A 92nd minute Eduardo Salvio equaliser confirmed Newcastle’s exit from Europe.
There was immediate hope for Newcastle at the start of the game, with Benfica’s big artillery, Rodrigo and Cardozo, being left on the bench.
However, for the whole of the first half it looked as though Benfica were very comfortable without their two prolific attackers. Lima with Benfica’s first attack of the game flicked goalwards but Tim Krul was alert. Newcastle looked nervous, shaky and half-asleep. Benfica displayed a calm, assured quality keeping the ball and pushing their fullbacks wide in order to provide more outlets. Newcastle on the other hand looked vastly inferior, especially in the technical and composure departments. It seemed as though Newcastle wanted to soak up the early Benfica pressure, a fact later confirmed by Alan Pardew: “We had to make sure we weren’t hurt in the first half. We sustained some energy. Otherwise we couldn’t have done what we did in the second half.”
This however was a dangerous game and Tim Krul slipped up, handing Benfica the best chance of the first half, and maybe of the game. Krul ran out to collect the ball but carried it out of the box as he did so. To avoid being penalised he slid with his chest touching the ball, but left his goal wide open, luckily the returning Massidio Haïdara was on the line to block the shot from Gaitan who had received the ball from Lima. Newcastle continued to look shaky and the home fans unrest grew as in the 36minute an Ola John cross was headed just wide by Salvio. It seemed like the greatest achievement from Newcastle would be to head in to the interval at 0-0. Yet in the 45th minute Papiss Cisse put the ball in the back of the net, however the effort was ruled out for offside.
At the interval the initially effective yet dwindling Bigiramana was replaced by Shola Ameobi. Ameobi occupied the two Benfica wingbacks with his aerial prowess and Newcastle enjoyed more comfortable possesion in the final third. The outlet Ameobi provided caused Benfica great uncomfort, Ameobi also gave Cisse more room by causing a constant menace to Luisão and Garay, the two centre backs. Benfica continued to move the ball around nicely, with John and Lima wasting further chances. Newcastle though attacked Benfica more, with Ameobi winning all of the long balls. The first real chance of the second half fell to Cabaye, as Williamson was felled on the edge of the box. Cabaye though hit the free-kick over the bar, summing up his strangely lack-lustre, disappointing performance. The popular introduction of Hatem Ben Arfa on the 62nd minute further occupied the Benfica defence. Ben Arfa's direct dribbling provided some much needed penetration for the Newcastle side. He had an immediate impact, running down the right and crossing for Ameobi whose flick on fell to Papiss Cisse. Cisse put the ball in the net for the second time, but again it was ruled out for offside. Sylvain Marveaux was then introduced for Massidio Haïdara, Alan Pardew's final piece of weaponry. Ben Arfa continued to threaten and his dribbling and persistence led to the first goal of the tie. Ben Arfa ran down the right of the pitch, twisting and turning past Melgarejo and capitalising on a rare mistake from the brilliant Matić. He found Ameobi who in turn found Cisse who could not miss, heading in from half a yard. The crowd re awoke from their brief slumber and the customary flare was lit in the Gallowgate.
Benfica seemed to have collapsed and with the atmosphere becoming more and more hostile it really looked like Newcastle would do it. On the 75th minute a deflected shot from Ben Arfa fell to Cisse, who found himself in plenty of space. He shot wide and collided with Artur, the keeper. Fans screamed for a penalty which would also have seen Artur shown a red card. The referee did not oblige, to fans disgust. On the subject of the referee I think most people, Benfica fans included, would agree with me in saying that he had an appalling game. Cisse should probably have been shown a second yellow card after starting a pushing war in the box. Artur could have been sent off and Almeida at right back made three poor, cynical tackles after already being booked. The referee also did not give the game a chance to flow, constantly warning players and pulling play back if he hadn't blown his whistle.
Immediately after the goal, Benfica's manager, Jorge Jesus looked very animated (I noticed interestingly that Jesus helped with the warm ups, laying the ball off to the Benfica players for the shooting drill). He threw on Cardozo for Lima and 3 minutes later Rodrigo for John in attempt to reinforce Benfica’s dwindling attack. The Newcastle onslaught continued, with the best chance of the second half coming to Newcastle after Ben Arfa had worked more magic, dribbling down the right hand side after Krul had made a great stop from Gaitan. He cut inside, beating his man, and ran into the box. He tried to hit the ball too hard though, and blazed uncharacteristically over. That was the chance that Newcastle needed to take. There were gifted another chance though, with Marveaux being cut down, after a smart feet shuffle, by Almeida. Almeida somehow escaped a second booking yet again. Cabaye tried to curl the ball around the inside of the wall but it took a deflection off the end man in the wall. The ball spun into the ground and almost deflected past Artur, who made a smart save.
Benfica then broke on the counter-attack and Rodrigo cut-back to Salvio who tapped in to make it 4-2 to Benfica on aggregate. The Benfica fans were sent into raptures as they watched their team cut through the weakened, tired Newcastle defence. The reaction from the Newcastle fans was great and at the end of the game applause swept around the stadium. Newcastle had come so close, but yet had gone out. They mustn't be ashamed of going out to Benfica, who were in the Champions League this year. If mistakes had been cut out in the first leg, and Newcastle had a bit more luck, it could have been Newcastle playing Fenerbahçe in the semi-finals. The signs though are promising for Sunday, with Ben Arfa looking very bright and dangerous. Benfica were a brilliant, technical side and credit must go to them and their noisy fans for a great Europa League tie. Newcastle came within two minutes of being the first team to beat the Portuguese league leaders in any competition since October.
A terrible photo of me at the game!