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Newcastle ready for European campaign to ignite
FOUR games in, and it is finally time for Newcastle's hitherto underwhelming Europa League campaign to ignite.
A healthy crowd under the St James' Park floodlights, a talented opposition in the shape of French side Bordeaux and in a break from the tinkering that has accompanied previous matches, a near full-strength starting line-up for the Magpies.
When Alan Pardew's side secured a top-five finish last season to qualify for Europe for the first time in six years, this is the type of occasion everyone had in mind.
After low-key outings against Atromitos and Maritimo, Newcastle's Europa League opponents so far, the real business of continental competition is about to begin.
“Bordeaux are a very good Ligue One side in France, they had a terrific result on Sunday (beating Lyon 2-0) so they are in good form and they're probably favourites for the group after their win against Bruges (4-0) in the opening game,” said Pardew, who is without both of his first-choice centre-halves for tonight's game.
“We need to put a team out to play Bordeaux and with all due respect to the teams we have played so far in this competition, our team needs to be stronger.
“Since we have entered this competition, we have entered it to win it, and this is a significant game to up the levels. It is also probably the first real time in this competition where our fans will be taking it seriously too, and that will be important for the atmosphere and important to focus our minds.
“In European competition, your concentration levels have to go up a little and you have to be prepared for this type of opposition. We respect them and look forward to playing against them, but we expect to win.”
To that end, Pardew will dispense with his previous policy of making wholesale changes for European competition and name as close to his first-choice XI as possible.
Danny Simpson's return will help compensate for the absence of Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor, although James Perch will be required to slot in at centre-half, while the likes of Yohan Cabaye, Cheik Tiote, Hatem Ben Arfa, Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba are all expected to be involved.
“In the next few games, we hope to show our true colours,” said Pardew, who will still have to have half an eye on Sunday's Premier League game with Manchester United. “The beauty of this season is that we've been able to get results without playing our best football, but ideally you want both together and the more games you play, the more rhythm you gain.”
Having spoken of the need to win silverware after signing an eight-year contract last week, Pardew is well aware of the Europa League's importance given that is one of only two trophies that Newcastle can realistically hope to win following their departure from the Capital One Cup last Wednesday.
The competition's elongated format means it is far too early to talk of the latter stages, but a victory tonight, coupled with another success in this month's home game with Club Brugges, would leave the Magpies in an extremely strong position at the halfway point of the group stage.
A lengthy European run would provide further proof of Newcastle's progress under Pardew, and encourage the club's players to commit their own long-term futures to Tyneside.
Earlier this week, Cabaye spoke to French television and claimed he turned down a possible move to Tottenham in the closing stages of the transfer window. Newcastle officials deny any approach, but Pardew accepts there is a need to constantly provide the club's key players with a reason to remain.
“The likes of Yohan and two or three others will be courted by top sides, that’s natural,” he said. “What is important to the development of players here is that we give them a platform for success.
“We are doing our best to do that, and this competition is part of that process. The only way to keep the likes of Yohan, Cheik, Papiss and Demba is with success.”
Cabaye and Ben Arfa will lock horns with a number of their international team-mates tonight, although the bulk of the Bordeaux side comprises younger players on the fringe of the French squad.
Cabaye boasts extensive European experience from his time at Lille, and credits the Europa League with helping to develop a winning mentality that eventually carried the unfashionable French club to a league and cup double.
“We played for three or four years in the Europa League at Lille, and it helped us to win the French title,” said the midfielder. “It is very important to play in this competition in terms of getting more experience for the future.
“I think it is possible to draw similarities between what is happening here at Newcastle and what happened previously at Lille. We don't make big changes to the group every season, and neither did they. All our important players stayed this summer, and that is a big help because it has allowed us to keep the same mentality out on the pitch. That is important.”