Talk about tough opening fortnights. Not even the end of the first week of the season and already Newcastle have had to play Tottenham Hotspur, who pipped them to fourth last term, and travel to Athens for the first leg of a Europa League qualification tie against Atromitos. Less than 48 hours after the end of that match Alan Pardew’s men face a trip to Chelsea in the Premier League, who finished a place below them in May – and picked up a couple of small trinkets – before welcoming the Greeks to Tyneside.
If this was, say, February, March or even April it would be billed a make-or-break period for Newcastle’s season but because this set of fixtures has come at the start of the campaign, it is seen in a totally different light but in reality is just as crucial.
Defeat in both the two domestic matches would have left the Magpies stalled on the grid as the others sped off on in the race for a top four spot. As it was they made a clean start with the opening-day victory over Spurs. Equally, a big defeat in the first leg of their European tie could have spelled an early exit from that competition and after five years away from European competition it is unlikely fans or players alike would have relished that prospect. However, again, Newcastle did what they needed to do, setting themselves up for the return leg.
The Thursday-Sunday Europa League schedule has caused enough problems for many teams over the last few seasons so it is somewhat mystifying that Newcastle have had to play two key games so close together. It is equally understandable that Alan Pardew should wish to husband his resources accordingly.
So it was that the Toon boss made nine changes to the side to play Atromitos from the XI which beat Tottenham on the opening day of the season, a risky gamble but one born of necessity and calculation. A 1-0 defeat – arguably even a 2-0 defeat – would not have been a disaster and Pardew will have backed his side to overturn such deficits at home, especially given the extra playing talent he had held in reserve. However, thanks to Ryan Taylor’s free kick the point is moot and Newcastle have the extra advantage of an away goal.
Now to Stamford Bridge, where little over 100 days ago two exquisite goals from Papiss Cisse more-or-less secured a top five spot for Newcastle. Can they repeat the trick? It cannot be ruled out. Chelsea have displayed frailties at the back, conceding five goals in three games this season, season and with the attacking options at their disposal it would not be a surprise if Newcastle exploit any weaknesses.
That said, a draw would still be job done. If it could be followed by safe passage into the Europa League group stages it will not have seemed like such a tough opening fortnight after all.
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