United begin their journey into the Europa League group stage on Thursday evening in a clash which epitomises the secondary nature of UEFA’s ancillary competition.
Nevertheless, Newcastle’s players and fans alike will enter the competition proper with fervour and excitement at what should be a refreshing experience, having seen an absence of European football (barring last month’s qualifier) for 2017 days.
When you put it like that, it makes you realise how much we’ve missed out on during the barren years under BSA, JFK and the likes. With that in mind, here is one Newcastle fan at least who hopes for a committed performance in this competition, regardless of the personnel charged with the task.
Thursdays encounter will see the Magpies travel to the Island of Madeira to take on C.S Maritimo of the Liga ZON Sagres (Portuguese Premier League), in what is likely to be an awkward tie for all involved. Maritimo’s ground is situated in the capital city of Madeira, which is Funchal, with a capacity of just under 9,000, and has hosted a number of ties against British opposition during its eight seasons in European competition.
Maritimo finished fifth in the Primeira Liga last season behind Portugal’s big three and United’s pre-season opponents Braga, and currently stand 5th in the league this time out after picking up five points from their three league games – including a notable home draw against Sporting Lisbon.
Maritimo’s first encounter against British opposition was in the first round of the UEFA cup back in the 1998-99 season against Leeds United. They lost the first leg 1-0 thanks to a 20 yard freekick from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink late in the game; however the European minnows fought back in the second leg on their home turf to earn a penalty shootout. Leeds went through in the end, but not without a huge scare.
These two sides met again in the same competition in the 01/02 season, this time starting with the game in Portugal. Leeds put out a particularly strong team that day, a team that had fought their way to the semi-finals of the Champions League less than six months previous. Once again however, Maritimo triumphed by a single goal, only to lose the second leg 3-0.
Looking at their European record makes for impressive reading, having won eight of their thirteen home ties to date, with only three defeats, two of which came against teams of considerable European pedigree – Juventus and Valencia. As is often the case however, their away form in Europe is less impressive, having picked up three wins whilst suffering seven defeats.
History suggests that Newcastle could be in for a tough encounter on Thursday, and will need to have their wits about them if they are to pick up anything from the game. In terms of progression from the group, defeat would not be a total disaster; however given the absence from this competition of more than five years, collecting a point at least would signal intent to the United faithful that we are taking this competition seriously.
With a modest squad in terms of numbers and some big games to compete in domestically, prioritisation can be understood and accepted. However, many fans see this competition as a reward for last season’s performance, and would like to see the hard work and success justified by paying the respect that our successes last year deserve.
Thanks for reading.
Written by Martin Gibson