A critical week for Newcastle United

Posted by Marc Duffy

Stu Forster/Getty ImagesThe oft-injured Hatem Ben Arfa is expected to return for Newcastle on Thurdsay versus Anzhi.

Newcastle United are in Moscow ahead of a huge four days for the football club.

Mission to Moscow

First off, they face Russian football championship billionaires Anzhi Makhachkala in their temporary Europa League home city of Moscow. The Dagestan-based club, owned by Suleyman Kerimov, are unable to play their European games in their home region of Dagestan due to armed conflict in the region.

Kerimov has funded Anzhi to incredible levels over the past few years. They have spent in excess of £137 million on players including Samuel Eto'o and most recently the brilliant Brazilian Willian who came in from Ukrainian side Shakhtar in January. Guus Hiddink coaches the side and is rumoured to be the most highly paid football manager in the world.

Thursday night's game will be the first time Eto'o has crossed paths with Steven Taylor since the Newcastle centre-half made his senior debut against Eto'o and Mallorca in a UEFA Cup tie in March 2004. Newcastle won that 7-1 over two legs!

Papiss Cisse did not make the plane to Moscow. He misses out because of illness, and despite his poor form of late, his absence is a big blow due to how few striking options Newcastle have at their disposal. One big plus is the potential return of Hatem Ben Arfa who could start the game on the day of his 26th birthday. Ben Arfa has only managed 70 minutes of football in the past 15 weeks.

- Ben Arfa returns for Newcastle

This is Newcastle's fifth UEFA competition last 16 tie in the past 16 years; though they are yet to reach a final in that time. Their supporters are dreaming of a trip to Amsterdam for the final on May 15th.

Six pointer against Stoke

Three days after Newcastle's Europa League game, Stoke arrive at St James' Park for a huge wrong-end-of-the-table Premier League clash.

Newcastle's home form has been unpredictable this season: A loss to Reading, who hadn't won away before then, followed up with a battling 3-2 win over Chelsea. Meanwhile, Stoke's away form has been abysmal. They've picked up only nine points from 14 games on their travels and have scored only eight goals which is less than any other Premier League side.

The above, plus Stoke's notorious physical and direct style of play, has led to some Stoke supporters declaring their unhappiness with manager Tony Pulis. ESPN Stoke blogger James Whittaker has been openly critical of Pulis, and the editor of Stoke City fanzine 'The Oatcake' took to the airwaves this week to give a reasoned, stat-based argument in favour of removing Pulis from his position. They are tired of watching the same 'unentertaining' football week in and week out and point to the fact that they've spent well over 100 million pounds on players as a reason for wanting to see better.

Robert Huth's suspension will help Newcastle as they aim for a vital three points. A two goal victory for the Magpies would see them leapfrog Stoke and could climb as high as 11th in the table -- that is how tight things are down there.

Professional benchwarmer Michael Owen is still at Stoke. He is currently injured (SHOCK!) but could be available to make the trip. It's unlikely that he will play, though.

Alan Pardew hinted this week that Mike Williamson might make a surprise return to the Newcastle starting XI for this one. Presumably this would be to 'protect' new boy Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa from a style of play that he's probably never experienced before, but personally I'd start Yanga-Mbiwa. Williamson has been tried and tested at Premier League level and he's failed those tests far too frequently. Yes, he's big, but he's not particularly strong or good in the air.

These two games will have a huge influence over the rest of Newcastle United's season.

Twitter: @MarcSDuffy

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