound for Tyneside.
There have been suggestions that Alan Pardew’s men should prioritise Sunday’s relegation six-pointer with local enemies Sunderland over Thursday night’s Europa League quarter-final second leg with Benfica.
However, that assumption surely overlooks the fact that the St James’ Park faithful will not want their side to throw in the continental towel having gone close to half a century without a trophy.
I expect Newcastle to give their all on Thursday as they aim to overturn a 3-1 deficit – especially after Papiss Cisse’s late weekend winner against Fulham arguably moved them one more win away from Premier League safety – but they are still 37/20 outsiders to claim a victory in 90 minutes.
That price is perhaps explained by Benfica’s formidable current crop living up to the club’s proud history and the Lisbon side have lost just once away from home in all competitions this season – a 2-1 Champions League defeat at Spartak Moscow in October.
After seeing off a decent Newcastle showing last week, riding their luck at times before securing their two-goal advantage, Benfica are 27/20 to win the second meeting in the north-east, while the odds on a draw are 12/5.
And unfortunately for the Magpies, a quick glimpse at Benfica’s European away days this season suggests that the Eagles are well versed in the art of keeping things tight when needed.
They have claimed goalless draws at Barcelona and Celtic in the Champions League and took a 1-0 win at Bayer Leverkusen in the last 32 of this competition.
Pardew has expressed concerns about the Portuguese giants’ threat on the break in the lead-up to the game and that fear could lead to a cagey encounter.
You can get 19/10 on there being no goals in the first half, while a 17/4 bet on Benfica to win a match with two goals or less could pay off should Newcastle then venture forward late on in a bid to claw the first-leg deficit back and leave space to be punished.
However, it is the former price which makes the most appeal, especially when you consider that Newcastle’s last three Europa League home games have all been goalless at the interval (and four of the last five).
Punters registering with bwin today can claim a free £20 bet and placing this on Newcastle v Benfica to be 0-0 at half-time would return a cool £58 if successful.
Newcastle fans who reckon their heroes will pull off a famous escape can back them to reach the semi-finals at 11/2, with their most likely triumphant scoreline of 2-0 a tempting option at a large 13/1.
But considering how evenly-matched the sides were in Lisbon last week – and Pardew’s understandable desire not to adopt a gung-ho approach from the first whistle – the 0-0 half-time shout is where my money will be going.
Whether that will serve as a platform for a rousing second-half display to send Benfica packing remains to be seen.