9:21am Friday 12th April 2013
By Scott Wilson
GLORIOUS failure or an opportunity missed? Either way, Newcastle United are out of the Europa League and the interminable wait for silverware goes on.
Last night's 1-1 draw with Portuguese league leaders Benfica resulted in a 4-2 aggregate defeat that means there will be no triumphant ending to a European campaign that has created magical moments and headaches in equal measure.
Papiss Cisse's 71st-minute header threatened to set up a grandstand finale, and with Alan Pardew throwing caution to the wind as he assembled his side in a 4-2-4 formation for the final 20 minutes, the hosts pressed for the second goal that would have sent them through to the semi-finals.
However, Benfica had threatened on the counter-attack all evening, and when Eduardo Salvio turned in Rodrigo's low cross in the first minute of stoppage time, the game was up.
In truth, the damage had been done in the first leg in the Estadio Da Luz, with Benfica establishing a two-goal lead that always looked like being enough of a cushion. The Lisbon side are still chasing a treble, and given that Spartak Moscow and Barcelona remain the only teams to have beaten them this season, Newcastle deserve credit for pushing them so close over two keenly-contested matches.
Would they have done even better had Pardew not selected last night's starting line-up with at least half an eye on Sunday's Tyne-Wear derby with Sunderland? We will never know.
The Newcastle boss will claim with some justification that his decision to start with Mike Williamson and Gael Bigirimana was valid. The former did nothing wrong all night and the latter helped keep things tight before the break to set up a potential second-half crescendo.
But by holding Sylvain Marveaux, Shola Ameobi and Hatem Ben Arfa in reserve, was he sending out the wrong signals and leaving it too late to mount a charge?
Yes, the derby is hugely important, but was it allowed to overshadow a chance that may not come around again for quite a while? Newcastle will host Sunderland again next season provided neither club is relegated. When will there next be an opportunity to make a European semi-final?
In Pardew's defence, perhaps his side were destined to fail no matter what team was selected. Benfica are arguably the strongest side left in the Europa League, and they caused problems from the off. Tim Krul had to be at his most alert to parry Lima's third-minute back-heel from Andre Almeida's low cross, and Newcastle's Dutch goalkeeper was forced to claw the ball from under his own crossbar as Melgarejo delivered another dangerous centre moments later.
Despite Jorge Jesus' decision to drop Rodrigo and Oscar Cardozo, the stars of the first leg in Lisbon, to the bench, Benfica's three-man attack always looked capable of scoring, and Newcastle were indebted to Massadio Haidara for keeping them in the tie shortly before the half-hour mark.
Krul allowed a routine long ball to slip from his grasp on the edge of the area, and after Lima pulled the ball back to Nicolas Gaitan, a back-pedalling Haidara hacked away the striker's side-footed shot .
Three weeks ago, Haidara's season looked to be over when he was on the receiving end of Callum McManaman's horror tackle at the DW Stadium. It is to his credit that the challenge does not appear to have shaken his resolve.
His first-half intervention kept Newcastle within two goals of their opponents, although there was little in the Magpies' first-half play to suggest they were capable of bridging the gap.
Cisse narrowly failed to reach Bigirimana's 13th-minute ball over the Benfica defence, but half-time arrived without Brazilian goalkeeper Artur having been forced to make a single save of note.
The hosts had the ball in the net in the final minute of the first half, but Cisse was rightly adjudged offside as he turned in Bigirimana's low cross.
In fairness, a goalless first half was hardly a disaster for the Magpies, and Pardew's half-time replacement of Bigirimana with Ameobi revealed a desire to be more cavalier in the second period.
There was more urgency to Newcastle's play after the interval, but through committing more men forward, they left more gaps at the back, and Lima could have killed things off when he blazed over from ten yards.
Ameobi had forced Artur into a near-post save at that stage, and the 63rd-minute introduction of Hatem Ben Arfa added more impetus. The Frenchman has only played twice since mid-November, but remains a talismanic presence on the banks of the Tyne.
Within three minutes of his introduction, he was watching the Croatian officials chalk off a second attempt from Cisse. Again the decision was right, with the Senegal international at least half a yard offside as he volleyed home Ameobi's flick on.
The incident underlined the strength of Cisse's predatory instincts though, and when he found the net again five minutes later, the complexion of the tie changed.
Ben Arfa stole the ball from a dawdling Melgarejo as he chased a lost cause towards the byline, and after Ameobi crossed from the right, Cisse headed home from close range. With 18 minutes still to go, the comeback was well and truly on.
Newcastle craved an opening, but their best chance of a winner disappeared when Ben Arfa blazed over the crossbar after cutting in from the flank.
Their hopes disappeared entirely when Salvio scored in the first minute of stoppage time, stealing ahead of his marker to prod home Rodrigo's cross.
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