Friday, April 05, 2013

Race half run

Benfica 3 - 1 Newcastle Utd

In Grand National week, it is perhaps appropriate to consider our Europa League quarter-final against Benfica as a horse race,

While second favourites before the start, in a two horse race we always had a chance and it was Newcastle who started the stronger and for about twenty minutes we looked every inch the thoroughbred.

After creating a couple of decent early chances we got our noses in front thanks to a great through-pass from Danny Simpson which went between full-back and centre-back and allowed Moussa Sissoko to run on to the ball behind the home defence. His right-wing cross found the on-rushing Papiss Cisse who sidefooted home from six yards to give us a deserved lead.

With the team pressing well and Benfica looking decidedly ordinary, we continued to press our advantage and Cisse was desperately unlucky to see a second chance flicked onto the post by the keeper's fingertips and agonisingly bounce back to the grateful goalie.

Having nearly gone two up, things frustratingly started to go awry.  First we allowed Benfica to equalise when MYM was slow to react to a good save by Tim Krul, allowing Rodrigo to be first to the rebound, and he calmly slotted home.

From there, Benfica's ears pricked up and they started to look far livelier and by the end of the half we looked to be struggling to contain our hosts, who were now looking the stronger side.

Fired up at the break, we again came out all guns blazing and Cisse was again unfortunate to see another shot hit the woodwork when he latched onto Sylvain Marveaux's fine through-pass and lifted the ball over the advancing Artur.

At that stage, we unfortunately started to clip fences. First, Davide Santon played a backpass without first looking to check the way to Krul was clear. It wasn't, and the recently arrived Lima was able to intercept the ball before firing past Krul from a tight angle.

Again, Benfica applied the pressure and six minutes later Saylor cracked, handling a corner and conceding a penalty (one which was only awarded by one of the Harry Potter assistant referees), but which was nonetheless fairly clear cut.

Oscar Cardozo stepped up and fired the ball past Krul, but was made to take it again due to a minimal amount of encroachment as he was running up. Undeterred, he replaced the ball and again knocked it past Krul to give Benfica a two-goal cushion.

With the race now half run, it's fair to say that we're currently lagging behind the Portuguese side who will go into next week's second leg as clear favourites to progress. However, with a strong home crowd a 2-0 win is certainly not beyond us, with Cisse clearly dominating his markers last night and unlucky not to have a hat-trick.

For us to get through, though, we're going to need a brilliant performance both up front and at the back, with a clean sheet looking like a necessity. The odds may be against us, but sometimes the outsider comes up on the rails to win by a nose.

Ha'way the lads!

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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