NEWCASTLE United face a major test of character tonight – but if they can get through it, manager Alan Pardew believes they can go on to win the Europa League.
The Magpies need a score draw to prevail in tonight’s last-32 tie at Metalist Kharkiv, or to draw 0-0 and win a penalty shoot-out.
Anzhi Makhalachka, one of the richest teams in the competitions, are their likely opponents in the next round. Teams of the stature of Inter Milan, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Lazio and Napoli are also still in the competition.
It is not just the quality of a heavily South American-influenced Metalist side Newcastle will have to overcome tonight.
The Ukrainians are hoping for a sell-out 40,000 crowd, of which only around 500 will be supporting the visitors. It will create a hostility Pardew believes his Newcastle have never before encountered.
“This is perhaps where we lack a little bit of experience in Europe,” said Pardew. “It is our first season back for a number of years and the atmosphere will probably be the first time we really experience a hostile crowd in this competition.
“With all due respect, in the other ties, the opposition’s crowd hasn’t really played a part. I think tonight it might well do; we need to be able to cope with that.
“But we have players, Yohan (Cabaye) in particular, who has played on the international stage and is used to that scenario, so I don’t envisage it as a problem with 90% of our group – but one or two I will be watching closely to see that they cope well with it.”
Anzhi, whose expensively-assembled squad includes stellar names such as Samuel Eto’o, Willian and Lassana Diarra, are favourites to overcome Hannover in Germany tonight after winning the first leg 3-1.
Newcastle will return to an important Premier League match at home to Southampton on Sunday, but Pardew has made it clear he has no intention of sacrificing the Europa League in the quest for domestic points.
The injured Davide Santon plus Hatem Ben Arfa, way off match-fitness, were the only eligible senior players not on yesterday’s flight.
“It is quite straightforward, we want to win both games and have come here to qualify,” Pardew insisted. “I think it is 50-50. The fact they did not score has given us a slight advantage but of course, they are at home. Our gameplan is to score goals.
“I will take a draw if it is a score draw because that means we will go through.
“There’s a possibility that this could still be a great season. If I look at my best team, I would feel confident putting my best team up against any team left in this competition. I’ve not really had that opportunity.
“We are a lot stronger now. Therefore if we get through this tie, we have as good a chance as anyone else.
“We have had a lot of problems away from home (this season, winning once in all competitions). We have suffered a lack of availability and we have them back and have increased size of the squad. Performances will get better hopefully, starting tonight.
“Probably this is as strong as I have been with players I have available. I feel we are a lot stronger than the league position suggests.
“But there is a renewed belief in the squad from the introduction of the new players, particularly (Moussa) Sissoko, (the ineligible Yoan) Gouffran and Mapou (Yanga-Mbiwa), who will play.”
Newcastle trained on the Metalist pitch yesterday evening, their first taste of the sub-zero temperatures which will greet them in the snowbound city close to Ukraine’s border with Russia.
At first glance the field looked short of grass, although home coach Myrom Markevich downplayed any concerns, saying it was no worse than the one the teams played out a 0-0 draw on in the first leg.