Newcastle United will walk into the intimidating Estadio da Luz stadium tonight to face the high-flying Benfica team in the first leg of the Europa League Quarter-Finals. It will be a tough outing for the English side, who have faced indifferent form off-late.
Incredibly, Benfica are still unbeaten in the Portuguese domestic league this season! They have won 20 of their 24 league games and are currently four points ahead of Porto in Liga Sagres. In fact they have faced defeat only thrice this season – To Barcelona and Spartak Moscow in the Champions League and more recently to Braga in the Carlsberg Cup. What is even more ominous for Newcastle is Benfica’s home form – they have lost only once all through this season (in all competitions).
Currently they are on a six match winning streak and have scored 18 goals in their last four matches – statistically they are perhaps the most in-form side in Europe at the moment. They are coming into this match on the back of an amazing 6-1 victory over lowly Rio Ave in the league thanks to wonderful hattrick from Brazilian striker Lima.
In the first knock-out round they put in a fine performance against Bayer Leverkusen – especially in the first leg away from home – and won the tie 3-1, despite a scare in the 2nd leg after Andre Schürrle scored in the second half. In the round-of-16 tie against French side Bordeaux, they played out an enthralling match in the second leg and a brace from Cardozo helped them qualify with a 4-2 aggregate win.
Newcastle United on the other hand have looked a pale shadow of their former self this season. They are far from the team which took the Premier League by storm last year. Poor form especially during the months of November, December and January – when they won only four matches four months – have seen them being dragged down to the relegation battle. Currently they are 15th in the league table and just three points above Aston Villa in the relegation zone.
Although they have had a fine run in the Europa League, it seems like this tournament has only acted as a distraction for the team. Their thin squad has been plagued by injuries throughout the season as the fixture list has piled up and coupled with the fact that their top scorer this season – Demba Ba – is now a Chelsea player has meant that Alan Pardew has found it hard to replicate last season’s success.
They come into this match on the back of two consecutive defeats – against Wigan and most recently the 4-0 trashing against Manchester City. Goal-scoring has been a big problem for Newcastle in recent times. They have managed to score just four goals in their last six games, a weakness that was at the forefront during their match against Anzhi in the last knockout round – only one goal was scored in over 180 minutes in that tie and thankfully for Newcastle, Cisse was the man who scored it.
Benfica are not only favorites to win this leg, they are also the favorites to win this tie. Newcastle’s defence and midfield which has been further weakened by injuries will find it hard to contain the in-form Portuguese side and potentially Benfica can finish this tie in the first leg itself.
Manager Jorge Jesus doesn’t have too many injury worries to deal with at the moment. Very few changes are expected to be made to the starting line-up that thrashed Rio Ave in their last match. Eduardo Salvio is the only injury concern that Benfica have at the moment and he is likely to miss the second leg as well.
Garay is expected to replace Jardel from the line-up which started against Rio Ave. The defender who has been linked with a move to Manchester United, will start alongside Luisao. Jorge Jesus has been playing around with his midfield combination. He will mostly go with a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Matic and Perez playing as the double pivot in front of the defence. Lima, based on his hattrick in the last match, should hold onto his starting place, but he will drop into a deeper role, with Cardozo replacing Rodrigo in the team. Gaitan and John will start on the wings with Aimar starting from the bench.
Possible Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1) : Moraes; Pereira, Luisao, Garay, Melgarejo; Perez, Matic; Gaitan, Lima, John; Rodrigo
Alan Pardew, unlike Jorge Jesus, has a big injury list to deal with. Massadio Haidara, Cheikh Tiote and Fabricio Coloccini will all miss out this clash – a big blow considering how the shaky the defense has been off-late. Newcastle will once again miss out on Coloccini’s leadership in defence while Tiote’s absence means the midfield will lose a lot of steel. The English club will also be without Haris Vuckic, Mathieu Debuchy and Hatem Ben Arfa, who have been out for considerable amount of time.
Good news for Pardew is that Krul and Davide Santon – who missed out against Manchester City – will be available for selection and they are expected to start. Ryan Taylor has returned to the squad as well, but is unlikely to feature in this match. Three changes are expected to the line-up that started against Manchester City. Santon will be back at the right back spot, which means Gutierrez will push up the field in the left wing spot in place of Gouffran, while Obertan will be replaced by Marveaux. Tim Krul will be back between the sticks, which will be a huge boost for the side as well.
Possible Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1) : Krul; Santon, Yanga-Mbiwa, Taylor, Simpson; Cabaye, Anita; Marveaux, Sissoko, Gutierrez; Cisse
Benfica 2-0 Newcastle United
This game is a mismatch at least in terms of confidence at the moment. High-flying Benfica, who are undefeated in the league and are scoring goals for fun, will face a Newcastle team plagued by injury and lacking in self-belief – add to the that this game will take place in the Estadio da Luz stadium which is known for its intimidating atmosphere. Newcastle will be up against it in this match, perhaps the best that Pardew can hope for is that his team can keep it down to a respectable score-line so that they have some hope of turning this around on home turf.