There wasn’t a soul who predicted it 12 months ago, but Thursday sees the return to European competition of Newcastle United, six years since they last took on the rest of the continent.
A fifth-placed finish in last year’s Premier League was beyond the wildest dreams of the Toon Army and it must be remembered exactly what state Newcastle were in this time last year to appreciate how unlikely this was.
With open mutiny from the fans against owner Mike Ashley, Newcastle had let the majority of their senior players (Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton, Jose Enrique) leave for one reason and another, this coming just months after selling Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35 million, with little of the proceeds being put aside for team strengthening.
Manager Alan Pardew was the unpopular choice to replace the harshly sacked and much-admired Chris Hughton and with the general mood around the club one of disillusionment, there were even whispers that the Magpies were about to come down with a bad dose of second-season syndrome and struggle against relegation back to the Championship.
I think Newcastle have enough about them to sneak a low-scoring victory to make the second leg a formality and at even money, the straight up Toon win has enough appeal.
How foolish that all looks in hindsight. Quite how it was turned into a campaign that threatened Champions League qualification right up until the final weekend of the season is a credit to everyone at the club – including Ashley, who seems to be in the good books these days on the Gallogate End – and a first foray into Europe since the 2005/06 season is the least the club deserves.
The Europa League is a different competition to the UEFA Cup as Newcastle will remember it, in the sense that there are group stages and general antipathy towards it from the English contingent who take part (the rest of Europe are happy to try to win it, perhaps the English should take note) and it will be interesting to see how Pardew goes about this European campaign as the season progresses.
The former West Ham boss will probably prioritise the Premier League, but given that Newcastle’s trophy drought is longer than a Pink Floyd record, if the Magpies were to start well Pardew would surely be under duress to try to win a cup, which would see him deified on Tyneside.
In the short term, the match in Greece against Atromitos Athinon, sandwiched in between Premier League games against Tottenham and Chelsea, is certainly the least important game Newcastle will play this week and without team news it is a hard match to assess.
Newcastle are the evens favourites to take a lead back to the Sports Direct Arena for the second leg, with Atromitos priced at 5/2 and the draw at 11/5, and much will depend on how Pardew plays his hand here.
With a trip to Chelsea to come on Saturday tea-time, it is highly unlikely that he will play his star men (in the case of Hatem Ben Arfa he has no choice, with the Frenchman suspended) but Newcastle have a good enough squad to field a competitive team and can come back to England with a result.
Atromitos finished fourth in Greece’s Super League last season, despite not being one of the traditional powerhouses of Greek football. A meeting with an English club is a real red-letter day and the aim for coach Dušan Bajević is to still be in the tie in a week’s time.
So Atromitos will keep it tight, but then again, they always seem to. Their home matches last season averaged just 1.67 goals, with just 25 goals scored in 15 games.
That gives an indication of how the home side will play it and depending on who Newcastle field, this will determine how likely the away breakthrough will be. But even if it isn’t Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba, I think Newcastle have enough about them to sneak a low-scoring victory to make the second leg a formality and at even money, the straight up Toon win has enough appeal.
At bigger odds, the 17/4 on Draw/Newcastle in the double result market may also be worth a small play. Atromitos won’t want to be out of the tie before they are in it and it could be a cagey first half against a much-changed Newcastle team.
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