Can the Europa League be Newcastle United's tunnel of love?

By Lee Ryder on Feb 8, 13 09:46 AM

The Europa League will return to our lives again next week but even though Newcastle United's clash Metalist Kharkiv takes place on Valentine's night there doesn't seem to be much love around in football for a much maligned tournament that to many is in serious need of review.

Don't get me wrong, Geordies love their European nights - not least the away days that gives fans the chance to see some of the Continent,

And with a record of 128 games in European competition they have had plenty of practice.

This week the future of the Europa League has been up for debate again, many observers think it is too long winded, has too many games, has bad scheduling and doesn't get the imagination going until the latter rounds.

All of them are valid points and while it might sound like a moan when people talk about it, Newcastle's return to Europe has also resulted in a reality check as to where the competition is.

UEFA are currently looking at possible Champions League expansion meaning more money, but for now the show must go on with the Europa League.

In the old days, Europe was straight-forward with two legged knockout ties all the way through.

Then somebody at UEFA thought they could make a few quid and turn the UEFA Cup into something a bit like the Champions League.

There were warnings before United qualifed of course, Stoke City had problems last season and others have experienced issues too down the years.

The main factor is the schedule and playing Thursday then Sunday.

That combined with a crippling injury list for Newcastle this season does not offer an excuse for their performance in the first part of the 2012/13 campaign - but it does show the difference between a season in which the manager has all week to work with his troops going Premier League game by game compared to a campaign with the distraction of Europe.

If Newcastle were to reach the final of the Europa League they will play a total of 17 games.

Given Newcastle crashed out of the domestic cups after playing under-strength teams (whether or not some selections were enforced), it did not take a rocket science to figure out that even though United fans are desperate to see their club win a trophy for the first time since 1969, the reality is, Europa League football is not the priority.

Quite simply because with a potential £70million jackpot awaiting participating Premier League sides next season, on the financial front it is not worth risking a top flight place to win the Europa League.

The winners of the Europa League will earn €5,000,000 if they were to lift the trophy in Amsterdam.

And the prize pot along the way compared to the Champions League is peanuts in comparison.

So is there any point in turning up to watch the game next week?

That hasn't stopped large numbers turning out in force in previous rounds, even if SJP has been far from full - but once again Geordie fans will turn up with hope in their hearts.

After all this is Newcastle's season in terms of winning something!

Nobody will be punching the air if Newcastle finish ninth - even if it would be a good achievement after a season that threatened to be a disaster.

Many wonder how many will show up for the tie with the men from Ukraine, for many Geordie fans justifying it on Valentine's Day will be a toughie that's for sure!

But for those who want to see Newcastle win something in their lifetime, this has to be classed as a match made in heaven.

Atromitos drew a crowd of 29,242 on a summer night in August, Bordeaux attracted 30,987, an attendance bolstered by thousands of Belgians drew 33,124 and Maritimo on a chilly November night saw 21,632 turn out.

In the current financial climate that isn' t bad with empty seats dotted around up and down the country (note that near neighbours Sunderland attracted just 17,505 for their cup tie with Bolton recently).

Newcastle MD Derek Llambias this week stated that Newcastle's aim is to still challenge for trophies but that the Premier League is still the priority and that fans "don't want to go back to Barnsley."

That much is true, but forget finances, the Europa League is now about players playing for their places for Newcastle.

The awkward group stages are over and we have now reached the land of straight knockout.

WIser Newcastle fans will try not to get excited about "another" year of building up hopes.

Certainly not at the last 32 stage.

But really - on paper - Newcastle should be capable of beating a Metalist side who have just returned from a winter break and require match conditioning games in the build-up (at Whitley Bay no less on Sunday night) to get back into the zone.)

For United they will also have the added boost of Massadio Haidara, Moussa Sissoko, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa in their squad and there is now genuine competition for places.

To put it simply, Newcastle's season now reaches an interesting chapter.

Because if they can get to the magic 40 mark, and get through the next couple of rounds of the Europa circuit, all types of scenarios begin opening up as the finishing line of this long race comes into view.

Suddenly, playing a two-legged tie in April for the right for a place in the semi-finals doesn't sound so unappealing.

A warm night in April at St James' with an Amsterdam final in sight and a few sunny trips to the Continent again is surely where it is at for Geordie fans?

With Levante, Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Napoli still involved Toon fans can probably close their eyes and taste a cold beer in the sunshine of the Continent if they try hard enough.

OK, so maybe we are getting carried away.

And maybe the big prize is still staying in the Premier League this season.

But if Alan Pardew can play his cards right with his squad rotation in the coming weeks, maybe, just maybe, the dream of an Amsterdam final can stay with us for a few weeks later.

Oh, and Pardew could also write his name into Geordie folklore by winning it.

Here's hoping eh?


Lee Ryder

Lee Ryder - Proudly born and bred on Tyneside, the Chronicle's chief sports writer has followed the fortunes of the club over the last three decades as a Toon fan and football writer.

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