On paper, a UEFA Europa League quarter-final first leg between the Portuguese Liga leaders and a struggling English Premier League side in Lisbon might be expected to yield a comfortable home victory – yet SL Benfica coach Jorge Jesus is full of respect for Newcastle United FC.
Unbeaten in the league for six days shy of a year, Benfica have lost only once at home all season – the fact their conquerors were FC Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League group stage gives some idea of the size of the task facing the Magpies. Jesus, however, said: "It will be a hard game. At this stage all the teams are strong and league performance doesn't always correspond with European form.
"The fact they are in 15th place in England doesn't mean a thing," he added.
"They have played 12 matches in the UEFA Europa League and lost just once. Their squad is full of internationals. It will be an even tie that won't be decided in the first game."
With Jesus anticipating that the visitors "keep to their usual style of play: strong on the counterattack", Benfica will be chasing success on three fronts – although the coach is staying cautious about that exciting prospect. "Fighting for a treble exposes us to risks, because games are more intense and there are also injuries," he explained. "We cannot escape from that. We are [four points] ahead in the league, in the [Portuguese] Cup semi-finals and in the Europa League quarter-finals, so we have to take risks at this stage."
While acknowledging that Newcastle will have their work cut out at the Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Alan Pardew nonetheless believes his side can cause a shock if they can keep the ball. "It will be important to have possession; both sides are very strong in this area," said the manager. "Benfica have plenty of attacking options and are strong on the wings, with the support of both full-backs. It is hard to stop them. It's not mission impossible but it won't be easy. The fact we have two matches to decide the tie is good for us."
Pardew is urging his team to remain in contention until next week's second leg, knowing the boisterous support on Tyneside can spur them on. "At St James' Park we can beat anyone, so we have to try to take the tie there," he said. "It will be a hard test for us because they are a strong side. We've conceded few goals in this competition, but it will be important for us to score here to have a better chance of going through."
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