NEWCASTLE captain Fabricio Coloccini could be out until May.
The defender is sidelined with a back problem suffered against Southampton last month.
Coloccini has flown back to his native Argentina to be with his family – but the defender Is expected to return to Tyneside next week.
United manager Alan Pardew – whose side face Russian big-spenders Anzhi Makhachkala in Moscow tonight (5pm) – has allowed him to fly back to South America on compassionate leave to be with his wife and children while he recuperates.
Pardew is hopeful the 31-year-old could be back in action in three weeks – but he’s prepared for the worst.
“Colo has gone back to Argentina,” Pardew said. “There’s no treatment he can have – he’s broke two of the bones in his back.
“We think it’s going to be anything between three and seven weeks. He’s gone back for a week.”
Coloccini’s absence means a long run in the team for January signing Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, signed from Montpellier.
Meanwhile, striker Papiss Cisse did not travel to Russia with his team-mates after being laid low with a virus, and that forced Pardew to bring Shola Ameobi, who he is reluctant to use on the Luzhniki Stadium’s artificial surface.
“It is a blow – I thought he’d be ideal for this surface,” said Pardew.
“It’s something we’ll have to overcome. It’s a virus, but the doc doesn’t think it’s going to kick in for too long.
“But we obviously need him to train on Friday to get some air in his lungs.
“It’ll probably eliminate Shola from Sunday (against Stoke City), if he plays. That wasn’t ideal. So it’s kind of worked out in a reverse way.
“Nevertheless we’ve got great players in this team.”
Hugely-experienced Anzhi boss Guus Hiddink admires the pace and power in what he describes as a “modern” Newcastle team.
“They have modern-equipped players in all positions,” added Hiddink, who
refused to talk about rumours of a possible summer return to former club Chelsea.
“All the players are technically skilful, but also in the athletic part of the game, they are very powerful.
“We’re going to have an interesting and tough contest against a team reinforced in the past few weeks in a positive way.
“We’re happy to have reached our aims that we set at the beginning of the season of surviving the winter time in Europe. We’re in the last 16 of Europe, which is a very good success, but we’re eager to make the next step.
“We play a strong team. We’ve seen them in Europe, but also in the Premier League.
“In their last game against Swansea, they dominated and dominated, but got beat by an unlucky goal. You could see that it was a modern team. It’s a big challenge for our players.”
Hiddink has a clean bill of health, though striker Mbark Boussoufa is suspended.