Preview: Newcastle’s rise under Saudi ownership faces big test with Champions League future on the line

AP , Wednesday 13 Dec 2023

Newly flush with Saudi cash, Newcastle has chosen to tread a strategic and methodical path in its bid to reach the summit of European game under the richest owners in soccer.

Newcastle United
File Photo: Newcastle United s Brazilian striker Joelinton (L) and Brazilian midfielder Bruno Guimaraes (C) react on the pitch after the English Premier League match between Newcastle and Leeds United. AFP

The club is encountering some teething problems by playing the slow game.

Qualifying for the Champions League last season arguably came ahead of schedule for Newcastle and manager Eddie Howe, and they’re struggling to juggle the demands of playing in Europe’s top competition while also keeping up with their rivals in the Premier League.

With a relatively shallow squad hit by a spate of injuries and running on empty amid a packed fixture schedule, the team has dropped to seventh in the league following back-to-back losses last week and, on Wednesday, faces the very real prospect of being eliminated from the Champions League before the knockout stage.

Newcastle hosts AC Milan with both teams on five points, two behind second-place Paris Saint-Germain and five adrift of already-qualified Borussia Dortmund. Newcastle needs a win at St. James’ Park and for PSG to draw or lose against Dortmund in Germany to seal a top-two finish and advance to the last 16.

Lose and Newcastle would be out of Europe completely, not even dropping into the Europa League playoffs courtesy of a third-place finish in the group.

It’s a huge night, then, for the northeast team and its Saudi ownership — the Public Investment Fund — following the 300-million-pound (then $409 million) purchase of the club in 2021 that invited accusations of sportswashing amid scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record.

Failing in the Champions League, the biggest show in club soccer, would be an early blow to its new-found status as a major disruptor for the established elite.

Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise, though.

After all, Newcastle was placed with three storied opponents in the toughest group in the Champions League, meaning every match has been a big occasion for a club playing in the competition for the first time in 20 years.

Coupled with that is an absentee list of which Howe has never seen the likes before. Sven Botman, Dan Burn, Callum Wilson, Harvey Barnes, Sean Longstaff, Jacob Murphy, Nick Pope and Elliot Anderson are among those who are or have been injured, while offseason signing Sandro Tonali was banned for 10 months in October for breaching betting rules.

Against Tottenham on Sunday, Newcastle fielded the same 10 outfield players for the fifth straight game and looked to be running on empty as it slumped to a 4-1 loss.

“Physically we looked fatigued,” Howe said, “and there was not much we could do about it.

“We’re not aflush with options.”

Given their wealth, they could be.

All the talk after the 2021 takeover was which of soccer’s so-called “galacticos” would be heading to Newcastle. Kylian Mbappe? Erling Haaland? Neymar?

When Manchester City came under Abu Dhabi ownership in 2008, its first signing was a jaw-dropper — Robinho, a flamboyant Brazil winger at the time.

Newcastle’s first arrival in the Saudi era? Kieran Tripper, a solid English right back.

Indeed, Newcastle’s transfer strategy has been sensible rather than spectacular, with the new owners keeping within financial limits in their slow build and operating like a normal club when it clearly isn’t anymore.

Newcastle, having joined the ranks of the state-owned clubs, will likely be a force at the top of English and European soccer for years to come — but maybe not this season given the scenario it currently finds itself in.

And failing to qualify for the round of 16 could have serious consequences, potentially preventing England earning five entries — instead of the current four — to next season’s Champions League, when the competition extends to 36 teams.

Bonus extra entries are given to the two countries whose teams have the best collective record across the three UEFA competitions this season. If Newcastle and Manchester United are eliminated, the English challenge is hurt.

For the moment, that’s the least of Howe’s worries. He’ll just be trying to get one more big performance out of his fatigued squad in front of a passionate crowd that enjoyed one of the club’s greatest ever nights in early October, when Newcastle thrashed PSG and Mbappe 4-1 in a statement win that announced its arrival back in the big time.

Newcastle has won eight of its last nine home games in all competitions, the only loss coming against Dortmund on Oct. 25 that left Howe’s team facing an uphill task to qualify. It was something of a reality check to a group of players who have been on a wild ride for the past two years.

Beating Milan, a seven-time European champion, to potentially advance would be another pinch-yourself moment for Newcastle fans.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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