It is a big game, but then they all are now for Newcastle. By Christmas, they will have played Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund twice each, and Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Brighton once apiece. The definition of a major match can shift according to reason, to the quality of the opposition – despite the size of their fanbase and stadium, Newcastle may not have been underlined on the fixture list by the elite during their wilderness years – but the sight of the massive Signal Iduna Park is another reminder they are back in the big time now.
Whether they remain there in spring is still to be determined. Dortmund may have always been the biggest game of perhaps the biggest week thus far for Newcastle – a triple header of Manchester United, Arsenal and last season’s Bundesliga runners-up – but Eddie Howe’s side arrive in Germany having proved masters of brinkmanship. Short of players, but high on spirit, they are looking to complete a famous hat-trick.
In four days, they could have exited the Carabao Cup and been distanced from the Premier League’s top four; instead, they overcame United and Arsenal. Now for the side who inflicted their only defeat in their last 12 matches. Three points would put Newcastle on course for the knockout stages.
“Every game is a must-win,” said Howe. “The term is probably overused in football.” And if he was right to note that too much of the language can be hyperbolic – certainly some was at St James’ Park on Saturday – a setback could be very damaging. With a trip to Paris next, defeat in Dortmund could mean Newcastle are out of the Champions League after five games.
Howe will have to navigate the rest of the group stage without the symbolic hero of their demolition of Paris Saint-Germain. Dan Burn’s aerial ability brought a goal then, but he landed awkwardly on his back after going up for a header on Saturday. “A long-term problem, a couple of months is a speculative number,” said Howe. “He has been gigantic for us.” It was not just a reference to Burn’s height and, with Matt Targett out for around three months, Newcastle are now short of left-backs.
They were already missing the spine of a side, in the flagship signings Sven Botman, Sandro Tonali and Alexander Isak. With Burn, Targett and Harvey Barnes absent as well, Newcastle are shorn of players who have cost more than £200m of their £400m outlay in Howe’s reign.
Big numbers have given way to small ones. Newcastle have too few players. There was no room in the Champions League squad for Emil Krafth and Matt Ritchie, two fit players. Selection could be a process of elimination. “You just see who is fit and who is available,” Howe said. “The games have come at a cost.”
Nor is there much respite for the overworked. “The problem we have is a lot of the injuries are on a longer-term scale, which means there’s no relief coming around the corner,” he said. The last men standing will have to carry on running for quite some time.
It is something depleted groups managed to do against United and Arsenal. But, deprived of some of the players who brought stardust, Newcastle feel still more reliant on hard work. Certainly, it is harder to outclass teams. And, while a 4-1 scoreline against PSG was spectacular, otherwise Newcastle are yet to score.
The statistics are explained in part by the toughness of a pool without a minnow who can be thrashed but of the 32 teams in the Champions League, so far Newcastle have the third-lowest expected goals and the fourth fewest shots. They rank fourth from bottom for completed passes and have had the third-fewest touches. Only three goalkeepers have made more saves than Nick Pope; of those who have played two or more games, only one has a higher save percentage than his 86.7; as he is Dortmund’s Gregor Kobel, it could add to a struggle to score.
They drew a blank at home two weeks ago and the realist in Howe was apparent when he reviewed Dortmund’s victory at St James’ Park. “It was a tight game but they deserved to win,” he said. The sense is the rematch could be tight; so, too, the pool.
At the start of the competition, Opta’s predictive statistics gave Newcastle a 54 per cent chance of qualifying from Group F. Halfway through it, their supercomputer now thinks there is a 54 per cent likelihood they will go through. That said, Opta gave Newcastle a 78 per cent chance of a top-two finish before the defeat to Dortmund two weeks ago. It could shape up as the pivotal result of their European campaign.
And yet, as Howe is very aware, there are worse problems than being deprived of key players for a marquee match against one of Germany’s great clubs. Wednesday marks the second anniversary of his appointment. Dortmund were not on his agenda then. “The vision was short-term. It was, can we stay in the Premier League?” he recalled. Now the question is whether Newcastle can stay in the Champions League.