Newcastle are depleted and on the Champions League brink, so what should they do now?

When the full-time whistle blew, Champions League fatalism engulfed the Newcastle United fanbase.

Borussia Dortmund’s 2-0 victory — to follow their 1-0 triumph on Tyneside — was extremely damaging and even Eddie Howe seemed deflated.

Yet AC Milan’s 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain reaffirmed Group F’s status as the “group of death” and, despite sending Newcastle bottom, it perversely aided their qualification hopes. With just three points separating first-placed Dortmund (seven points) with Newcastle in fourth (four points), all four can still progress with two fixtures remaining.

Newcastle’s task remains monumental and they almost certainly need to beat PSG away and Milan at home to prolong their adventure. With up to 11 players absent for Saturday’s trip to Bournemouth, injuries mounting and fatigue setting in, The Athletic debates how Newcastle should tackle the remainder of their Champions League campaign, with three main approaches available…

1) Prioritise the Premier League

The negative — and, to Howe, incomprehensible — outlook, but also the pragmatic one, given the absentee list they are dealing with.

At Bournemouth, Newcastle will be without at least 10 senior players, given Bruno Guimaraes is banned after picking up five bookings in the Premier League. That may rise to 11, should the “tight hamstring” which forced Callum Wilson off at half time in Dortmund prove troublesome for a centre-forward with a history of soft-tissue injuries.

Newcastle’s absentees

Player Reason for absence

Knee injury

Hamstring injury

Groin injury

10-month suspension for betting

Foot injury

Back injury

Groin injury

Shoulder injury

Back injury

One-match Premier League suspension

Tight hamstring (availability unclear)

While Dortmund named 11 replacements, Newcastle could only include eight, two of them keepers, given just 16 of their 23-man Champions League squad were available. Lucas de Bolle, the 21-year-old midfielder, and Ben Parkinson, the 18-year-old forward, were also promoted from the under-21s as emergency cover.

That contributed to the surprise selection of Lewis Hall at left-back and right-back Tino Livramento as a right-sided forward, a position Howe did not envisage deploying the 20-year-old in when he was signed from Southampton.

Howe accepts he has “lost the ability to make certain decisions” when it comes to naming an XI, simply because he is so short of bodies, and because he cannot merely keep flogging his available players. Anthony Gordon, who played 90 minutes against Arsenal on Saturday, and Miguel Almiron, who was rested at Old Trafford last week only to come on as a fifth-minute replacement for the injured Matt Targett, simply could not be “risked” from the start against Dortmund, despite their quality.

Of those unavailable, Dan Burn and Sven Botman would have been in the XI in Germany, while Sandro Tonali, Harvey Barnes and Alexander Isak may have started as well. Only Isak is close to a return, with the Sweden international hoping to feature against Chelsea on November 25.

Isak will provide a much-needed alternative to Wilson, who managed only four touches, none of which were inside the box, before he was replaced, as well as freeing Gordon up to return to his natural role on the wing. Although the 22-year-old contributed the winner against Arsenal as a striker, he could not find the back of the net in Dortmund. Newcastle have failed to score in three of their four European games, two of them away.

For many players, tiredness is setting in. That was inevitable, given the relentless intensity Howe demands, but it has been compounded by the absentees.

There were signs of weariness for Dortmund’s second goal. Kieran Trippier delivered an uncharacteristically poor free-kick into the box, Dortmund cleared to Karim Adeyemi, who had time to take the ball down and pass long to Julian Brandt. As Howe explained, Newcastle players did not “react” quickly enough, leaving Livramento exposed in a two-on-one situation.

The reality is that Newcastle have confounded expectations in recent weeks, given their debilitating absentee list. That appears unsustainable on three fronts and perhaps they should focus on the Premier League, where they sit sixth, four points behind fourth, and try to qualify for the Champions League again, as well as on the Carabao Cup, given they are already into the quarter-finals.

Prioritising competitions is not something any club, particularly one as ambitious as Newcastle, desires, but maybe it would be the prudent approach.

2) Target the Europa League

The continent’s second-tier tournament brings with it a sense of foreboding. The Thursday-Sunday fixture list is undesirable, while, as Alan Pardew’s Newcastle squad discovered in 2012-13, all European football is energy-sapping.

Finishing third in Group F would guarantee further fixtures on foreign soil which, given how stretched Newcastle already are, is far from ideal.

But advancing in the Europa League does bring increased revenue. Although significantly less than in the Champions League, Newcastle would still be awarded prize money and gain further matchday income.

Crucially, the winners of the Europa League also gain entry to the Champions League in 2023-24. With qualification through the Premier League looking challenging, that is an alternative avenue.

Not that Newcastle could necessarily “target” Europa League qualification, given the unpredictability of Group F. Still, given Newcastle’s head-to-head record with Dortmund will make finishing above the German side difficult, a third-placed finish is highly possible.

3) Try to power on, full throttle

This is the only mentality Howe knows and he will surely stick with it. He wants to win every game.

That approach has worked, quite spectacularly, over two years. Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and PSG have been felled this season and Newcastle remain alive in three competitions.

Both Dortmund losses were by slender margins, to a side who have only been defeated four times this calendar year.

Although Newcastle failed to score, they did create clear-cut chances, with Joelinton missing a second-half header from point-blank range on Tuesday. Their profligacy in Europe is curious, given they are the Premier League’s second-highest scorers (27), have the best shot conversion rate (18.1 per cent) and the highest expected goals (xG) total at 23.1, and they have already proven they can score at this level, having put four past PSG. Still, Newcastle are learning to be as ruthless against Europe’s best.

That is unsurprising, given inexperienced players like Hall, 19, are having to start such high-profile matches earlier than intended. Lewis Miley, too, aged 17, became Newcastle’s youngest European representative.

On the other hand, these talented youngsters are gaining experience, mainly out of sheer necessity due to a lack of alternatives. Howe has uncovered depth in his player pool recently that he did not realise was there — and, mercifully, Emil Krafth and Matt Ritchie will return on Saturday, having been ineligible in Dortmund, with neither in the reduced 23-man Champions League squad.

Perhaps, once more, the international break is arriving at just the right time for Newcastle. During that fortnight they can rest, regroup and plot how they can win their final two group matches and qualify for the last 16.

(Top photo: Bernd Thissen/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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