Newcastle United's depleted side fall tantalisingly shy of their goal

Newcastle United are nearly a very good team.

Nearly but not quite. For Alan Pardew's players, the gap between thrilling potential and sometimes frustrating reality is tantalisingly small and at times they seemed within touching distance of taking Benfica to extra time in their Europa League quarter-final second leg.

A raft of injuries hardly helped. No Cheik Tioté, no Steven Taylor, no Davide Santon, no Fabricio Coloccini made for a weakened home starting XI, especially as Mathieu Debuchy and Yoan Gouffran were also ineligible. Such absentees could only dilute the side's technical ability and athleticism, pace and clever counter-attacking power that has made this an ensemble no opponent can afford to underestimate.

The shame for Newcastle fans was that Hatem Ben Arfa's return from a long-term hamstring injury restricted him to a second-half cameo appearance. Brief it may have been but it threatened to turn the tie Pardew's way, Ben Arfa helping to create Papiss Cissé's goal and directing one decent chance of his own agonisingly over the bar.

After a sensibly cagey first half, Newcastle poured everything into correcting their 3-1 first leg deficit and, as Pardew said, almost pulled it off. A standing ovation followed at the final whistle and then attentions turned to Sunday.

It helped Benfica that Pardew harboured a conflict of interests, that Newcastle's manager needed to juggle contrasting priorities. Much as he wanted a semi-final place, his friend Paolo Di Canio is in Toon with Sunderland on Sunday. Tyne-Wear derbies matter, really matter, in these parts and, on this occasion, both teams require points to steer clear of relegation waters.

Newcastle's plight is significantly less severe than Sunderland's but Pardew's wild, exultant celebration after Cissé scored a last-gasp home winner against Fulham last Sunday involved him hurdling a barrier and leaping into the out-stretched arms of fans.

That moment emphasised just how much stress has been involved in managing a twin-track Europa League and Premier League campaign with the former competition largely responsible for the substantial disconnect between Newcastle's league position and their manager's ambitions.

When Guus Hiddink's talented, expensively assembled Anzhi side were beaten here in the last round, the former Chelsea manager heaped praise on Pardew's players before flying back to Russia. Newcastle, Hiddink said, were safe bets to be back in the Premier League's top five next season.

Liberated from the Thursday-Sunday Europa League grind there is every chance they will fulfil his prophecy. After all this season's league position would surely be healthier had Mike Ashley imported five splendid signings from France's Ligue One last summer rather than left it until January to restock Pardew's dressing room and allow him to rotate from a position of strength.

New faces including Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Massaido Haidara – and how good it was to see the left-back deputising for Santon and showing no ill effects from that awful tackle made by Wigan's Callum McManaman – and, most notably, Moussa Sissoko have transformed life at St James' Park.

At times in both Lisbon last week and on Tyneside Sissoko's counterattacking speed and steel variously unnerved and affronted a Benfica side who are undefeated in Portugal this season and have lost only twice in Europe – to Spartak Moscow and Barcelona.

Without Sissoko and his fellow Francophone new boys Newcastle would surely not have got beyond Metalist Kharkiv and Anzhi in the previous two knockout rounds and would never have taken the lead and hit the post twice at the Estádio de Luz before gifting Jorge Jesus's accomplished team victory courtesy of a couple of silly mistakes.

There is no shame in bowing out to a side as good as Benfica and Pardew is entitled to reflect on what might have been had Cissé not beeen inches offside when, towards the end of the first half here, he saw a effort disallowed after he connected with a fine cross from young Gaël Bigirimana.

Bigirimana's more defensive qualities made way for Shola Ameobi's attacking mindset at half-time and it was not long afterwards when St James' Park greeted the sight of their No10 jogging down the touchline with a resounding, relieved, excited, chorus of "Hatem Ben Arfa".

It prompted thoughts of what could have happened had the France international – Pardew's most richly gifted individual – not spent so many recent months undergoing rehabilitation at Clairefontaine.

Ben Arfa soon came on – as did Sylvain Marveaux, another creator. Newcastle changed from cautious to possibly the most gung-ho they have ever been under Pardew.

Cissé had another effort chalked off for offside and then Ben Arfa helped create the opening from which the Senegal striker gave Newcastle the lead on the night. It was not enough and Salvio soon equalised following a break down the left. But Pardew's team are nearly very good. And Di Canio will be thinking long and hard about how to stop Ben Arfa on Sunday.

Powered by article was written by Louise Taylor at St James' Park, for The Guardian on Thursday 11th April 2013 23.19 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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