Newcastle play Anzhi Makhachkala in the first leg of the Europa League Round of 16 Thursday. Alan Pardew held a press conference today that presented plenty of talking points. Thanks, Alan! Here's our match preview.
1. The Plastic Pitch
No doubt you've already read our interview with Anzhi supporter Andy Shenk, so you know that this match is being played away from Dagestan for political reasons. The venue will instead be Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Luzhniki was opened in 1956, but it hosted the 1980 Olympics and has a downright 70's feel to it...right down to the artificial surface.
That surface has already wreaked havoc with Newcastle's plans. We noted Jonas Gutierrez's absence in the traveling party earlier today, and Alan Pardew revealed in his press conference that it's Jonas' injury history that will prevent him from playing in Moscow, as artificial surfaces can aggravate knee injuries. Wait, there's more:
Pardew: "Shola has been advised in the past not to play on plastic pitches, but I'm short of a striker #nufc— Luke Edwards (@LukeEdwardsTele) March 6, 2013
That leads us straight into our second point:
2. Newcastle's Striker Problem
I erroneously passed on a report earlier that Papiss Cisse was on the trip to Moscow. As it turns out, I was wrong. Cisse has apparently been sick since Sunday, according to Pardew, and was not included in any of his plans. With Shola characterized as an emergency option, we turn to 18 year-old Adam Campbell, who got some sniffs of first team action early on this season but hasn't featured at all recently. It seems that young Campbell has the opportunity to become a folk hero. Andy's suggestion that the back four is Anzhi's weakness means he can certainly capitalize, but if he can't, Pards' options appear to be risking injury for Shola or bringing on a rusty Hatem Ben Arfa, who has experience playing at the front of the formation, but never alone. Essentially, if Newcastle want to come home with an away goal in their pocket, it will have to come from Adam Campbell.
3. Pardew's Aggressive Policy?
Alan Pardew made a curious decision today, especially in light of numerous previous statements about taking the Europa League seriously. In Ukraine, Pardew brought Yohan Cabaye along to his press conference, leading some to speculate that he was the captain-in-waiting given Fabricio Coloccini's impending departure. Sure enough, Dreamboat wore the armband during the next weekend's league clash with Swansea City. Pardew's decision to have Vurnon Anita sit beside him at today's press conference should raise some eyebrows, then. It doesn't mean that Anita will be the captain, but it seem equally unlikely that he'll simply ride the bench tomorrow. One doesn't single out a player to speak to the media one day only to ignore him the next.
So what role will Anita play? This week I spent some time doing some investigating into possible internal replacements for Cheik Tiote, following some suggestions in this week's game thread that Cheik Tiote is no longer passing muster at defensive midfield. What I found was (A) Cheik is doing much better than he's been given credit for this season, and (B) only one other player even comes close to reproducing the impact he has on the pitch: James Perch. Vurnon Anita is a fine player and a criminally underrated signing from this summer, but he is not a defensive midfielder, and based on team selection when Tiote was out for AFCON, I think Pardew has realized that. In other words, I don't think Anita will be lining up at CDM tomorrow. So will he take Cabaye's place, or perhaps displace Sissoko? I'm personally hoping that Pardew gives him a chance on the edge, but Gabriel Obertan has been his recent preference there, and he's in the squad as well. However it shakes out, there will be several bench players lining up in starting positions Thursday, and that represents a change in philosophy for Pardew, even if his hand has been forced by injury and injury prevention.
4. Containing Anzhi
Anzhi Makhachkala have by far the most skilled attacking unit that Newcastle have faced in the Europa League thus far. Willian, Samuel Eto'o, and
Mbark Boussoufa will form the front line, and the Toon's Coloccini-less defensive unit will have their hands full trying to keep shots from coming Rob Elliot's way. EDIT: Boussoufa will be serving a yellow card suspension Thursday. Danny Simpson and Davide Santon (or whoever plays at full back, who knows anymore) will be tempted to play their normal attacking games, but they will need to hang back and keep a crossing team from crossing. I'd feel better about this if Jonas were available. Pray for Tiote to play and have a clean game.
Anzhi haven't played a competitive match since their last Europa game at Hannover 96. They do resume league play this weekend, so it's not like they've been sitting around not preparing, but a little rust is to be expected. For Newcastle, Hatem Ben Arfa will attempt to shake off some rust of his own as he returns from a hamstring injury (which really shouldn't be an issue on the plastic pitch, handwringing on Twitter aside). Pardew said he would like to get HBA some action, which smacks of a late substitution, but don't be surprised if he sends him on early if things are going poorly.
Prediction: Anzhi 2, Newcastle 0