Newcastle's Mikel Merino: Watching Chelsea '˜suffer' in tie taught me all about beauty of FA Cup
Mikel Merino didn't know too much about the FA Cup when he arrived in England.
But the attendance for Newcastle United’s tie against Luton Town told him all he needed to know about the importance of the competition.
The club’s 3-1 win at St James’s Park was watched by a remarkable crowd of 47,069.
“When you’re in Spain, you just know that there are a lot of cups in England – you don’t know which one is more special than the other,” said Merino.
“In Spain, when you have a cup, the stadiums are not full, because it’s a cup, and it’s not the main championship.
“Here in England, you have a cup and the stadiums are full, because everybody wants to see that competition.
“It’s a good thing here in England.”
Newcastle take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday in the next round of the FA Cup.
The televised fourth-round tie is all but sold out.
Merino avidly watched the third-round replay between Premier League champions Chelsea and Championship club Norwich City, which was decided by a penalty shootout.
“It was a huge game,” said the 21-year-old.
“This is the kind of game we love to see, because you see a huge club like Chelsea can suffer against a second tier club like Norwich. This is the beautfiul game.”
Merino, an unused substitute against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium last weekend, is pushing for a start against Chelsea.
The Spain Under-21 international, signed from Borussia Dortmund last summer, is close to full fitness after overcoming a back problem which sidelined him for a month late last year.
“I’m feeling good,” said Merino. “I’m starting again to play football and feel like a valuable player.”
Six months into his Newcastle career, Merino also believes he’s getting used to the physicality and intensity of English football.
“I think that the Premier League is a hard league, a tough league,” said the Pamplona-born player. “Players are strong, fast, quick.
“It’s different to what I was used to in Spain. It’s a different kind of football.
“I’m learning about it, and I’m happy to be in that competitive league.
“I’m learning a lot. I know I have a lot more things to learn. I will try to do it.”
United manager Rafa Benitez has helped Merino quickly adjust to the Premier League.
Day by day, week by week, Merino believes he’s improving under the guidance of Spanish countryman Benitez and his staff.
“When you’re playing against the best and you’re with the best, you learn more,” said Merino.
“I think I’m a better player now than when I arrived. This is what it is. You have to try to improve every single day, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
“I’m trying to be the best player I can and be the most competitive and complete player.”
Benitez named a strong starting XI for the Luton game, but the cup is of secondary importance to the club, which is battling to stay in the Premier League.
Newcastle are 15th in the table with 23 points – and just one point above the relegation zone.
The Chelsea tie is quickly followed by a home league fixture against eighth-placed Burnley on January 31.
Benitez – who can ill-afford any injuries – will be mindful of the visit of Sean Dyche’s side to St James’s Park when he names his starting XI for the cup tie.
However, the players just want to play – and win.
“It’s our idea to try to go as far as we can in every competition,” said Merino.
“Our mood is always to win every game and give our best.”