There is often a perception among many clubs involved in the competition that the Europa League represents an inconvenience to their efforts for a strong domestic performance, but this could not be detected from anyone of a Newcastle United affiliation who attended St. James’ Park on Thursday night, even with the prospect of a crucial Tyne and Wear derby against Sunderland on Sunday clear in their minds.
Given an indifferent Premier League campaign, early exits from both domestic knock-out competitions and a yearning among the Toon Army to celebrate a cup success for the first time since 1969, this season’s Europa League took on added significance for the Magpies.
Showing an intent to progress as far as possible in the competition from its outset by fielding strong starting XIs and continually speaking with enthusiasm about the merits – one being to boost morale among the club’s supporters – of an extended European run, manager Alan Pardew was determined to achieve it and so were his players.
They consistently displayed a steely resilience en route to the quarter-finals, with this round and the previous two-legged ties against Metalist Kharkiv and Anzhi providing a useful means by which to integrate January recruits Mapou Yanga Mbiwa, Massadio Haidara and Moussa Sissoko into the Magpies set-up.
Unfortunately on Thursday night the trio and their teammates couldn’t overturn the 3-1 defeat suffered against Benfica in the first-leg at the Stadio du Luz. This was not for the want of desire and endeavour however, with the mass ranks who filled the St. James’ Park stands acknowledging of as much.
Papiss Cisse’s 71st minute header gave them hope of achieving a sensational comeback and in spite of the being snuffed out by Eduardo Salvio’s late equaliser, the Toon Army defiantly sang their beloved team’s name. This was deserved appreciation for the stellar efforts Pardew’s side had made both on the evening and throughout the competition, which they have treated with the utmost respect and contributed greatly to.
Scant consolation this may be, given the passing of a genuine opportunity to lay claim to a long anticipated piece of silverware. However Pardew would be justified in harbouring an ambition of bringing this wait to an end during his tenure at the club, by drawing upon the experience gained from this season’s European exploits.
That ambition will however be left to burn until next season, with his focus now on ensuring Newcastle’s Premier League status for another season and as strong a finish in the current campaign as possible.
This begins with Sunday’s home game against a Sunderland side currently outside the relegation zone courtesy only of goal difference, five points adrift of the Magpies. That heaps added importance to a game which until the next between the sides, will mean more to both sets of supporters than any other.
The stakes are stacked high and potentially tellingly, so too is the confidence of Cisse, who has scored in each of his last five home games, whilst Sunderland cannot boast such a talisman.
It is not uncommon for fraught and tense derbies to be decided by one moment of brilliance or opportunism and in Cisse, Newcastle have the prime candidate to deliver this, which along with home advantage makes them favourites to condemn their bitter neighbours into deeper danger of relegation.
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