FC Levadia Tallinn 0 - 1 Newcastle Utd
Well, it'll do I suppose - a one goal advantage (and an away goal at that) and a clean sheet to take into the second leg in a fortnight's time. But it could have been so much better, had we gone for the jugular and not tired worryingly in the second half against very poor opposition. And even Glenn Roeder was aware it was hardly the supremely professional performance over which Channel Five commentators Tony Jones and Joe Royle were creaming their pants.
The only change to the starting XI following Saturday's horrible home defeat by Fulham saw the injured Shola Ameobi drop out to be replaced by Antoine Sibierski, making his debut following the deadline day move from Man City. The Frenchman operated in a curious floating role, used as a target man for our defenders' long balls but dropping deep when Levadia had possession.
Sibierski it was who had the first clear chance of the match with only four minutes on the clock. Charles N'Zogbia had started off with an electric run down the left, and, repeating the trick, he played a delightful low cross into his compatriot who somehow contrived to volley wide from six yards with the goal at his mercy.
Thankfully for Sibierski, he made amends six minutes later. Damien Duff swung in a perfect cross which eluded the Levadia 'keeper Artur Kotenko and Sibierski headed in via a deflection off his marker's head. The goalscorer's celebrations were about as muted as was the enthusiasm which greeted his arrival on Tyneside - but for all that it was a vital goal which settled our nerves and allowed us to play with a degree of freedom and confidence.
N'Zogbia was a livewire, while Emre continued to ping the ball all over the pitch with precision. Skipper Scott Parker had a left-foot shot well saved, and Obafemi Martins, looking much sharper than on Saturday, terrorised the Levadia back four with his pace, almost profiting on a couple of occasions.
But it wasn't all good news in the first half. At the back Titus Bramble was having another shocker, continually tumbling too easily to the turf when put under pressure by Vladimir Voskoboinikov. And Bramble it was whose concentration lapse allowed the otherwise hapless central defender Marek Lemsalu to drift in behind him and float a volley just wide of the far post.
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise - for him and for us - when Bramble was forced off with an injury, but, with Steven Taylor and Celestine Babayaro already on the treatment table, it once again leaves us down to the bare bones at the back. Roeder pushed Peter Ramage infield to partner Craig Moore and instead of gambling on the unfit Olivier Bernard plumped for James Milner to come on. Duff switched to left back and Milner took up the Irishman's position on the wide right. Interesting that the significant role Roeder had promised Milner only materialised thanks to Bramble's injury...
The second period wasn't much of a spectacle, mainly thanks to the tiredness and lack of ambition of our forwards, and the surprising rigidity of our defence. Moore and Ramage repelled everything thrown at them admirably, to the extent that Levadia were frustrated into shooting from distance at every opportunity. Their only real chance of the half came when Voskoboinikov's shot was parried by Given and then blasted over the bar by Konstantin Vassilijev when it bounced up off Emre's thigh. Otherwise they were dependent on the referee for the award of some questionable free-kicks in decent positions, but never really threatened.
At the other end Martins was one of those looking sluggish, but he did at least have a few shots. Two were powerful enough but flew high, but he nearly registered his first for the club late on with a drive which flew just wide following a lovely flick from Parker. N'Zogbia had faded and Sibierski was horribly off the pace, but Milner looked lively on the right, skinning his man to deliver decent crosses on a couple of occasions, and at one point going down following something approaching an elbow from his marker and rejecting the proferred hand with a curt "Fuck off you prick
" - words rehearsed with Fat Fred perhaps? Meanwhile Milner's fellow substitute Albert Luque hit a first-time volley narrowly wide.
But 1-0 it remained. I'd have taken that at the start - but, having seen what we were up against, it seems disappointing not to have dished out a thrashing and all but wrapped up the tie at the first attempt.
One final thought. Is it just me, or did anyone else notice that Levadia made four substitutions? The injured Kotenko was replaced in the first half, and they subsequently threw on three outfield players in the second. Perhaps European competition makes allowances for replacing your 'keeper in addition to making your three allotted outfield changes - I don't know. But if not (and it doesn't seem to have merited a mention anywhere online), they could be in trouble and the question will be why didn't anyone else spot it?
Other reports: BBC