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Apr 10, 2013

Europa League jaunt suits Taylor

Steven Taylor puffs out his cheeks in exasperation. The Newcastle United defender is recalling the moment when, ahead of his team's Europa League last-16 tie with Anzhi Mackhachkla, he was handed the scouting report for Samuel Eto'o.

"It was just all strengths. No weaknesses! Pace, power, good in the air, lethal shot. 'All the best with that, Tayls'. Yeah, cheers! What can you do?"

In the end, Taylor did more than enough and more than his part. One of the stand-out moments of the tie beyond Papiss Cisse's only goal, in fact, was the centre-back using his head where Eto'o had gone in with his foot. Somehow, though, Taylor got the ball away.

"He could have kicked my front teeth out," he laughs now. "It's just the importance of the game. You throw your whole body at it. I was on the floor so might as well. It might cause my face looking like Quasimodo for a while but never mind.

"He's one of the best I've ever played against. You can't switch off. He's always looking to see what you're doing, whether you've switched off, so keeps you alert for the 90 minutes. Good players are waiting for you to switch off. They recognise that and keep an eye on you. I think they're trying to work you out as well, have you any bad points, trying to suss you out."

Whatever about the modern perceptions of the Europa League, it's all part of the rarefied air of the latter stages of continental competition. That extra quality, those extra touches, those more exacting moments. Taylor relishes it.

"I think when you go away against European sides, they're so clever. You've got to pick your moments, whereas in the Premier League, it's physical. In Europe, it's the way they play the game, the style of play, the movement."

Newcastle certainly found themselves outmanoeuvred in the quarter-final first leg in Lisbon as Benfica hit two second-half goals for a 3-1 win. Yet, despite that defeat, the clear feeling from the club all week has been that they took a lot of positives - and confidence - from the performance. Indeed, Taylor cites it as the reason behind the potentially season-changing winner against Fulham on Sunday.

"I think it gave us the hope we needed for the Fulham game. The confidence was there. You could see it afterwards [in Lisbon], the lads were disappointed because we felt we could have even won the game. I thought we had the chances, and the better chances, hit the post twice.

"We pressed them really high, which I don't think Benfica were prepared for. We caused them a lot of problems, I don't think they expected us to perform like we did. We got in amongst their faces and tested them. There's no point going there thinking you're going to lose, you may as well not play. You've got to believe you're going to win. And we do. I don't think we'll go too far if we continue to do that.

"We'll never say never. We'll keep plugging away, always to the end."

Should they manage to overcome that two-goal deficit, it could make a week that Alan Pardew has already described as one of the "biggest" in his time at Newcastle truly momentous. Taylor admits that the prospect of a first club trophy since 1969, and first medal of his career is something that adds even more of an edge to the Europa League games.

"We always get reminded of it [the 1969 Fairs Cup triumph], that's the thing. That's what you want to do, Bob Moncur lifting the cup, you want to be lifting the cup as well.

"The manager made it very clear in the days leading up the Benfica game, this week was massive. It's a massive two games for us, Benfica and Sunderland, massive. I think we did ourselves justice [against Fulham] with a great result. It's given us that massive kick and we know we can try to kick on.

"They [Benfica] have got to remember they're playing against Newcastle United as well and they've got to remember the players we have, they'll cause anybody problems. When we scored past Benfica, that for me was what was needed. The main thing was the away goal. We'd rather be 3-1 down than 2-0 down."

It is a rule, of course, that has caused a fair bit of debate over the last season. And, even though the away goal hangs over this second leg and may yet cost Newcastle, Taylor believes it only adds a sophisticated tension to continental ties.

"I didn't realise how much it mattered until the Anzhi game. I remember speaking to a few of the players. If they scored the goal [in the second leg at 0-0], I felt that was us gone. That's how it felt at the time. You're under pressure then and it circulates around the team: 'just don't concede, don't concede'. I think you're worrying about what they can do to you rather than what you should be doing to them. I think it's a great rule. It's exciting.

"The goal in Benfica could prove to be a helpful thing for us. We've got to get the result and stop them from scoring. After the performance there, it's given us belief we can do that. Like I said before, I'm relishing that chance. I'm just hoping the fans are like they were against Anzhi because that was incredible."

And, whatever the discussions about the quality of Benfica, he'll be hoping for a similar outcome to Anzhi: and cause for excitement, rather than exasperation.

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