IT IS very easier to deride the Europa League, ugly sister to the money-making machine that is the Champions League.
But it is the lure of European football – any European football – which has seen so many top footballers from other parts of the world gather at both Newcastle United and their opponents tonight, Metalist Kharkiv.
Of course the Champions League is the club competition to be in when you are one of the world’s top players.
But for those aspiring to get there, the Europa version is a handy dress rehearsal.
Apart from aping the format – with a few extra games thrown in for good measure and a more awkward schedule – the Europa League gets players into the habit of facing teams based on different footballing philosophies, on getting the best out of themselves at the end of journeys which cross time zones, and in unfriendly weather like the sub-zero temperatures their supporters will be shivering in this evening.
Yohan Cabaye believes there are useful lessons to be learnt too for the Premier League.
If it is too early to tag France’s Cabaye with that horribly over-used footballing phrase “world-class”, he is certainly in the next division down.
And the midfielder is as keen as anyone to be walking away from this season with a Europa League winners’ medal.
Do so and he and his Newcastle team-mates will be subjected to what some critics of the competition see as something of a punishment – another season in the competition.
“I feel the game is very important for us, for the players, for the team and for the fans, so we are all focused on the game,” he says of tonight’s second leg tie, delicately poised after last week’s 0-0 draw on Tyneside.
“We all want to go through and play at the next stage because the Europa League for me is a big competition.
“We can play against good teams and get some more experience for the future to take into the Premier League.”
It being a European competition, the Magpies are taking a very Continental approach to trying to crack it.
Kharkiv have South Americans here, there and everywhere. Newcastle, notoriously, have preferred to buy French.
“We were fortunate to bring in one or two, two years ago who have been hugely successful for us, Yohan Cabaye in particular,” said Alan Pardew, when asked to explain his shopping habits.
“That market, we know well and we feel with the integration of new players, there are two choices for us: English players or French players because we had a good basis and we needed players to come in and make an impact immediately.
“Therefore, the two markets that were the obvious markets to improve us were the English market and the French market.
“We decided on this occasion the French market would be the best market for us.”
The best market for Cabaye too. “For me, it was good (to see) French players coming to Newcastle. I was happy, I was not worried because I know the players who came to the club and I knew the qualities that they have.
“I was happy because I knew they will give us an opportunity to go forward in the league and play in the Europa League as well.”
There are more advantages than just the quality of player available from a league where prices are still of the knock-down variety.
Hatem Ben Arfa has, not for the first time, been able to carry out his recovery from a hamstring injury under the watchful eye of the well-resourced physios at the country’s Clairefontaine headquarters.
He may not be the last Magpie to land there.
“Clairefontaine have put him in a fantastic physical condition for us,” said Pardew. “We’re very pleased with their contribution and we thank them for that.
“It underlines the relationship we have in France, to have that faith to let Hatem do his recovery there, as we would if Yohan Cabaye or any of our senior players preferred that route. That’s worked out well.”
So too has the emphasis on French flair over English workmanship. It is a tricky balance to strike, as Kharkiv may find if their South American stars tire of the freezing conditions in Ukraine and head home.
But for as long as Newcastle can keep persuading top players to keep hopping across the Channel, they can continue to be a stepping stone to greater things for promising young footballers.
And push the club’s status forward in the process.