AS Newcastle United's first taste of the group stages of the UEFA Cup edges closer, out-of-favour striker Shola Ameobi claims the Magpies should find qualification easy.

Newcastle, who firstly face a tricky Premiership fixture at Charlton on Sunday, fly out to Athens on Tuesday for their opening Group D game against Panionios.

The tie with the unfancied Greeks marks the start of four European matches and offers Graeme Souness' side the opportunity to begin life in the second phase in style.

Newcastle must also travel to French side Sochaux and welcome Georgians Dinamo Tblisi and respected Portugese outfit Sporting Lisbon to Tyneside.

A third-place finish will be enough to progress to the knockout stage but Ameobi believes the St James' Park club should be able to make sure by topping the group.

The front-man celebrated his 23rd birthday on Tuesday and he would love a belated present to be a starting place in Souness' front-line.

However, with Patrick Kluivert, Alan Shearer and Craig Bellamy all ahead of him, Ameobi faces an uphill struggle to be granted his wish for either this weekend's trip to the Valley or to Panionios a week yesterday.

But, regardless of his own personal goals, the Nigerian-born former England Under-21 international has thrown his weight behind Newcastle's chances of booking a place in the third round.

"It appears to be a good draw for us and we expect to win the group. We're top seeds and we were semi-finalists in the competition last season, so we have high expectations," said Ameobi, who is yet to make a start under Souness.

"Whatever happens, it is imperative that we finish in the top three and continue our run in Europe and I'm confident we can make that happen.

"The clash with Sporting Lisbon stands out as our most difficult test. But we can certainly finish ahead of the rest."

Newcastle, despite the return to fitness of defenders Titus Bramble, Steven Taylor and Ronny Johnsen, are continuing to monitor all possibilities in their search for a new centre-back.

Apart from the free signing of Norwegian Johnsen, Souness has been restricted in his buying power with the transfer window not due to re-open until January 1.

But the Scotsman has still been considering his options and at his old club Rangers, Frenchman Jean-Alain Boumsong continues to be a possibility to replace Jonathan Woodgate, who left for Real Madrid in August.

Boumsong was previously targeted by chairman Freddy Shepherd, as Sir Bobby Robson's days in charge looked numbered, and a swap deal involving Aaron Hughes has been mentioned.

However, Newcastle are unlikely to want to off-load Hughes as they are already bereft of reliable and versatile defenders.

* Craig Bellamy has revealed his disdain for the current favourites to take over as Wales manager after Mark Hughes bows out.

John Toshack is the bookies' favourite to land the role although Brian Flynn has strong support, while Ian Rush, Dean Saunders and Gary Speed have also been mentioned.

Bellamy said: ''I don't know who the next manager is going to be. The list don't look great.

"I don't fancy any of them to be honest."

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