STEVE Harper is set to make his first competitive start for Newcastle United for over a year as the Magpies begin their European adventure in Greece tomorrow.
Alan Pardew will make a raft of changes from Saturday’s victory over Tottenham – but in picking veteran goalkeeper Harper to replace Tim Krul, there is a clear indication that United do have strength-in-depth below their recognised first XI.
It is also a sign that Harper – who is in the last year of his Newcastle contract – is back in the reckoning at St James’ Park after a year when it appeared that his long association with the club might be coming to an end.
Harper last featured for Newcastle in a 1-0 defeat at Villa Park in April 2011, and his United career seemed to be coming to an end when Rob Elliot was preferred to him during the early stages of last season’s Carling Cup campaign.
The 37-year-old was loaned out to Brighton in October and impressed during a five-game stint in the South Coast – only to be recalled by Pardew for the second half of the season.
Harper is one of the few players in the Newcastle squad that has experienced European football in a black-and-white shirt, having played 14 times in the Uefa Cup and twice in the Champions League for United during his 19 years with the club. He kept a clean sheet against a star-studded Juventus side back in 2002 in one of the club’s most celebrated European nights.
Pardew faces a crop of difficult selection dilemmas for Newcastle’s return to European competition in Greece and is preparing to leave some of his established stars for the first leg of their play-off against Atromitos.
Haris Vuckic is likely to start at the Peristeri Stadium, while Gael Bigirimana and Romain Amalfitano have been included in the travelling party. Hatem Ben Arfa will not be available as he serves a three-match ban that hangs over him from a sending-off for Marseille back in 2010.
Some might argue that it is a calculated gamble from the manager that his team will be good enough to triumph in next Thursday’s return leg – but Pardew says that his squad has already proved that it is good enough.
“Who would have predicted that Perchie would have started the (Spurs) game, but he was excellent,” Pardew said.
“I’ve got great players, and they need to play. They all need to contribute. If I can get their heads around that three or four are going to be left behind, and they accept that, and we get the same attitude in Athens, we should win.”
Meanwhile, United are biding their time on the recruitment front – with senior sources suggesting that the club are now more pre-occupied with retaining their big names rather than signing new players.
Pardew has been candid enough to admit there will be little he can do if major offers are tabled for the likes of Papiss Cisse, Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote, and says that attention has now shifted to trying to protect the squad rather than looking at new arrivals. That is likely to be the case this week, with Newcastle set to re-assess the situation in the final days of the transfer window.
They remain interested in Andy Carroll – while the chairman of FC Twente Joop Munsterman claims United have indicated that they are still interested in defender Douglas.
“Both clubs (Fulham and Newcastle) told us they want to do business with us,” Munsterman said.
“We haven’t received any offers yet, but when they want to pay a fair price, Douglas may leave the club. Because otherwise he will leave Twente for free next year.”