Miles Starforth’s view: Europa League now gets interesting for Newcastle

LONG JOURNEY ... Alan Pardew.
LONG JOURNEY ... Alan Pardew.

IT’S been a long journey so far.

It started in the summer heat of Athens almost seven months ago.

And Newcastle United’s Europa League adventure continues tomorrow night in at a sub-zero Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

On the pitch it’s been tough for Alan Pardew’s team.

And off the field it’s been tougher still for the club’s fans, who have travelled across the length and breadth of Europe in support of their team.

Finally, the competition is getting interesting.

And the side which takes on Anzhi Makhachkala will bear little resemblance to that which faced minnows Atromitos in a suburb of the Greek capital in late August.

With the temperature in the mid-30s at kick-off in the Peristeri Stadium, United took their time to get into the first-leg of the club’s qualifier, which was memorable only for Ryan Taylor’s equalising free-kick.

The game ended 1-1. Since then, highlights have been few and far between.

Pardew, by necessity, fielded weakened teams in the group stage, with the 3-0 victory over Bordeaux – who would go on to win Group D – the highlight.

That was until the club’s visit to the Metalist Stadium last month.

Newcastle’s performance didn’t have the passing and movement of that against Bordeaux – Pardew opted for a more direct style after his team was frustrated in the first leg – but it was certainly memorable, and not just for the bitter cold.

That, of course, didn’t stop some supporters from taking their shirts off.

With the game at St James’s Park having ended goalless, the tie was finely-balanced.

It took a penalty from Shola Ameobi to edge the club, on its first European campaign in five years, into the last 16.

Metalist, with a team largely made up of South Americans, were a decent, footballing side. Anzhi, the richest club in Russia, represent another step up in class.

Managed by the hugely-experienced Guus Hiddink, they don’t concede too many goals – they’ve let in seven so far in Europe – and a glance at the attacking options available to the Dutchman, chiefly Samuel Eto’o, is sobering.

Sober is one thing many of the 70 or so United fans expected in Moscow won’t be after the game.

But the club’s supporters have been a credit to the club on the continent over the past few months.

Whatever happens against Anzhi over the next 180 minutes, it’s far to say Newcastle, once regular continental campaigners, are back on the European stage.

Only six clubs have played more matches in Europe than United.

And Manchester City aren’t one of them.

The first leg against Anzhi will be United’s 131st game in Europe.

Of course, the club’s last major trophy – the Fairs Cup, won back in 1969 – was won overseas in Budapest.

It’s too early to talk about the Europa League final – which will be held in Amsterdam this year – but that won’t stop Newcastle’s fans dreaming.

And why should it?