Newcastle still in it, just

Posted by Marc Duffy

Newcastle lost 3-1 to Benfica in Thursday night's Europa League quarterfinal first leg in Lisbon -- a disappointing but not a surprising result against a very good team.

Alan Pardew's comments in the build-up to the game were contradictory and misleading but in a positive way. Pardew suggested that Benfica would be 'fighting for a place in the top 10' if they played in the Premier League, but then he also insinuated that it was not a winnable game but rather a tight defensive display that could see Newcastle in with a chance in the return leg at St James' Park next week.

- Benfica overwhelm Newcastle

In reality, Newcastle started the game in a very positive manner surprising those, including me, who thought they would sit back.

Within the first three minutes Papiss Cisse found himself cut loose twice. With the first chance he shot wide from a difficult angle. The second chance was a disappointment when he failed to collect a superb pass from Sylvain Marveaux.

Supporters worried about the chances going begging did not have to wait long before another arrived and this time Cisse managed to find the net. Danny Simpson started the move with an absolutely fantastic ball to Moussa Sissoko who was marauding down the right hand side. Sissoko squared the ball perfectly and Cisse was on hand to score from close range -- a lead for Newcastle United against all expectations.

Newcastle continued to push on and twenty minutes in they very nearly doubled their lead. Jonas Gutierrez pulled the ball back to Cisse and this time his deflected shot was tipped onto the post by Artur Moraes with the ball travelling in slow motion, much to the anguish of Newcastle fans. Gutierrez was playing like the Jonas of old, running at his man every time.

This close call seemed to spur Benfica into life. They began to push forward with wave after wave of attacks. They equalised when an Oscar Cardozo shot came back out off Tim Krul and Rodrigo scored the follow up. Newcastle centre half Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa was actually ahead of Rodrigo as the ball came out but he reacted too slowly and was second best. It was the first of the defensive errors that would cost Newcastle so dearly.

Krul pulled off save after save as Benfica kept on attacking before halftime -- when the whistle blew Newcastle would have been glad for the break at the end of what was a half of two halves!

Two minutes into the second half Cisse hit the post again! Another fantastic Marveaux pass landed at Cisse's feet and the Senegalese striker lifted the ball over Moraes only to see it come back off the keeper's left hand post. A second away goal would have given Newcastle a real advantage but they were denied it by centimetres.

Newcastle enjoyed a period of possession and the home crowd didn't like it -- they whistled while Newcastle passed the ball around and jeered their own defenders' panicked clearance. They eventually regained control of the game though and the last 35 minutes was attack vs. defence.

Yanga-Mbiwa was outmuscled by Rodrigo but Rodrigo's ball across the box just eluded Cardozo. James Perch then pulled up injured and was replaced by Vurnon Anita. Although Anita was not at fault for either of the goals following this switch, the loss of Perch was an obvious blow to Newcastle's defensive intentions.

Benfica made a double change with their manager Jorge Jesus copying my Football Manager 'double sub on the hour' tactic: Lima replaced Rodrigo and Enzo Perez replaced Andre Gomes.

Lima scored his 25th goal of the season only five minutes after coming onto the pitch and Newcastle were architects of their own downfall. Davide Santon collected the ball at right back and was closed down quickly. He panicked and played an abysmal backpass in the general direction of Krul. Unfortunately the pass was under hit and Lima anticipated well. He took the ball, rounded Krul and scored to put Benfica ahead.

Four minutes later and Benfica had a third after another defensive howler. A crossed ball was bizarrely ducked by Sissoko and Steven Taylor stuck out an arm. The referee played on but the goal-line official indicated penalty. Cardozo stepped up and scored only for the ref to make him take it again. His second penalty was even better and Benfica were 3-1 up.

Shola Ameobi came on for the last ten minutes in place of Marveaux, but his introduction and constant fouling only unsettled what little attacking momentum Newcastle had.

In summary

Pardew will be very disappointed by the nature of the goals that could cost Newcastle this tie. All three goals that Benfica scored were avoidable and that is very frustrating. The third goal could be the one that makes progression into the semifinals unachievable. Although on another night and with another keeper, Benfica may have had more than their three goals -- Krul pulled off a string of top class saves.

Benfica were on the front throughout as you would expect from a side who are so dominant at home, but Newcastle had more than their fair share of chances. With a bit more luck, Cisse could have had a hat trick.

It is that last point that makes me think Newcastle might still have a chance in this tie, albeit a thin one. Benfica looked very open at the back and Newcastle will definitely score in the second leg. Sadly, Newcastle's defence was even more shambolic and Benfica will almost certainly score too.

At least the tie is not a complete write off just yet.....

Twitter @MarcSDuffy

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