THE narrative of this Newcastle United season has often been difficult to pin down.
A campaign whch began with high hopes of building on last season’s fifth-placed finish nose-dived into naval-gazing about the club’s future by the time the nights had drawn in.
Questions about the direction of the Mike Ashley project have been shelved of late though, the expensive and crucial importing of a cavalcade of French talent changing the agenda sufficiently for Alan Pardew to talk with some conviction about becoming the first Newcastle manager for half a century to win silverware.
It has been that kind of campaign. The unyielding slog of the mid-winter months has dissolved and in its place is a team ready to turn the form book on its head and make a mockery of suggestions Newcastle were not taking their involvement in the Cup seriously.
Given all of that, it stands to reason events of this season have turned on its head the assertion the Europa League format isn’t conducive to Premier League success in Uefa’s secondary tournament.
That theory, forwarded by Pardew and others as United embarked on the long and winding road to the competition’s business end, is supported by some pretty compelling evidence over the years.
An English name has only been on the trophy in its various guises once in the past 29 years, when Liverpool were involved in a remarkable final against Alaves in Dortmund.
That 2001 victory stands alone in a fallow period for the Premier League and is a peculiarly poor record even with the mitigation of two recent losing finalists (Fulham and Middlesbrough) and the six-year ban imposed on English football by Uefa for hooliganism in the late eighties.
That has always been taken as evidence of a lack of strength-in-depth in England’s top league and was a jarring statistic given the success of the Premier League in the Europa League’s more lucrative cousin the Champions League.
This year, however, things have changed and Pardew notes a marked improvement among the English clubs in the competition.
So much so, he firmly believes the winner will come from one of the three English sides remaining in the tournament.
He admitted: “Outside of Man U the Premier League has not been of the standard of last year.
“However, the group below the top four is getting stronger.
“That means Everton, Spurs and ourselves – although our league place doesn’t justify that (at the moment) I think next year we’ll be competing in that group again.
“The depth of the Premier League is in no doubt and if I was a betting man I think the winners of the Europa League could come from England this year because the three left can concentrate on it, they’re not going for the title and the experience we’ve gained so far is helping us all.”
The success of England’s Europa League competitors stands as a nice counter-point to worries about the slipping standards of the league at the top level.
Manchester United might have been unlucky in tumbling out of the Champions League to Real Madrid last week but there has been little unfortunate about the fate of the other teams feasting at the top table.
Manchester City were found out in the most difficult group in the competition, Chelsea were a disorganised mess and Arsenal simply weren’t good enough when the going got tough. None of the four were great advertisements for a league that prides itself on its strength and ability to attract the top names.
So it falls to the supporting cast to prove the Premier League can still pack a punch.
United’s progress would guarantee at least one English team in the last eight, while Spurs look a good bet to finish the job against Internazionale and even with their current troubles Chelsea should see off Steau Bucharest.
Pardew added: “If I’m honest representing Englanddid get a mention last time we played in this competition.
“Yes, we have a responsibility for not just Newcastle fans but for the English Premier League as well.
“Why not carry that through? Whether we have French players, Italian players or whatever it doesn’t matter, we represent the Premier League and they are proud to do so.
“We’ll try to do that if we can to the best of our ability.”
To do that, Newcastle will need to win the game tonight – whether that is over 90 minutes, 120 minutes or penalties. Pardew has already spoken to Brendan Rodgers, whose Liverpool side played Anzhi in the group stages.
He is confident he has a tactical plan to knock out the Russians, who he rates as potential winners of the ever-improving Russian Premier League this year.
The threat of an away goal – and Anzhi’s offensive ability makes it a possibility – leaves some supporters fearful but Pardew dismisses talk of the 0-0 being a “precarious” position. Instead, he says, Newcastle will attack the game.
He said: “They’re pacy so are a threat on the counter-attack. They can take the sting out of the game and we made hardly any offensive impact in the first game, so hopefully we will come up with our own answers rather than them coming up with defensive answers.
“0-0 is not precarious, it’s a great position, we need to win the game.
“We squeezed through last time but we want to win this and we’ll have 40,000 Geordies in here going mad.
“ Anzhi lost 1-0 to Liverpool earlier this season and this match will be tough for them.”
Pardew’s not in the mood to consider their run so far an achievement.
Satisfaction, he says, will only come from lifting the trophy in May.
He added: “I’ve not even thought about (how it ranks in his list of achievements).
“It is a line for my CV so far I suppose but winning it would be a great achievement for this season because we’ve had injury crises for the most part and yet have managed to get through regardless of the injuries and that makes me proud.
“Thank goodness our Premier League form is improving.
“We’ve approached this competition as a significance of our achievement in the league last season. We’re in it to win it, getting to the last eight wouldn’t mean much unless we won it.”