IT has been a difficult season for Newcastle United, but with tonight's Europa League decider with Metalist Kharkiv offering a route to the last 16 of the competition, Alan Pardew is hoping it could still turn out to be a great one.
The Magpies take on Kharkiv in the Metalist Stadium knowing a score draw will be sufficient to take them through following last week's goalless first leg at St James' Park.
With Newcastle lying 16th in the Premier League ahead of Sunday's game with Southampton, and having exited both the FA Cup and Capital One Cup at an early stage, the Europa League represents the only opportunity to achieve any meaningful success this season.
And while the likes of Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and Chelsea will be hoping to make their own mark on European football's secondary competition, Pardew feels his side will be more than capable of holding their own in the latter stages provided they negotiate a considerable obstacle in Ukraine.
“There is a possibility that this could still be a great season,” said the Newcastle boss, who put his team through their paces on the Metalist Stadium pitch last night. “If I look at my best team, I would feel confident putting my best team up against any team left in this competition.
“I've not really had that opportunity so far, but we're a lot stronger for this game and if we get through this tie, I think we'll have as good a chance as anybody else.”
To that end, Pardew will honour his pledge to name a strong starting line-up despite the importance of the league game that will come less than 72 hours later.
Davide Santon and Hatem Ben Arfa were the only notable absentees from the squad that flew to Kharkiv yesterday afternoon, with the former rested after starting all of Newcastle's league matches this season and the latter not risked after only returning to full training on Monday following a hamstring injury.
In Santon's absence, January signing Massadio Haidara could make his first appearance for the Magpies, although Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Danny Simpson and James Perch provide alternatives in the full-back berths.
Ben Arfa, who has been absent for ten weeks, has been recuperating at the French national technical centre at Clairefontaine, and while he will not be involved in tonight's game or the weekend match with Southampton, he could feature at Swansea a week on Saturday.
“It was a no-brainer with Ben Arfa really,” said Pardew, who has been able to name a fit-again Dan Gosling in his squad for the first time since early October. “He has only been with us for two days after leaving Clairefontaine, who have put him in a fantastic physical condition. We thank them for that. It shows the relationship we have with them.
“He is in a good condition, but lacks match fitness so we would hope to get him up to speed for the next round if things go well. Sunday will also come too early for him, but if he progresses well, I would like to think he could have a cameo role off the bench at Swansea.”
Had either of Papiss Cisse's efforts in the first leg not been disallowed, Newcastle would have been in an extremely strong position going into this evening's decider.
As it is, the tie is finely balanced, with Metalist's strong home form making them slight favourites, even though the Magpies can content themselves with the knowledge that an away goal could be of crucial importance.
The visitors will have to pull off a delicate balancing act in the sub-freezing surrounds of the Metalist Stadium – positive enough to make an away goal a realistic possibility, yet secure enough to ensure the tie does not get away from them at an early stage of proceedings. Get the blend right, and Kharkiv's first-leg display contained enough failings, especially in terms of containing Cisse, to suggest a notable away success is within Newcastle's compass.
“I think it is 50-50,” said Pardew. “The fact they did not score has given us a slight advantage, but of course they are at home. Our game plan is to score goals, and I will take a draw if it is a score draw because that means we will go through.
“We have been disrupted this year and a lot of key players have been missing. I feel we are better than our (league) position, but this is probably as strong as we have been in terms of players available. There is a renewed belief in the squad with the introduction of the new players, especially (Moussa) Sissoko and Mapou, who will both play.”
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