Alan Pardew expected a tough draw in the Europa League, as chief sports writer Mark Douglas reports. But there is no time for the Newcastle boss to feel sorry for himself or his team
IT never rains for Newcastle United’s class of 2012, but it pours. Or perhaps that should be amended to freezes after the Magpies were handed a treacherous draw in the last 32 of the Europa League that will see them traverse almost halfway across Europe to a city where the average February high is –1.6°C.
Metalist Kharkiv are a strong Ukrainian side infused with imported South American flair who currently sit third in their domestic league and boast the sort of home record that Pardew’s Newcastle can only dream about at the moment.
They topped a tricky qualification bracket that included German side Bayer Leverkusen to earn their place in the knockout stages.
Considering the travel time and the expense that it will cause for supporters who will face several flight changes if they want to follow Newcastle, United could hardly have asked for a more demanding tie in yesterday’s draw in Nyon.
Not that Alan Pardew – who is now well practised in the art of being stoic in the face of setbacks – expected too much else.
“We keep cursing our luck in terms of this or that, but actually we’re probably having one of those years where you just have to accept it and drill through it and play through it. That’s what we’ll do. The Arsenal game has been cancelled in midweek, that gives them an extra rest (before they meet us) . . . okay, it’s just another one, let’s get on with it.
“I don’t know much about Kharkiv. I know it’s a long way (2,056 miles to be exact), I’ve looked at that. They won their group so it’s a tough agenda for us, but that’s some way ahead. We’ll look forward to it.
“(The draw) didn’t surprise me, I’ll look forward to it (meeting with Metalist) when it comes. It’s a tough draw in terms of the travel. The opposition I know very little about – I can’t comment until we do some studying.”
On the bright side, United actually flew further (in terms of miles) to play Atromitos and Maritimo and the Ukrainian side will be facing their first game after a winter break – so there may be opportunities for Newcastle to progress to the last 16, where Anzhi or Hannover 96 await.
Not that Pardew can afford to give too much thought to Continental adventures when Newcastle’s domestic form is causing so much concern for Tynesiders. They take on QPR this weekend with the United boss keen not to focus on a pretty dismal first half of the campaign.
“We have to look forward. What’s gone on has gone on, we’ve made mistakes and we’ll hold our hands up to that,” he said. “The squad was probably too small, we broke the team up in those Europa League games, which probably took some momentum away from us. We could look at a number of reasons, but the truth is we’re where we are.
“The Europa League has had an impact. The injuries that we’ve sustained (as well). But the next game is QPR and the league will have a very different look to it if we win, that’s what we must focus on.
“Talking to other Premier League managers, we’re all of the same opinion that this competition is not great for a Premier League team. It’s too many games in addition to a very tough, competitive league.
“I think our league, physically, is definitely the toughest. It might not be the best – you could argue La Liga, Ligue 1 in France – but we definitely have the most physical and it takes its toll. That is the nature of the Europa League.
“But it’s some way off, it has no impact on the Premier League game that we want to win.”
To do that, United will be required to improve defensively after being undermined by mistakes in the Manchester City game.
“Sometimes, you know, it’s difficult to work on those tiny little things,” Pardew said.
“You have to look at a bigger picture than that, what we can do is reminders of when you do a role at set-plays, this is what you do, I just felt Davide (Santon) should have done a lot better on the post in that situation (when Manchester City scored their second goal last weekend). I don’t like criticising my players and I don’t like talking about it, but obviously that’s something we’re focusing on.
“Looking at that game against Man City, they had 20 minutes when I think they could have blown anyone away, they were really on fire, but I thought we took tremendous credit to come back form that situation.
“I’ve seen teams get beat five or six nil in that scenario, 2-0 down at half-time to a team who’ve got their tails up, so we took a lot of positives from that game and for the first time I thought we looked solid when we attacked at home, something that’s been a bit of a problem for us this year and that bodes well for QPR.
“We’re going to need that because (their midfielder Adel) Taarabt on the turnover is about as dangerous as you can get. He’s as dangerous as Hatem (Ben Arfa).”
United will be boosted by the return of Gabriel Obertan and expect James Perch to recover from a sore neck. There is also the prospect of Yohan Cabaye, Steven Taylor and Ben Arfa all making quicker-than-expected returns.
“We think by mid-January they should all be back,” he said.
“We’ve got some light on the horizon in January. Firstly, Steven Taylor, Cabaye and Hatem will come back to us, there’s no doubt about that.
“What we don’t want to do is lose another couple of big players in this run. And we need to get a win, or two wins, or a win or two draws out of this series of games and beat Brighton (in the FA Cup). And, if we do that, I’ll be happy to be honest, because I think even outside of us bringing a player in we’re suddenly going to be looking a lot stronger.”