After moving clear of the Premier League danger zone last weekend with a last-gasp victory, Newcastle United FC are savouring one of the biggest matches in their recent history as they bid to overturn a 3-1 deficit against an SL Benfica side unbeaten since October.
Having given themselves the safety net of a five-point cushion above the bottom three by overcoming Fulham FC on Sunday, the Magpies entertain the Portuguese Liga leaders in the second leg of their UEFA Europa League quarter-final needing a 2-0 win or better to progress.
The European history and tradition of the Eagles means it is a fixture Alan Pardew is relishing and, with a capacity crowd sure to be in attendance at St James' Park, the Newcastle manager is not ruling out what seem an improbable turnaround. "This is the biggest game in the club's history for a while – we earned that thanks to our performance [fifth-place finish] last season," he said.
"Having a full house means everything, as Borussia Dortmund proved last night – the crowd can influence proceedings. They did that for us on Sunday. We were all nervous, with such a big week ahead we needed the win, so to get it in the last minute was really special. The noise and atmosphere our fans generated was a big part of that."
The size of the task facing the Tyneside club, however, is formidable: aside from a 2-0 UEFA Champions League defeat by a full-strength FC Barcelona team on 2 October, Benfica have not succumbed by a margin of the size the hosts require in 90 minutes since 24 November 2010 – when they lost 3-0 at Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC. Yet while an early goal would be warmly received, Pardew is perfectly happy to play the waiting game.
"Even if we need two goals with 20 minutes to go I think we can still do it," said the manager, who has Hatem Ben Arfa available after injury. "With the fans behind us and the way we've been getting late goals, I think we're a big threat to Benfica."
Pardew's opposite number Jorge Jesus expects an early onslaught from the English side. "Newcastle will start off very strongly and play a more direct game, putting plenty of pressure on our defence," explained Jesus, whose charges have won their last eight matches – and all five UEFA Europa League knockout round games this term. "They've a number of players who are very strong in the air, like [Papiss] Cissé and [Shola] Ameobi, who I believe will start up front together, so we'll need to be prepared for that eventuality."
Forward Rodrigo, who cancelled out Cissé's opener last week in Lisbon before further strikes from Lima and Óscar Cardozo, said: "Newcastle are very good up front, but of course we'll try to find a way to neutralise him [Cissé] and their other attackers to make sure we progress. The players are in a very relaxed mood. We know we're on a good run and have a good chance of going through."
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