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St James' Park, England

Referee: Ivan Bebek | Attendance: 52157

* Local time based on your geographic location.

Newcastle United

  • Papiss Demba Cisse 71'

1 - 1


2nd leg: 2 - 4 (Agg)


  • Eduardo Salvio 90' +2'

Toon look to recreate 1997 magic

Kristan Heneage

More than 15 years on, it is a night that is still brought up in conversation every time European football graces Tyneside. A cartwheeling Faustino Asprilla took on Barcelona and left the pitch clutching a Champions League ball as his hat-trick secured a 3-2 victory at St James' Park.

"Asprilla might well be in the mood tonight," commentator Brian Moore had predicted as the Colombian twisted and turned Michael Reiziger in the early stages. Moore was right. It was a special night for a club often tormented by its lack of silverware – a night when, for 90 minutes, they felt like champions.

It wasn't just the ball that was covered with stars that night. Luis Figo, Luis Enrique and Rivaldo all toiled on a rain-soaked pitch as Newcastle exploded into life in Europe's premier competition with a performance that encapsulated all the explosive energy that defined the club in the mid-1990s.

They will need a similarly impressive performance when they welcome Benfica for Thursday's Europa League semi-final second leg. After the 3-1 defeat in Lisbon, Alan Pardew is targeting the 2-0 victory that would take his side through on away goals.

That would be some feat: Benfica have not lost by two clear goals since October, when Barcelona paid a visit. That was in the Champions League, and provides an indication of the kind of quality present at St James' Park for a training session on a grey Wednesday evening. The Portuguese are also blessed with abundant experience in European competition, something the home side are lacking.

Yet so were the XI that took to the field in 1997. Rob Lee, the captain and one of the standout performers that night, recalled in an interview with the club's official website: "For Newcastle United to be playing on the same pitch as Barcelona then was a feat in itself, but to actually beat them was something else."

And he believes the current side can create their own piece of history by beating Benfica, saying: "When the full team's out, we're a very, very good side and can beat anyone on our day. It'd be great for Newcastle to win something at long last."

It was fitting that Asprilla was present at Sunday's 1-0 victory over Fulham. A relaxed character, the Colombian never took the time to learn English but was still able to cut through the language barrier and connect with a fanbase thrilled by his spontaneity.

Papiss Cisse has brought much the same sort of qualities. Though unlikely to produce the kind of silky tricks Asprilla used to bamboozle defenders, he is able to produce improbable strikes that linger long in the memory.

Consistency, though, has been an issue for both men. Cisse's first game in black and white seemed cast from a storybook as he scored the deciding goal against Aston Villa, yet there is little mention of the gilt-edged headed chance he had missed earlier.

Such an evaluation may seem harsh, but it is a problem that has persisted. With two better finishes against Benfica, Newcastle could be entering the return leg with the advantage.

Nonetheless, Cisse is working hard, and there is a marked difference in his demeanour this season, seeming more passionate in his efforts, far more willing to chase down a seemingly lost cause. If anyone can net the two goals required, it would appear to be Cisse. "Insha'Allah," he said - "God willing" - when asked about his prospects on Wednesday.

He will be assisted by the returning Hatem Ben Arfa, with Pardew confirming the winger's availability. The efforts of Keith Gillespie down the flank assisted Asprilla in 1997, and Ben Arfa has the talent to make the same kind of impact in 2013.

The game is a sell-out, and if the fans can recreate the kind of atmosphere that saw the 36,000-capacity St James' Park bounce in 1997, their heroes may just be able to write their names into Newcastle folklore. And that would allow this generation's fans to tell of the night an exuberant striker put the visiting European giants to the sword.

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