SO far, it has felt like more like a hindrance than a reward for finishing fifth in the league last season. But when the draw for the next two rounds of the Europa League takes place in the Swiss town of Nyon this afternoon, Newcastle United will finally be able to remind themselves why they fought so hard to qualify for the competition in the first place.

If matches against the likes of Atromitos and Maritimo hardly whetted the appetite in the first half of the season, the list of Newcastle's potential opponents in the Europa League's last 32 confirms that things are about to step up significantly.

Benfica, Lazio, Steaua Bucharest - some of Europe's big boys lie in wait as the Magpies look forward to returning to continental competition in the middle of February.

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It is probably just as well because for all that Alan Pardew has talked about enjoying the Europa League, the group stage of the competition felt like a drag.

Newcastle's fringe players might have relished the opportunity to strut their stuff in the first team, and some, most notably Sammy Ameobi and Gael Bigirimana, have used the Europa League matches as a stepping stone to more regular senior action.

But the extra fixtures have had a major impact on the Magpies' domestic form and the switch to Thursdays and Sundays has been another contributory factor to the club's struggles in the Premier League.

The club's supporters might have enjoyed their trips to Brugge and Bordeaux, but while home attendances held up reasonably well in the group stage, it was hard to detect too much excitement on European nights.

That should change now, although the Newcastle delegation that attends todays draw will be harbouring mixed hopes.

On the one hand, the easiest draw possible will give the Magpies the best chance of being involved in the Europa League final in Amsterdam in May.

But on the other, a glamour game against a member of the European elite might be the shot in the arm Newcastle need as they attempt to haul themselves away from trouble at the foot of the Premier League table.

"We have entered this competition to try to win it", said Pardew, whose only previous European experience prior to this season saw him lead West Ham United to a two-legged defeat to Palermo. "That's what we've been trying to do from the outset.

"We're happy to be in the Europa League and have treated the competition with the respect it deserves right the way through. But we always have to balance that against the demands of the Premier League."

That balancing act will continue, although the domestic schedule tends to ease up slightly in the second half of the season and Newcastle's fixture list will be heavily influenced by the extent of their progression in the FA Cup.

Ideally, the Magpies will have to squeeze nine European matches into their plans between February and May. Later this afternoon, they will discover who the first two will pit them against.


After finishing second in their group, Newcastle are one of 16 unseeded teams in todays Europa League draw. They cannot face Bordeaux, who won their group, or English sides Chelsea and Liverpool, so they have 13 prospective opponents.


How Qualified: Dropped out of the Champions League after finishing behind Barcelona and Celtic
Form: Top of the Portuguese league and are unbeaten in domestic matches
Star Man: Oscar Cardozo
Difficulty Rating: *****


How Qualified: Dropped out of the Champions League after finishing behind Manchester United and Galatasaray
Form: Fifth in the Romanian league having recently appointed former Hearts boss Paulo Sergio
Star Man: Rafael Bastos
Difficulty Rating: ***


How Qualified: Topped their Europa League group ahead of PSV Eindhoven and Napoli
Form: Were the top scorers in the Europa League group stage and are second in the Ukrainian league
Star Man: Yevhen Konoplyanka
Difficulty Rating: ****


How Qualified: Topped their Europa League group ahead of Borussia Monchengladbach
Form: Have started the season strongly and are second in the Turkish top-flight
Star Man: Moussa Sow
Difficulty Rating: ***


How Qualified: Won a closely-contested Europa League group that also featured Basel and Sporting Lisbon.
Form: Better in Europe than in domestic competition as they are only fifth in the Belgian Jupiler League.
Star Man: Jelle Vossen
Difficulty Rating: *


How Qualified: Saw off FC Twente and Levante to win their Europa League group
Form: Like Newcastle, are struggling domestically and only find themselves 11th in the Bundesliga
Star Man: Mame Biram Diouf
Difficulty Rating: **


How Qualified: Unbeaten in Europe all season and finished above Tottenham
Form: Currently fourth in Serie A as they mount another push for European qualification
Star Man: Miroslav Klose
Difficulty Rating: ****


How Qualified: Comfortably topped their Europa League group ahead of Sparta Prague and Athletic Bilbao
Form: Were the highest points scorers in the group phase and share top spot in France's Ligue One
Star Man: Yoann Gourcuff
Difficulty Rating: *****


How Qualified: Edged out Rosenborg and Rapid Vienna to narrowly top their Europa League group
Form: Fourth in the Ukrainian top-flight after finishing third in the league last season
Star Man: Taison
Difficulty Rating: **


How Qualified: Dropped out of the Champions League after finishing behind Schalke and Arsenal
Form: Eight points clear at the top of the Greek league after winning the double last season
Star Man: Kostas Mitroglu
Difficulty Rating: ****


How Qualified: Won a tough Europa League group that included Italian giants Inter Milan
Form: Haven't reproduced their European form at home and entered the winter break in seventh position
Star Man: Salomon Rondon
Difficulty Rating: **


How Qualified: Won their Europa League group ahead of German side Stuttgart
Form: Romping to another title as they are ten points clear in the Romanian top-flight
Star Man: Alexandru Bourceanu
Difficulty Rating: ****


How Qualified: Finished ahead of Europa League holders Atletico Madrid to top their group
Form: Two points clear at the top of the Czech league after finishing second last season
Star Man: Pavel Horvath
Difficulty Rating: ***