Newcastle's glorious defeat

Posted by Marc Duffy

Eduardo Salvio broke Newcastle hearts with a late Europa League goal for BenficaGettyImagesEduardo Salvio broke Newcastle hearts with a late Europa League goal for Benfica

I'm the worst loser out there. Whether it's on a football pitch, a golf course, watching Newcastle, or anything else. I lose badly. On Thursday night though, I feel proud more than anything else. Disappointed obviously, but Newcastle went down with a fight in their 4-2 aggregate defeat to Benfica (1-1 on the night).

The 52,000+ in St James' Park knew that the odds were stacked against Newcastle - although they really shouldn't have been as Papiss Cisse struck the post twice in the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final before Newcastle conceded three avoidable goals. But as it stood, Newcastle faced a huge self-imposed task of needing to overcome the 3-1 deficit from the game in Portugal.

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Alan Pardew almost nailed the 'rope-a-dope' tactics to perfection. For 45 minutes Newcastle were clearly on a containing job keeping Benfica at arm’s length whilst maintaining a pace that would allow a later onslaught.

The team selection was odd - the inclusion of Mike Williamson was understandable given the injuries, but Pardew asked a lot of Gael Bigirimana. 'Bigi' has been excellent this season but I'm not sure what Pardew was hoping to achieve by recalling him to the starting line-up after months in reserve, only to take him off at half time. Part of the plan? Possibly.

Not a lot happened in the first half. Benfica controlled a lot of the possession but didn't really threaten.

The atmosphere was superb. Even as the game drifted through the first 45 minutes the sell out crowd backed their team and tried to drive them forwards. It looked to be a lost cause, but a different Newcastle team emerged in the second half. The introduction of Hatem Ben Arfa had a similar effect on the game as Lionel Messi did for Barcelona against PSG in the Champions League 24 hours earlier. Newcastle went from probing attacks to a sustained onslaught that saw the Benfica defence and goalkeeper regularly hoofing the ball aimlessly clear.

With 20 minutes remaining, Hatem broke down the Newcastle right, beat a couple of men before over-running the ball. Despite his mis-control, the defence panicked, allowing him to regroup and nutmeg Ezequiel Garay, with the ball running to Shola Ameobi, who lifted it onto the head of Cisse to score from four yards.

The crowd reached fever pitch and Newcastle began to attack at will. The Benfica defence didn't look like they could cope and hacked and hoofed clear at every opportunity, as well as taking the chance to play act wherever possible of course. The referee bought it every time. For me, play-acting and time wasting is a bigger problem in the game than most of the other footballing issues discussed around Europe on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, Cisse beat the keeper to a 50/50 challenge but the resulting shot ran wide and Yohan Cabaye fired a couple of free-kicks at goal as Newcastle searched for the second that would take them to the semi final. Ben Arfa then cut inside the area onto his left foot but his shot flew just over with only two minutes of injury time left on the clock. Then, in stoppage time, a smart counter-attacking move from the Portuguese visitors was finished by Eduardo Salvio and it was game over for the Magpies.

Newcastle were the architects of their own downfall. All three goals conceded in the first leg could be attributed to defensive errors, but the Magpies still came so close to progressing. Newcastle were superb overall in these two games and I can't help but wonder why the club still sits at the wrong end of the Premier League table.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Newcastle's involvement in the Europa League this year - it has made an underwhelming season far more entertaining.

If Newcastle play half as well as this on Sunday then the derby is theirs for the taking.

Twitter: @MarcSDuffy

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