Benfica - Newcastle's toughest test yet

Posted by Marc Duffy

Newcastle head to Lisbon on Thursday to play Benfica -- their toughest fixture in this season's Europa League campaign so far.

- Magpies won't change Europa approach

Benfica are having a superb season. Domestically, they are currently four points clear of Porto at the top of the Portuguese league and they are yet to be beaten, having won 20 and drawn four in their 24 games. They are by far and away the top scorers in the league with 66 goals and have only conceded 15. They played Maritimo, Newcastle's earlier Portuguese Europa opponents in Lisbon in December and thrashed them 4-1 with a hat trick from Oscar Cardozo.

The six-foot, four-inch Paraguayan striker Cardozo is the man who has been doing the damage for Benfica. He's scored 26 goals so far this season -- five of them in European games. Brazilian striker Lima is not far behind him on 20 goals.

In Europe, Benfica are one of the beneficiaries of UEFA's ridiculous Champions League dropout rule. They finished below Barcelona and Celtic in the Champions League but finished above Spartak Moscow and thus parachuted into this competition.

They played Bayer Leverkusen in their first Europa knockout tie (3-1 aggregate) and then disposed of Newcastle's group winners Bordeaux in the last round (4-2 aggregate).

Looking at their form and the squad they have available, Benfica (along with Chelsea) are probably the best team left in the Europa League. The task facing Newcastle is huge, but not impossible.

On one hand, Benfica have never lost a home Europa game (P 13, W 12, D 1) but on the other hand they have played five times against English sides in European quarterfinals and have been eliminated every single time. Benfica's fantastic home record compared to Newcastle's appalling away record suggests that Benfica will probably win this game. But Newcastle will know that if they keep it close and snatch an away goal, they will have every chance of progressing in front of 50,000 at St James' Park in the return leg.

Newcastle could be boosted by the return to the side of Tim Krul, Davide Santon and Cheick Tiote for the first leg. Fabriccio Coloccini might even be available for the return. After Newcastle's poor, low energy showing against Manchester City on Saturday, I expect Alan Pardew to name a strong and relatively fresh team. Newcastle also have a number of players who have proven to be very well suited to European football -- winning this tie is not beyond them.

In between the two legs of this tie, Newcastle have a huge Premier League game at home to Fulham (Sunday). I really hope that the management and players view the Europa League quarterfinal as a welcome distraction from what has been a difficult Premier League campaign, rather than an unwelcome hindrance.

Although European football has added to the physical drain of this season and has contributed to the club's ridiculous injury list, the thousands of miles travelled do not seem to have hindered results. In fact, Newcastle average 1.18 points per game in the matches immediately following Europa League games while they only average one point per game in the matches that don't directly follow European football! Newcastle are capable of playing these two legs and still picking up results against Fulham and Sunderland in the next two home games.

So Howay the Lads - give it a good go.

Twitter: @MarcSDuffy

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