European football returns to Sports Direct Arena (well, you know what I mean) on Thursday as Newcastle United bid to reach the group stages of the Europa League.
It has been five years since the ground formerly known as St James’ Park hosted a match in continental competition and to say that the club has changed since their 4-2 win against AZ Alkmaar is quite the understatement.
Back then, Glenn Roeder was manager (not a sentence you ever want to read about your club), Freddy Shepherd was chairman (not a sentence you ever want to read about your club) and Michael Owen was busy picking up his horse racing retirement fund by royally screwing over the club that he never wanted to play for in the first place.
Since then, Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, Joe ‘F******’ Kinnear and Alan Shearer have sat in the manager’s chair (not a sentence etc and so on), with relegation the eventual – inevitable? – result.
But first Chris Hughton and now Alan Pardew, together with the much-maligned owner Mike Ashley, who has turned the club around against all the odds and available evidence, have put Newcastle back competing in the top six, where they spent much of their time at the turn of the century.
And after suffering the schadenfreude of opposing fans for so long, the Toon Army will enjoy their European campaign, and deservedly so. There won’t be disdain for the Europa League from Newcastle – in fact, Pardew has said the club should ‘enjoy the adventure’ – and the Magpies will treat the competition with a respect that is lacking from most English teams who enter it.
That isn’t to say Pardew will always play his best team: you only have to look at last week’s 1-1 draw away to Atromitos in Greece to see that. But it was still a team strong enough to negotiate a tricky-looking tie and put themselves in a very strong position for the second leg.
Newcastle are clear favourites at 7/25 to win inside 90 minutes on Thursday, with the draw at 15/4 and the Greeks at 33/4, and even though the price is short, the Toon look primed for victory.
Pardew’s men have been brilliant at home in 2012, losing just one of 11 games, and that to champions Manchester City. Of their other ten games, eight have been won – six of those without conceding a goal.
Many of the players who featured in that sequence of results will probably not be involved, with Pardew set to make sweeping changes from the team that were below par in the defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge at the weekend, especially with a vital Premier League match against Aston Villa to come on Sunday.
Nonetheless, the team Pardew selects should be strong enough to see off the Greek challenge. Atromitos are shot shy away from home, scoring just 15 goals in their 15 away matches in the Greek Super League, and just four in the seven matches away to the top half of the division.
Only once did they emerge victorious from those seven encounters and with Greek sides notoriously poor travellers in Europe, it is difficult to give them much of a chance.
And with their record of finding the net on their travels, it might be worth going for the 7/10 that Atromitos do not score rather than the 7/25 on a Newcastle win.
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