It is difficult sometimes to know exactly what you're dealing with when an eastern European side are coming to your stadium. Part of this is due to availability, part due to language barrier. Metalist have an English section on their website, but it alternates between mildly understandable and the realization of the worst stereotype of hackneyed English by a non-native speaker. All excuses aside, I did belatedly find full video (with Spanish language commentary) of Metalist's last league defeat (at the hands of former Spurs boss Juande Ramos' Europa League final 32 side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk) to see what Dnipro were successful doing. Two major disclaimers here:
1. Metalist have sold off two of their more dangerous players in attack - Willian and Taison and
2. This sample size is EXTREMELY small.
Here is a brief rundown of things that I picked up on while watching without benefit of commentary.
- Metalist are not afraid to give up fouls 35-40 yards from goal to break up an attack. They do, however, look somewhat vulnerable to a well-placed free kick from that position. This really is a moot observation as Newcastle are roughly as dangerous on non-shooting range free kicks as a flea is a danger to a skyscraper.
- In this particular match, the Metalist defenders tended to make poor decisions under pressure. Many "clearances" remind me of Mike Williamson style clearances... they would prefer to hoof or head partially clear than settle when they had time.
- Metalist played a verrrry tight offside trap. Remember Cissé's goal v. Aston Villa? Some of the offside calls in this match against Dnipro made that one look cut and dried.
- By and large, it never really looked like Metalist's defense completely lost defensive shape, but they were quite susceptible to a smart run and incisive pass. Think last year Cissé off the pass from Cabaye v. Stoke. This looks like the kind of play that could trouble the Kharkiv defense.
- Metalist goalkeeper Oleksander Horyainov is, at 37 years of age, far and away the all-time appearance leader for the Ukrainian club and frequently exhibits the wisdom of the 400+ appearances he has made for his club. If there is an easily noticeable flaw in his game, it is that he seems to prefer to punch/slap crosses instead of catching them. As a result, not all of his aerial clearances are as solid as they might be.
- On the flip side, he can start the heck out of a counter attack with his outlet throwing. Imagine the Tim Howard to Landon Donovan throw late in the match v. Algeria - equally accurate, wider to the sideline and without the bounce. Yeah. As a former GK who could throw really well, I was impressed.
- Dnipro missed a penalty off the post from a handball in the box. Horyainov had it well covered, anyway. Nice veteran read of the Dnipro penalty taker.
- Dnipro's first goal came from yet another mid-to-long range free kick (about 20-25 yards out this time). I am not sure of Horyainov thought the ball was going to come across to the six yard box or what - end result it was floated into the far upper 90. Beautifully placed, but you almost might have felt Horyainov could have dealt with it a touch better.
- Dnipro have almost never used the offensive wings - everything is either run directly at the center to begin with or cuts in around the 18 yard box. Question is - is it because of Metalist's defense or Dnipro offense?
- Metalist won't really very much shy away from a challenge. It's almost like having a midfield full of mini-Cheiks. I remember that I could count the number of knees to thighs in this match... a fact which could give one concerns about the physicality that they will bring to the match.
Looking back at several match reports, Metalist have lately preferred one or another variation of a 4-5-1. Sometimes this takes a defensive shape with the central midfielder withdrawn, sometimes it is a more offensive version with the central midfielder pushed slightly forward (this has usually been Brazillian no. 10 Cleiton Xavier in this case). Most often in their recent matches, Cleiton Xavier has played a true number 10 role behind the striker in a 4-4-1-1.
It will be intriguing to see what kind of success Newcastle can have on the flanks in this match as Dnipro didn't really test them there. It could be considered encouraging that Dnipro did try to exploit Davide Santon's patented cut in at the top of the 18-yard box (I shall call this maneuver "The Santon"). Could Davide's first goal for the Toon be forthcoming? Newcastle have looked stronger lately and will look even stronger (literally) in the middle of the park with the return of Cheik TIote (sans handcuffs, I assume), and it's going to take a lot of grit to get the result we need to get in the first leg. A comprehensive multiple-goal shutout victory is clearly best case scenario with the second leg likely to be nearly a write-off match as the focus will necessarily shift to the league 6-pointer against Southampton three days after the second leg in Kharkiv. Based on the small sample size, it looks like some of the things that Newcastle do well could potentially exploit things that Metalist struggle with... but it's far from a guarantee.