ALAN Pardew has pledged to attack the Europa League by naming his “strongest cup team as Newcastle manager” for this evening's last-32 tie with Metalist Kharkiv.
Pardew rested a number of his key players in the first half of this season's Europa League, with Newcastle's faltering league form forcing him to adopt a circumspect approach to continental competition.
He has been similarly reluctant to field a full-strength team in the FA Cup and League Cup during his two years as Magpies manager, a stance that has contributed to his side's wretched recent record in knock-out football.
The Premier League remains Newcastle's overriding priority in the final three months of the season, but the arrival of five new players in the January transfer window, the morale boost provided by the recent wins over Aston Villa and Chelsea and the lack of any other cup action cluttering the fixture list has emboldened Pardew to the extent he will name a full-strength starting line-up tonight.
Mathieu Debuchy and Yoan Gouffran are ineligible, but the rest of the Newcastle team is likely to remain unchanged from the side that lost at Tottenham last weekend.
“I think it will probably be the strongest team I've ever sent out for a knock-out game while I've been Newcastle manager,” said Pardew. “I've been a bit unfortunate in previous cup competitions in terms of injuries, but I've got no complaints this time. The team will be the strongest it can be.
“In some ways, it feels like a fresh start in the competition. We're obviously going up a level in terms of the opposition – no disrespect to Bordeaux, who won our group, but I think Metalist are a bit stronger than them.
“This is a huge test for us, but the results from the last few weeks have helped in terms of setting us up for it. Although we know we're still in a situation where we have to win Premier League games, it's given us a little bit of breathing space to attack this competition.
“We've always had in our mind that we could eventually do that. We left if late to win two of our last three (in the Premier League) but we've got there in the end and that gives us a platform, with a squad that's so much bigger.
“Even if we were to get injuries now, we could cover them, whereas before we didn't have that luxury. We can enter the rest of this competition with a strong hand.”
With four English teams left in the Europa League – Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool are also in action tonight – the competition is likely to have a higher domestic profile than has been the case for a number of years.
The likes of Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, Lyon and Napoli lend Europe's secondary competition a rarefied air, with Newcastle's opponents this evening, Metalist, hardly representing an easy task given that they had won six of their previous seven outings prior to the start of the Ukrainian winter break in December.
Newcastle will hardly be relishing next week's trip to Kharkiv, where temperatures are currently well below freezing, so the cushion of a healthy first-leg lead would be extremely welcome.
Pardew watched Metalist in friendly action at Whitley Bay at the weekend, and cites Celtic's Champions League defeat to Juventus on Wednesday night as evidence of what can go wrong if British sides afford continental opponents too many opportunities on the counter-attack.
However, rather than worrying too much about what Metalist might offer, the Newcastle boss is more interested in the threat his own side will pose.
“It's great to come up against these international teams,” he said. “There's a different feel to these games and a different set of problems to overcome, but the type of football we play in the Premier League is quite unique.
“We are problematic for European teams, and we cause them a lot of problems that they normally don't encounter as a rule. We have to lean on our strengths in this competition, but not be naïve in terms of how we approach attacking our opponents because the counter-attacking strength at this level is very high.”
Tonight's game is expected to bring a first start for January signing Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, who was promoted into Newcastle's Europa League squad at the expense of Debuchy.
“It was a straight choice, and I thought that in terms of these games, Mapou would be more important,” said Pardew. “He can play at right-back or centre-half, whereas Debuchy can only really play in one position.
“That was a key element in my thinking, and I also felt the fact Steven Taylor had just returned might mean Mapou's chances in the Premier League would not be as great as Debuchy's. Therefore, that ticked the box again.”
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