Newcastle United will face an early test of their ability to multi-focus with two matches in three days, starting with their trip to Athens to face Atromitos FC in the first leg of their two-leg Europa League playoff. With Alan Pardew having stated that his primary focus is going to be on the Premier League (not to mention the fact that a trip to Stamford Bridge looms on Saturday regardless of focus), we can expect a fairly young squad to take on the Greek side now led by Dusan Bajevic. It will be United's first appearance on the European stage since 2007 and their first (technically) in the Europa League. It also marks another milestone for the Toon as pointed out by the inimitable @Iwantcurlyhair2™ on the Twitter:
Just to note, after Thursdays game, NUFC will have played as many competitive games in Athens as SAFC have played in European Competitions— IWantCurlyHair2™ (@Iwantcurlyhair2) August 22, 2012
Soooo.... there's that. After the jump, we'll learn a bit about Atromitos FC and their new manager.
Dusan Bajevic started his career in football as a striker, playing nearly 300 times for his hometown club Velez Mostar. He ultimately left Mostar for AEK Athens, for whom he played 106 times. The time in Greece must've made an impression as most of his managerial career has been spent in the Greek league system including stops at AEK Athens (3 times), Olympiacos (twice), PAOK Thessaloniki, Aris Thessaloniki and now most currently Atromitos FC. Interestingly, this will not be his first meeting with Newcastle United as a manager in the UEFA Cup/Europa League. He was the manager of Olympiacos when they met NUFC in the round of 16 of the UEFA Cup... a two-leg fixture that Newcastle (managed by Graeme Souness) ran out winning 7-1 on aggregate.
Atromitos were founded in 1923 and were granted league football status in 1925. It would be 1972 before they achieved promotion to the Greek first division. It would not be a successful stay in the top flight as they were relegated in 1973. They would return to the top flight in 1975 and would earn their best-ever league finish (prior to the 2011-12 season) in 1976, finishing 9th. Perhaps the Polaroid for Atromitos is the fact that, in 1991, they became the first club to earn 900 points in the Greek second division. Their best-ever league finish looks to have been last year's 4th place finish in the Greek Super League, and in a manner that would make Newcastle United proud, they qualified for the Europa League when Greek Cup winners AEK Athens were excluded due to financial irregularities.
Dusan Bajevic, his tactics and the roster of Atromitos
As Dusan Bajevic is newly entering his first season in charge of Atromitos and it is astoundingly difficult to find much information regarding the Greek club's preseason preparation, it is hard to know exactly what his plans may be regarding tactics and player selection. Cross-referencing previous stops (such as his time at Olympiacos) with the current makeup of the Atromitos squad allows us to make some reasonable assumptions.
Despite having been an striker during his playing days, Bajevic has preferred a 4-5-1 (or similar variant) formation during his management career. He played the 4-5-1 against Newcastle in the 2005 UEFA Cup, the lineup featuring Brazilian attacking midfielder (and perpetrator of one of the most notorious dives of all time) Rivaldo. Cross comparing against Atromitos' roster (and specifically the loan arrival of Brazilian Chumbinho), it seems a safe guess that the 4-5-1 will shape more like a 4-4-1-1.
Atromitos have lost several of their attacking options from last season, either through loan termination or selling players and as a result, there is a distinct lack of seasoned strikers on their squad. Notably, they brought in Finland International Njazi Kuqi (brother of Shefki Kuqi) over the summer and he looks to be the man to lead the forward line. His 10 goals from 22 matches last year in the Greek Super League for Panionios was a high-water mark in his career and is the type of number that is unassuming enough to scare the most unreasonable Toon fan inside of me to death. Since the arrival of Dusan Bajevic, they have spent primarily on stiffening their defense.
Newcastle United and the UEFA Cup/Europa League
It is no secret that Newcastle have been starved for success on the European stage. It comes as a startling revelation then that the Toon's all-time record in the UEFA Cup/Europa League is a staggering 37 wins, 10 draws and 11 losses.
This year, we will likely see Alan Pardew throw a large number of youngsters into the fire in the Europa League. Players such as Sammy Ameobi, Mehdi Abeid, Haris Vuckic and Gael Bigirimana will likely play a prominent role alongside seasoned veterans such as Shola Ameobi, Ryan Taylor and Steve Harper. Attempting to infer some things from Alan Pardew's selections for the Tottenham Hotspur match, I think that we should not be surprised to see Mike Williamson at the heart of defense and Sylvain Marveaux on the left side. Steve Harper looks to have overtaken Rob Elliott as the primary understudy to Tim Krul, and I will hope with everything I have to hope with that this remains the case.
Newcastle United FC
Tie currently 0-0 agg
Projected XI (4-4-2): Harper | R Taylor, Williamson, Tavernier, Ferguson | Sa. Ameobi, Gosling, Amalfitano, Marveaux | Vuckic | Sh. Ameobi
Projected Subs: Elliott, Bigirimana, Streete, Anita, Abeid, Obertan, Campbell
Tie currently 0-0 agg
Projected XI (4-4-1-1): Itandje | Skondras, Fytanidis, Lazaridis, Giannoulis | Beljic, Matias Iglesias, Brito, Pitu | Chumbinho | Kuqi
I'm trying to pull back and really temper expectations. My renewed optimism regarding the overall strength of the squad makes me want to run out and request a commanding Toon victory... but this realistically, this probably is going to be a bit more nervy and a bit more cagey than that. It reads like a match in which we will struggle to assert a lot of control but may just do enough... and in a two-leg playoff, that's really what you're looking for. Remembering that an away goal could very well be vital, I expect us to play positive yet careful football.
Newcastle United 1 (Marveaux) - 0 Atromitos (1-0 agg)