Newcastle United will host Atromitos FC of the Greek Super League in the second leg of the Europa League Play-off Round on Thursday. The sides played to a 1-1 draw at Peristeri Stadium a week ago, with Denis Epstein scoring for Atromitos and Ryan Taylor blasting a free kick home for the Toon. The winner of this matchup will advance to the Group Stage. Follow the jump for a 5 point match preview.
- First in my mind is the question of whether or not Newcastle even want to win this matchup. Alan Pardew would never admit it publicly, but an elimination at this stage may be viewed internally as a blessing in disguise (I should clarify: This is pure speculation on my part. I'm not ITK, nor have I ever claimed to be). Earning a result at Stamford Bridge is always a tough ask, but if Saturday's sluggish performance taught us anything at all, perhaps it's that the squad isn't nearly as deep as it needs to be if NUFC are to be playing on Thursday nights going forward. It's the age-old debate: Should the team completely ignore the cups to focus on the league? Pardew has stated that the league is the number one priority, and I don't believe I'm alone in agreeing with him. Qualifying for this competition is what has kept a number of players around; they feel the club can take the next step. The best way to do that is not necessarily to do well in Europa for one year, but to qualify for a European tournament once again.
- Having said that, I expect Pardew to field just strong enough a lineup that he can plausibly deny that he is punting the competition. Travel concerns won't be an issue this time around, but there's still a match on Sunday to contend with. For a point of reference, here's last week's lineup: Harper | Tavernier, Perch, Williamson, Raylor | Bigirimana, Anita, Obertan, Gosling, Marveaux | Cisse. I expect a similar squad, made up mostly of second-team players, with perhaps even Shola Ameobi taking Papiss Cisse's spot. If Pardew can avoid using first-teamers as substitutes, it's gravy.
- Ironically, the best way to rest the first choice players for Sunday's match may be to take control of the match early, possibly ensuring that these same players will be called upon down the road in future Thursday matches. A 0-0 draw would do nicely, since Newcastle scored the ever-important away goal last week, but scoring an early goal would be even better. As we noted previously, Atromitos averaged only 1.07 goals a match last year, so asking them to score 2 is a bit of a reach (though it should be noted that they scored just that many in their first league match last weekend). It will be interesting to see if Pardew plays for the draw immediately or orders his troops to play an aggressive style, knowing that going for broke could end up knocking them out of the tournament (see #1).
- 26 year-old German forward Denis Epstein was the main threat for Atromitos last week and indeed scored their goal. He caused problems with his pace and took advantage of a mistake by James Tavernier. We've spoken of the Greek side of a defense-first team, and while that's accurate, it would be a mistake to assume that they are a one trick pony. In Sunday's match with Kerkyra, Atromitos scored from midfield (Chumbinho) and the back line (Sokratis Fytanidis). Notably, the 2-0 lead afforded manager Dusan Bajevic the luxury of benching Epstein in the 66th minute, so he should be ready to go again.
- It's sad to think about, but the players that take the pitch for this match may well be auditioning for roles that could be vacated by senior players on or before Transfer Deadline Day. Incidentally, if Newcastle advance, the draw for the Group Round will take place on Friday, making it a very busy day indeed.
Check out OSotP's first leg preview for more information on Atromitos.