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The former players we could be up against in Europe

Updated: Sep 13

So with the draws done for the UEFA club competition group stages, transfer windows closed and squads submitted, let's have a look at what players we could be up against in Europe this season. As well as those who could be playing against us in the Champions League, I will also look at players we could face in the Europa League knock-out stages if we finish 3rd in our group.

Luuk de Jong

It's safe to say that Luuk de Jong's loan spell on Tyneside from Borussia Mönchengladbach in the second half of the 2013/14 season was a terrible one - twelve appearances and zero goals. He did play his part when we beat Aston Villa 1-0 but as a striker, you're remembered for your goals and his shots at goals barely troubled goalkeepers.

After his loan spell here, the Dutchman returned to his home country that summer as he joined PSV Eindhoven, where he fared a lot better with 94 goals in 159 Eredivisie games and three league titles in five years before moving to Sevilla in July 2019 (he also played alongside older brother Siem when we loaned him out to them for the 2016/17 season). He only scored 16 goals in 90 league games during his three years in Spain (which included a loan spell at Barcelona) before returning to Eindhoven last summer and after he was named club captain, his second spell alone has seen him score as many league goals as he managed in La Liga. He netted five goals in four goals as they beat Sturm Graz and Rangers in the Champions League qualifiers to reach the group stages, where they will come against Arsenal whilst he will also face former club Sevilla.

Massadio Haïdara

Another of our former players in Group B is Massadio Haïdara. Less than two months after joining us from Nancy in January 2013, the Frenchman suffered a leg break as a result of a horrific tackle from Wigan Athletic winger Callum McManaman that somehow went unpunished and in his five and a half injured plagued years on Tyneside, he only made 53 appearances in all competitions before leaving in June 2018.

After his contract with us expired, he returned to France to join Lens and scored his first career goal and won promotion to Ligue 1 in his second season (although it was curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Three years later, they finished runners-up and only one point behind Paris Saint-Germain and like ourselves, will making their third appearance in the Champions League group stages and their first one since the 2002/03 season. Haïdara could well see his former Magpies teammate Luuk de Jong again when their respective clubs meet on 24 October and 8 November but his best chance of playing against us this season looks to be if both ourselves and Lens finish 3rd in our respective groups.


The £5,000,000 signing of Spanish striker Joselu from Stoke City in August 2017 was an example of our tight spending when Mike Ashley was owner and he only netted seven goals in 52 games in all competitions in his two years here. To put in context how bad his spell was, when we did sell him to Deportivo Alavés in July 2019, it was for just £2,500,000 (half the small price we paid for him).

If back then, you told us that within four years, he would be signing for Real Madrid whilst we (having just lost manager Rafael Benítez due to a lack of backing from Ashley) would also be playing in the Champions League again (with nine players that had played that season having made at least one Premier League appearance as we finished 4th), you'd have probably been asked what you were smoking. But it's happened and if we get through the group stages, there is a chance that we will see Joselu at St James' Park again (and knowing our luck, he'll probably score the winning goal in the tie) - his first season at Alavés saw him net double figures in a top flight campaign for the first time, something he has done in every season since he returned to Spain.

After 36 goals in 113 games in all competitions for the Basque Country outfit, he left when his contract expired after they were relegated and joined Espanyol in June 2022. Despite suffering another relegation, he ended last season as the third highest scorer in La Liga, only behind Robert Lewandowski and Karim Benzema (whilst also scoring three goals in his first four senior games for Spain). After Benzema's departure from Real Madrid in June, Joselu was signed on loan to replace him, safe to stay it has been some turnaround after his time in England.

Mikel Merino

Shortly before Joselu joined us, fellow Spaniard Mikel Merino was signed on loan from Borussia Dortmund with an obligation to buy. After a more than successful start to life on Tyneside, he joined permanently for £8,500,000 and scored his first goal in a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace eight days later. Unfortunately, he suffered a back injury soon afterwards and couldn't recapture the form from his loan with Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diamé's form keeping him out the side before he joined Real Sociedad for £10,000,000 after just one season with us.

Despite a slow start in San Sebastián, he eventually became a starter and won Player of the Match in a 1-0 win over rivals Athletic Bilbao in the 2020 Copa del Rey final (although it was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and was part of the Spain squad that finished as runners-up to Brazil (who had Bruno Guimarães in their squad) in that summer's Olympic Games (which was also delayed by a year), scoring in a 1-1 draw against Argentina in the group stages. Last season, he made 33 La Liga appearances as Real Sociedad qualified for Europe's top tier competition for the fifth time (including their two appearances in the 1980s when it was called the European Cup) and played the full game in their 1-0 win away to Manchester United in the Europa League group stages, their first victory on English soil. After missing out on their 2022 World Cup squad he will also be looking to be called up for his first senior major tournament with Spain for Euro 2024 but we could see him at St James' Park again after Christmas (although it's probably more likely to be in the Europa League).

So that's all of our former players that could come up against us in the Champions League after Christmas. Georginio Wijnaldum was still a Paris Saint-Germain player when we were drawn into their group but he has since completed a move to Al-Ettifaq. Now let's have a look at some other players we could be up against after Christmas should we finish 3rd in our group and drop into the Europa League. I won't be including James Milner as he is at another Premier League club, having joined Brighton & Hove Albion on a free transfer from Liverpool and came off the bench in the 81st minute of their recent 3-1 win over us.

Chancel Mbemba

After the performances of Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson towards the end of the the previous season, Chancel Mbemba was like a breath of fresh air with his performances in his first season after arriving from Anderlecht in July 2015, even if the campaign did end with relegation. The DR Congo centre-back started six of our first eight league games of the following season but after an own goal in a 2-0 loss at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, he lost his place to summer signing Ciaran Clark and only played another seven games in all competitions although he did score in a 3-0 win over Barnsley, which clinched us the Championship title on the final day. He started the 2017/18 season well, even filling in at left-back when Paul Dummett and Massadio Haïdara were injured whilst the transfer listed Achraf Lazaar was loaned out to Benevento and we failed to sign anyone for that position but lost his place again and didn't play another league game after 27 December.

He joined Porto for £7,140,000 in July 2018 and whilst he only made six appearances in all competitions in his first season, his second season saw him score twice as they beat rivals Benfica 2-1 to win the Taça de Portugal, having also beaten them to the Primeira Liga title. He also played the full game when they won the trophy again in 2022, this time beating Tondela 3-1 in the final as they won the domestic double for the second time in three seasons. Mbemba left when his contract expired that summer and joined Marseille as a free agent, where he made 36 Ligue 1 appearances, scored five goals and kept ten clean sheets as they finished 3rd in his first season. He was sent off for a foul on Heung-Min Son as they lost 2-0 to Tottenham Hotspur in their opening Champions League game but scored in a 4-1 win over Sporting CP and again in the return fixture against Spurs, only for Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg's stoppage time strike to end their European campaign as they finished bottom of the group. Unfortunately for Mbemba and Marseille, their Champions League campaign this season ended in the third qualifying round with a penalty shoot-out defeat to Panathinaikos, consigning them to the Europa League, where they have been drawn in the same group as Brighton & Hove Albion, who Mbemba played twice against for us.

James Tavernier

Onto another defender, James Tavernier arrived from Leeds United as a teenager in 2008 but he only made ten first appearances in all competitions (four of which came in our last European campaign in the 2012/13 season) and went out on loan six times before he left to join Wigan Athletic in June 2014.

Tavernier was loaned out to Bristol City the following January, scoring three goals in 12 league games as they won the League One title, swapping leagues with his parent club, who suffered a second relegation in three seasons. He left to join Rangers in July 2015 and scored 10 goals in 36 league appearances as they won promotion back to the Scottish Premiership, four years after financial troubles led to them being demoted to the fourth tier of Scottish football. His eight years at Ibrox has seen him score 103 goals in 406 games and captain the club to their first top flight title in ten years in the 2020/21 season as they went the whole league season unbeaten before the following season, they won the Scottish Cup and reached the Europa League final, only to lose to Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties. Last season would be a trophyless one for the Gers, who finished seven points behind rivals Celtic and lost all six of their Champions League group games, including a 7-1 loss at home to Liverpool, although Tavernier would score a penalty in a 3-1 loss at home to Ajax in their final game. He also scored three goals in their four Champions League qualifying games this season but they were beaten 7-3 on aggregate by PSV Eindhoven in the play-off round and had to settle for a place in the Europa League group stages.

Ayoze Pérez

Another of our former players in Group C of the Europa League is Ayoze Pérez. The Spaniard joined for £1,500,000 from hometown club Tenerife in June 2014 and his 48 goals in 195 games in all competitions made him our highest scorer in the Mike Ashley era. Whilst he had plenty of frustrating performances, he also scored some big goals, including the winning goal as we beat Championship title rivals Brighton & Hove Albion 2-1 in February 2017, a brace as we came from 2-0 down to beat Everton 3-2 in March 2019 and a hat-trick in a 3-1 win over Southampton six weeks later. Once manager Rafael Benítez left upon expiry of his contract that summer, Pérez soon followed his compatriot out the door when Leicester City activated his £30,000,000 release clause.

Despite suggestions of him preferring a return to Spain, it was easy to see why he made the right move by joining the Foxes as they finished 5th and just four points off a Champions League place in his first season. He also netted another hat-trick against Southampton as Brendan Rodgers' side broke the record for the biggest away win in English top flight history (winning 9-0) and scored at the Gallowgate End in their 3-0 victory at St James' Park on New Year's Day. The following season, he got his first experience of playing European football, was involved in the build-up to Youri Tielemans' winning strike as they beat Chelsea 1-0 to win the FA Cup for the first time and the East Midlands outfit finished 5th once again, this time one point off the top four. However, he only scored three goals in all competitions that season and was unable to better that tally in the 2021/22 season as they dropped to 8th in the league, although he did set up Ricardo Pereira's equaliser as they came from behind to beat PSV Eindhoven in the Europa Conference League quarter-finals, only lose to eventual winners Roma in the semi-finals.

After one goal in 13 games in all competitions, he was loaned out to Real Betis in January 2023 and scored against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Europa League round of 16, they lost 5-1 on aggregate but finished 6th to qualify for this season's competition and Pérez joined as a free agent after his Leicester contract expired. In a recent interview, he has also backed former Foxes teammate Harvey Barnes' £38,000,000 move to us this summer to be a success and suggested that he would love to visit St James' Park again as a fan but he could be playing there again after Christmas should we finish 3rd in our Champions League group.

So that's all of our former players that could be playing against us in the Champions League or Europa League this season. Of course, this is provided that they don't switch clubs in January. Meanwhile, Sandro Tonali is set to return to the San Siro to face former club AC Milan in our first game on 19 September after his £55,000,000 move from the Italian giants before they come to Tyneside for the final round of group games on 13 December and Alexander Isak is set to take on former club Borussia Dortmund at St James' Park on 25 October and in Germany on 7 November, having only made 13 appearances in all competitions as a teenager before joining Real Sociedad in June 2019.

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