Newcastle United start Europa League group stage play Thursday with an away match in Portugal, as they face Maritimo, who finished 5th in the Primeira Liga last season. Maritimo advanced to the group stage by defeating Georgian side Dila Gori in the play-off round and Greek squad Asteras Tripolis in the third round, where they entered. They were drawn into Group D from the fourth pot. What follows is a brief profile of this week's opponent.
I don't know much Portuguese, but I do know that Maritimo does not mean "fifth" or "five." It might as well. Over the last five years, they've placed exactly fifth 3 times. So far this year, they're...fifth. Their Wikipedia page even claims that they're the fifth most important club in Portugal. Most fans of English football can probably name 3 or 4 Portuguese clubs (Porto, Sporting, Benfica, and maybe Sporting Braga). Being able to rattle off more than that means you either have a vested interest in the league or that you play too much Football Manager. The point is, there's a reason the Primeira Liga has a "Big Three" and not a Big Four or Five. Maritimo are one of those teams that can consistently earn points against the 10 or so teams below them, but simply can't get it done against the big boys. Last season they were 0-6 against the top three. The season before that, same thing. The season before, 1-4-1. You get the idea. They're fifth.
Everything I've just written about Maritimo one could easily write about Newcastle, more or less. Just substitute England for Portugal and there you are. Now, not many people will make the case that the Portuguese top flight is on par with the English, but Primeira Liga is better than you think. Last season they had the sixth highest association ranking, well ahead of Russia in seventh. They're not about to crack the top 5, but if there's a candidate to do it in the distant future, Portugal has to be it.
Personnel-wise, Maritimo are loaded with Brazilians, as you might expect. There aren't a lot of big names in the squad. Perhaps the player with the highest profile is 26 year-old striker Danilo, who has yet to play a full match this season. Frenchman Valentin Roberge will have significant influence on the back line, and defensive midfielder Joao Guilherme has scored 2 of their 3 league goals so far (with both of those goals coming in the 87th minute of different games).
That Guilherme is their leading scorer is perhaps more indicative of Maritimo's style than anything. They play a very defensive style and are typically content playing for a draw on the road. Even at home they're accustomed to contesting matches for the full 90 minutes. Last season all but three of their matches at home were won or lost by 1 goal (or they were draws). Search for reports from their matches and you'll find words like "scrappy" and "contentious."
By all accounts, this is a team that Newcastle should beat, but they're going to have to earn it. The Toon will be without the services of Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba, Tim Krul, Fabricio Coloccini, and Danny Simpson, just as they were (minus the two Dembas) at Everton just 3 days ago.