Friday, April 12, 2013

Europa exit no embarrassment

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Benfica

Heartening to know, isn't it, that an intensely dislikeable team of Champions League fuck-ups whose players sneer at the Europa League remain in the competition (that would be Chelsea, in case you're wondering), while a side of more modest ambitions and investment, hamstrung by injuries to key players, can bust an absolute gut in an attempt to progress into the next round, only to come up agonisingly short against one of Europe's form teams?

The initial signs were unpromising, but the Silver Fox got his strategy - if not all the minutiae of his tactics - spot on: get to half-time goalless and then step up a gear and take the game to the visitors. For the final 23 minutes of last night's match, we had a line-up so attacking it would have even given King Kev kittens - and, make no mistake, the previously unflappable Benfica were rattled. But we spurned our chances and it wasn't to be, a stoppage-time goal on this occasion going against us, the fatal blow to our fading hopes.

With Mathieu Debuchy ineligible (and injured) and both Davide Santon and Saylor joining Sideshow Bob in the treatment room, the Silver Fox found himself deprived of his entire first-choice back line. That meant two notable inclusions: Massadio Haidara, now miraculously recovered after the infamous DW Stadium assault, and Mike Williamson, back in from the cold, having been frozen out of the first-team picture since MYM's arrival. There was an unexpected start for Master T too, on the right side of midfield, as Sylvain Marveaux dropped to the bench.

The starting line-up had a defensive look about it, and so it proved as we created precious little in the first half. Our best chances, typically, fell to Papiss Cisse - first when Master T flighted a perfect ball into him but his control let him down, and then close to the interval when he swept home Danny Simpson's cross from an offside position.

A cautious approach didn't seem like the most sensible tactic, as it gave encouragement to a visiting side who didn't really need it. Their exuberantly maned coach Jorge Jesus had chosen to rest strikers Oscar Cardozo and Rodrigo, both of whom scored in the first leg, but that could hardly be taken for arrogance or complacency given that their replacements Rodrigo Lima and Eduardo Salvio looked equally dangerous.

Lima tested Tim Krul's reflexes with a clever flick from a low cross barely three minutes in, and winger Salvio nodded a cross just wide of the post later in the half. It was Nicolas Gaitan who had their best opportunity, though, when Krul had to release the ball to avoid carrying it out of the area. The ball was pulled back to the Argentinian schemer and, with the Dutchman all at sea, Haidara came to the rescue with a Saylor-esque goalline clearance.

Our problem was that we simply couldn't contain Benfica's midfield, who are masters of what Alan Partridge would rightly call "liquid football". Moussa Sissoko was offering neither much support to Cisse nor much asistance to a central midfield in which Vurnon Anita and Dreamboat were too far apart, the latter skippering the side but having a distinctly off-colour evening in a deeper-than-normal role. Having made it to the break with our goal intact, the Silver Fox chose to make a change, taking off the slightly unfortunate Master T (it could have been pretty much anyone) and throwing on Big Lad. If nothing else, it signalled a determination to give Benfica a rougher ride in the second half - and so it proved.

Suddenly the long ball became an option, which was particularly useful for Williamson - commanding in the air but worryingly nervy in possession on the ground. Big Lad started buffetting their back line in a way they didn't want while Cisse continued to look threatening, seeing another net-rippling effort chalked off. HBA made his unexpected but hugely welcome early return from injury and Marveaux also entered the fray. The fact that our two left-footed French wizards replaced Haidara and Anita meant we now had an eye-wateringly offensive line-up.

They'd only both been on the pitch for three minutes when we took the lead. HBA's jinking run looked to have come to nowt, but his quick nutmeg after dithering from Lorenzo Melgarejo and Ezequiel Garay and a deflected toe-poked cross from Big Lad later, and Cisse was nodding past Artur into the Benfica net. Now we didn't just hope we could overturn that first-leg deficit - we believed it and we knew it too.

Wave after wave of attacks followed, panicked defenders sliced clearances behind for corners, the sell-out crowd roared with all the vigour they could muster, Jesus prowled the touchline like a man in electrified shoes - but the ball wouldn't fall for anyone in black and white to have a real chance. Big Lad's hustling and bustling created a number of near-opportunities, but HBA had the best sight of goal, cutting in from the right and firing high over the bar with his normally trusty left.

We only needed the one goal to progress into the semi-final, but in truth, as the match ticked into the final few minutes and then into stoppage time, Benfica started to regain a grip on things and were once again looking dangerous - and then they struck the killer blow. working a nice move that was completed by Salvio, who nipped in front of a dozing Sissoko to fire under Krul's body from six yards. The defending wasn't textbook, affording their players too much space in which to operate, but that was a consequence of us chasing the game and so it's hard to apportion much blame to anyone.

The final whistle was greeted with appreciative applause for the players' effort and the fact that, for a spell early in the first leg and again for a spell in the second half at St James', we had undoubtedly excellent opponents on the rack. There's no shame in failing to do what only Barcelona have done this season - namely, beat Benfica by two clear goals. We came very close to pulling off another Feyenoord, but just came up short, and are left to rue the mistakes and misfortunes of the away trip in particular, and to reflect on a European campaign that for months was depicted as an unwelcome distraction but that gradually came to assume greater importance.

Not that we can spend too long feeling sorry for ourselves, though, with the small matter of the derby only two days away. Fatigue may be a factor, but hopefully that will be obliterated by the adrenaline and sense of occasion - and we'll go into the game safe in the knowledge that we've just given a far better side than Di Canio's rabble a serious fright.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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