What do Sean Dyche, Alan Pardew and Michael Laudrup have in common? All three of them know first hand how taxing and frustrating the Europa League can be on teams who are not built to compete in it; though only the former, and his Burnley side, are still living through it now. The Clarets are preparing to welcome Newcastle United to Turf Moor on Monday night.
It was the Magpies whom Pardew took into the latter stages of European competition in 2012/13, a year after guiding them to a fifth placed finish in the Premier League season. While facing Benfica in the last eight that season cemented Newcastlle’s place back where they believe they belong, if just for a little bit, their league form suffered to almost catastrophic levels because of the schedule. Victory on the penultimate weekend of the campaign secured their top-flight status, and one of the most talented squads in years finished 16th. Swansea won the League Cup that season, Laudrup’s debut campaign, but it was a similar story for him the next season, only he wasn’t fortunate enough to avoid the sack. Neither had the strength in depth to manage.
Last season, the entire country marvelled at Dyche’s work in Lancashire; he had rightfully been commended for everything up to that point, but the seventh placed finish, on the budget he had to work with, was his crowning glory. Burnley were rewarded with their first continental campaign In 51 years; but the realisation that it would start in July, with three qualification ties, and what has happened since, took the shine off it.
They fell at the final hurdle against Olympiacos, before the competition had got underway. At the time, it was viewed as a blessing in disguise, and it may still be; but the view that Dyche’s side would automatically slip back into their form of last season, playing an organised, energetic and ferociously competitive style of football that didn’t rely on a huge amount of talent, simply hasn’t come to fruition. The Thursday-Sunday routine of fixtures and the physical and emotional impact the Europa League brings has lasted; a long, hard season is now in prospect, and the Newcastle game can be viewed as an early relegation six-pointer.
Sadly, their situation, and the one faced by Newcastle, Swansea and others in years gone by, raises a bit of a question about what teams like that should strive to achieve. Dyche, like Pardew at Newcastle, would probably opt against another adventure because of the consequences, and that is why it is so hard to maintain the competitive edge in the Premier League. The top half, rather than the top six or seven, is seen as desireable, but how can striving for safety be sustained? It only leads to stagnation, which is the route of all trouble in football.
Burnley are still as hard working as ever, but they are striving to find their feet again. Odds are that they will struggle to do that now, meaning they will have to fight relegation like over half of the other Premier League teams. Perhaps examples such as this are why Rafael Benitez is battling to avoid standing still at Newcastle; Mike Ashley has seen what a good team can do at St James’ Park, but he would argue, wrongly in the eyes of many, that their success almost led to disaster. But that is a story for another day.
Again, Benitez is striving to achieve at Newcastle, but the expectation and desire is the bare minimum; survival. The Magpies had been in dire straits just a matter of weeks ago, but successive wins and seven points from nine have lifted them up to 14th, above their next opponents. For now at least, they can look upwards. A first away victory of the season, against a team winless in five, conceding 14 goals in that time, is far from beyond the realms of possibility.
This is what Benitez would call a 50/50 game; the type that could go either way. He will look to keep it tight and it is very likely there will only be one goal in it, and the result will dictate how the performance is viewed, Last season, Newcastle lost 1-0 at Turf Moor and it signalled the start of a dismal run of form that set alarm bells ringoing; but Burnley simply took a chance on a night where there was very little to separate to the two sides. The hope is that it will fall the other way this time, and if Salomon Rondon can continue his form after netting twice against Bournemouth two weeks ago, it could very easily happen.
With Paul Dummett missing through injury, Benitez only has one new selection issue to contend with. Jonjo Shelvey and Jamaal Lascelles are unlikely to return, but Yoshinori Muto could play some part after injury.
On the surface, this game is nothing more than a great opportunity for either Burnley or Newcastle to get three huge points, and both have reason to believe they can do that. Looking deeper, though, it is a clash of two sides with potential to achieve more than just staying up, but who show the vicious cycle involved with being a mid-table or lower top half Premier League club with aspirations. They both know what can happen if the ‘dream’ of European football becomes reality.