Newcastle 2 - 0 ZTS Dubnica
(5 - 1 on aggregate)
Two goals from the head of Alan Shearer were enough to win Saturday's return match with Dubnica at St James's Park, but - at the risk of sounding very grouchy indeed just two games into the new season - neither the scoreline nor the ease with which the victory was achieved can prettify what was in some respects a disappointing display.
Even against a poor visiting side, and taking into account the absence of several first-teamers through injury and unavailability, the team did little to impress me or the visiting Portsmouth / Havant & Waterlooville fans I was sat with, who were subsequently unanimous in predicting a season of struggle.
Souness made two changes to the side that was victorious in Slovakia, JJ and Bowyer coming in and Chopra and Butt dropped to the bench - the former unlucky, the latter thoroughly deserved.
I'd describe the opening exchanges for you if I'd seen them and not been engaged in a game of musical chairs with a group of idiots who thought they were in the right place but had actually come in at the wrong access gate.
The first action of any real note (as far as we were concerned, anyway) saw Milner scampering towards goal and cracking a left-footed shot which was tipped round the post. JJ was having an influential game in the centre of midfield, and it was he who came closest to breaking the deadlock in a relatively uneventful 45 minutes. First he struck the bar with a brilliant curling free-kick, Dusan Pernis statuesque and hopeful between the sticks, and a minute later his firm downward header was very well saved by the Dubnica 'keeper.
Chopra replaced him at half-time, but within a minute the striker was involved in a collision with Pernis and had to leave the field with concussion shortly afterwards, Souness opting to call upon Martin Brittain rather than Butt.
Milner and N'Zogbia both looked lively, but the former's play continued to lack end product and the latter wasn't being given the ball anywhere near enough. Much more alarming, however, was Faye's seeming inability to tackle after the break, and the appalling performance of Babayaro, whose every move seemed to scream "Bothered?" His distribution was awful, and even tracking back and tackling looked to be too much effort. We might not have needed to break into a sweat, especially given the first leg score, but it would have been nice.
Our mounting frustration and unease was compounded by the odd hint that Dubnica might have it in them to sneak a goal. On one of the few occasions the Slovakian forwards pierced our defence, in which Taylor was superb, Given was forced to dirty his gloves, touching a rising shot over the bar.
And then, a few minutes after a good run and cross from N'Zogbia, sweet relief. Bowyer's run and shot brought a decent save from Pernis, and the resulting Milner corner found Shearer's forehead and the net bulged.
The goal knocked the stuffing out of Dubnica, and Milner spurned two decent opportunities. Shearer meanwhile struck the bar with a header from a cross that looked too high to reach, and then scuffed a shot straight at Pernis from close range.
The skipper wasn't to be denied, though, and at the death added a second from Carr's pinpoint cross. Two goals to end his lean spell stretching back to Easter, and two goals closer to Jackie Milburn's record.
As expected, Deportivo overcame Buducnost and so now face us at the Riazor on Wednesday night. A much sterner test of our lethargic side is guaranteed, and with either Lazio or Marseille to play after that it certainly won't be a stroll in the park.
Other reports: NUFC.com