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Time to take the Europa League seriously
FOR much of the first half of Newcastle United's season, the Europa League felt like a penance for having the audacity to finish in the top five of the Premier League in the previous campaign.
Now though, after eight thoroughly unremarkable matches in the preliminary round and group stage, it is payback time. The Europa League has wrecked Newcastle's season to this point – perhaps, in the remaining three months, it will ultimately prove its salvation.
It is to be hoped Alan Pardew sees it like that, as the Magpies manager's approach to the competition will go a long way towards dictating how successfully his side perform in it.
Thus far, Pardew has just about pulled off a tricky balancing act between the requirements of continental competition and the domestic demands made of a squad that has been short on numbers but big when it comes to the injury list.
Newcastle clambered out of the Europa League's group stage despite winning just two of their six matches, and while their Premier League survival is far from guaranteed despite the recent victories over Aston Villa and Chelsea, they have avoided the kind of full-scale implosion that briefly looked possible towards the end of last year.
The January transfer window came at the perfect time, with an influx of new French blood invigorating a squad that suddenly appears to boast depth in terms of both numbers and talent.
They cannot afford to take anything for granted domestically, but with five of their next seven league games pitting them against teams in the bottom half of the table, it is hard to see them being drawn into the real dogfight at the foot of the Premier League.
Perhaps Pardew will decide that resting his key men in Europe is the best way to make sure. If he does, he will surely be making an error of judgement.
Having slogged through the tough part of the Europa League campaign, why throw in the white towel now?
The Premier League schedule is less intense in the second half of the season, particularly with no FA Cup campaign to worry about, and with the injury list just about having cleared, options exist that were not available a few months ago.
There are some excellent sides left in the Europa League – Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Tottenham to name just four – but tonight's opponents, Metalist Kharkiv, should be beatable over two legs, and neither Anzhi Makhachkala nor Hannover should provide an insurmountable obstacle in the next round.
This is a competition Newcastle could do well in, and given the club's embarrassing record when it comes to actually winning things – almost 44 years without a major trophy and counting – they can ill afford to pass up any opportunity of silverware.
Middlesbrough supporters can confirm just how pleasurable it is to watch your side rampage through a European competition, and if Newcastle are not to give this their best shot, why on earth did they spend nine months slogging around the Premier League last season?
If things pick up next season, all the talk will be of targeting a place in Europe. Well that is exactly where the Magpies are now, potentially just four ties away from a European final.
If football was merely about financial figures, it would make sense to devote undivided attention to the Premier League. Thankfully, however, success is still about winning things. With that in mind, Newcastle owe it to themselves to give the Europa League a proper shot.
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