SV Zulte-Waregem 1 - 3 Newcastle Utd
"There's no such thing as cannon fodder in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup
", opined Joe Royle before tonight's match against Belgian outfit Zulte-Waregem. Such was the evident gulf in class we ought to have proved otherwise - but to return to St James' for next week's second leg with a 3-1 aggregate lead was reward enough for a professional if not ruthless performance.
With Scott Parker rested due to a tight hamstring and Oguchi Onyewu ineligible, Glenn Roeder sagely decided that attack was our best form of defence - after all, if the ball's with our forwards, then it's nowhere near our back line... With regard to the team that started against Liverpool, that meant Steven Taylor pushing inside, Nobby Solano dropping to right back, James Milner switching wings to make room for Damien Duff, Kieron Dyer operating in the engine room alongside Nicky Butt and Antoine Sibierski coming in up front.
It was a special day for Sibierski, as it meant he came up against Frederic Dindeleux - not only did they play together at Lille, but the Waregem centre back was his best man.
Waregem started brightly as we took a little time to settle in, but gradually our quality began to show through. Obafemi Martins dragged one shot wide and then saw another comfortably saved before a chance finally fell to his favoured left foot, but he sliced wide when he should have done better. The same was true of Damien Duff soon afterwards. The dynamic Dyer's energetic bursts forwards became a regular feature of our play, while Titus Bramble was having a commanding and steady game at the back.
Even still, we weren't creating a great deal, and it was only with barely a minute to spare of the first half that Waregem 'keeper Pieter Merlier was seriously extended. Solano's flat cross from the right somehow found its way straight through to Martins, who, having anticipated the ball arriving at his feet, was unlucky to see his prodded shot deflected past the post by Merlier's leg.
Following his first half exertions Martins was the last to emerge from the dressing room after the break, holding up the restart, and then promptly spent the best part of 30 seconds tying his bootlaces while play went on around him.
But all thoughts that that suggested we were in for a sluggish and complacent start to the second period were banished on 47 minutes. Solano's clever ball found the ever-willing Dyer bursting into the area, and his low cross was diverted into his own net by Dindeleux, who had Martins breathing down his neck. Bizarrely, Dindeleux then had to suffer over-fastidious Bulgarian referee Anton Genov's commiserations.
From then on it looked like being a stroll in the park. Duff, who benefited from his ageing marker Tjorven De Brul's decision to sit off him, dashed into the penalty box, beat two players with a neat bit of skill and then went down under challenge from Merlier. Replays suggested that the Irishman took a tumble - something learnt at Chelsea, perhaps, and not something we should be condoning. Despite Solano having hit the winning goal from the penalty spot on Saturday, Martins persuaded our Peruvian winger-cum-full-back that the responsibility should be his, and he duly made amends for the dreadful ballooned miss against Everton - albeit aided by the fact that Merlier committed himself far too early.
2-0 and plain sailing: cue more shots from Martins (one a long-ranger which whistled just wide) and more renditions of the Phillippe Albert song from the fans.
But, with Channel Five's commentary team continually reminding viewers that we hadn't conceded in previous five away matches in Europe this season, a Waregem goal was inevitable. Celestine Babayaro conceded a daft free-kick on the touchline, Loris Reina swung a dangerous ball in and the unmarked Karel D'Haene flicked a header past Steve Harper. It's now 17 games since our last clean sheet, away to Eintracht Frankfurt in this competition.
D'Haene then tried his luck from distance, forcing Harper to tip over as renewed belief coursed through our opponents and their fans, but thankfully it wasn't long before we wrapped up the win. As Martins tussled with defenders at the edge of the Waregem area, the ball broke loose to Sibierski who cleverly played himself in, calmly and easily rounded the 'keeper and rolled the ball into the empty net.
A word about our bald-headed Frenchman. He didn't enjoy his best game for us tonight, but that was his fourth goal in this season's UEFA Cup campaign, all of them vital, and he now has eight for the season in total. Not bad for a free transfer, and certainly not bad for a player many fans, myself included, were less than enthusiastic about welcoming to St James'. I for one am more than happy to eat humble pie when it tastes as good as this.
Once Sibierski had restored the two goal advantage, we were back in comfortable control and saw out the remaining quarter of an hour without any difficulty. Barring a catastrophe of Birmingham-sized proportions next Thursday, we can start looking towards meeting either Fenerbahce or AZ Alkmaar in the last 16.
Other reports: BBC