STICK or twist? As Alan Pardew oversaw training on the lush turf of Benfica’s magnificently appointed Estadio da Luz yesterday afternoon, the thought must have been preying on the Newcastle manager’s mind.
Last eight, lancing the Lisbon boil which has festered since the Graeme Souness era – United are playing for big stakes here and it is imperative Pardew makes the right tactical call for their toughest European assignment yet.
As the sun broke out from the clouds in the Portuguese capital, Pardew continued to reflect on what might have been as he ran off a roll call of big names missing from his travelling party.
Fabricio Coloccini and Hatem Ben Arfa might have added something here (as would Cheick Tiote, even if his season’s work has been disappointing).
Pardew knows it will partly be about philosophy rather than personnel tonight.
It is far from straightforward for the Newcastle boss.
Caution worked in Moscow as United removed highly-fancied Anzhi from the tournament but could United really get away with such limited ambition against a team who have notched up more than 100 goals in all competitions this season?
Could there really be a reprise of a system and tactics which Pardew himself confessed did not work at Manchester City on Saturday?
Pardew will relish the opportunity to flex his tactical muscles again tonight.
He has been scolded by accusations he has picked the wrong system, players or tactics this year, privately believing many of the failed experiments have been solely down to a lack of resources.
He will point to the run of results just after the New Year when he has had his best team available as evidence of that.
Coming on the back of knocking out Anzhi and Metalist Kharkiv – and United’s serene progress through the early stages – beating Benfica would confirm Pardew as a man at home in the rarefied atmosphere of European football.
He dodged questions about whether he would fancy a stab at managing abroad in his press conference but he knows people pay attention when the business end of a competition comes up.
Pardew said: “This competition is a great profile for our players and staff here.
“We want European football for Newcastle, I am very committed to Newcastle.
However, to push him closer to black and white immortality, a tactical trap will need to be laid for a team who have not been beaten since October.
That appears to include provision for attacking enough to score the away goal which Pardew thinks they need.
He added: “I thought we needed to score in Russia against a team every bit as good as Benfica but we managed to get a 0-0 and still go through.
“I would prefer to score here if I’m honest – we’re going to need to defend very, very well against this team.”
One thing is sure: Pardew has been stung by the performance at Manchester City, when United were unusually timid.
That has played on his mind as he urges his team to be better in possession – and more ambitious against a team he puts on a similar pedestal to the Premier League champions.
Pardew said: “Their attacking options are varied.
“That’s probably the strength they have. We lacked a little bit of ambition at Manchester City because we kept releasing possession.
“Possession will be very, very important. Both teams are good in possession, so that will be a key element.”
As is keeping it competitive for a second leg for which Pardew believes Newcastle are favourites. That is the second part of the dilemma.
If they go for it at the Estadio da Luz and ship too many goals it will drain enthusiasm for the second game next week.
Pardew admitted: “They have a lot of flair in their side, two very progressive full-backs and it will be difficult to contain them if we come here just to defend.
“It’s a big test for us because when you play a team who are such a roll as Benfica are, it’s always difficult.
“They have great momentum and that confidence breeds its own success. It’s a difficult game for us, we’re under no illusions about that. We’re a little bit stronger on Thursday night than we were at Manchester City. I think at St James’ Park we can beat anybody.
“We have no doubt about that game – we can beat Benfica at St James’ Park.
“This is the decider in terms of how difficult that’s going to be.
“We need to put on a performance where we can take something back to St James’ Park to give us a chance.
“It is going to be very, very difficult to beat Benfica in both ties. We need to give ourselves a chance.
“I did talk to Andre Villas-Boas generally about the Europa League, not so much about Benfica.
“I haven’t contacted him about Benfica but we have good contacts here. I know the city well.”