Champions League qualification means new possibilities for Newcastle
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Backed by Saudi riches, Newcastle United is back in the Champions League and ready to rub shoulders with European soccer's elite once more.
It is precisely what many observers predicted when the down on its luck Premier League team was bought by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund in Oct. 2021.
What it does next could make for thrilling viewing now that the club has been given the platform to challenge for the sport’s biggest prizes sooner than expected.
A return to the Champions League after a 20-year wait paves the way for Newcastle to compete for the world's top players.
The likes of Harry Kane and Neymar could suddenly be on its radar, having made relatively shrewd, rather than lavish, signings under its Saudi owners.
Around $313 million has been spent to transform the club's fortunes, but it is still without any superstar players to compare with Erling Haaland or Mohamed Salah.
It is likely to cost 100s of millions more to challenge Manchester City's supremacy in the Premier League, after Pep Guardiola's team won a fifth title in six years this season, or make a serious mark on Europe.
"The challenge gets harder and more difficult because now we've become a better team, there's less players that will make us better," said manager Eddie Howe on Monday. "So it's going to be a big window for us."
Newcastle was second from the bottom of England's top division and without a win all season when the $409 million takeover was completed on Oct. 7, 2021.
The priority then was to avoid relegation and, given strict Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, there was little hope of emulating the exorbitant spending of City or Paris Saint-Germain any time soon, no matter how wealthy its new owners were.
Yet, in its first full season under Saudi control, Newcastle has secured a return to the biggest stage in European club soccer.
While its transfers have been more modest than some might have expected after the takeover, money has been a key factor in its rapid rise.
England international Kieran Trippier was persuaded to join its relegation fight in January last year.
"I took a risk when I arrived," he said Monday.
Bruno Guimaraes, Chris Wood, Dan Burn and Matt Targett were also signed in that first window under the new owners as Howe comfortably secured survival.
A record fee of around $78 million has since been spent on striker Alexander Isak.
That money has got Newcastle this far, but it looks a long way off from challenging for the title.
For all of its success this year, which also included losing to Manchester United in the English League Cup final, there has been a feeling that it has exceeded expectations. It has also been helped by the unexpectedly poor campaigns of regular top-four teams like Liverpool and Chelsea.
With the addition of Champions League soccer next season, Newcastle's squad could be too small to cope with the added games it will have to play.
As such, it will be interesting to see how ambitious it is when identifying transfer targets this summer.
Saudi Arabia has made a big mark in sport in recent years, from hosting heavyweight world title fights to its LIV Golf tour, which has lured some of the sport's greatest players.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been playing for Saudi club Al Nassr since January and Lionel Messi has also been linked with a move to the country when his PSG contract expires at the end of the season.
The offer of Champions League soccer will help to attract targets, while the competition's prize money and sponsorship opportunities should enable Newcastle's owners to invest more funds into the project.
Whether star names like Kane or Neymar could be tempted yet, is unknown, but it feels like a matter of time before a truly marquee player arrives.
Guardiola has spent more than $1 billion in turning City into the most dominant force in England and possibly European champions this season.
Newcastle would likely have to spread its resources to try to close the gap to the champions, rather than splashing out too heavily on one or two global stars.
While money has been spent, it seems that its Saudi backers have had to bide their time to make the kind of impact supporters are dreaming about.
On the field, however, the team looks to be well ahead of schedule.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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