Perhaps it is Lisbon. Perhaps it is the thinning of air as competitive football begins to matter. Eight years ago Newcastle were the architects of their own downfall as they exited what was then the Uefa Cup at the quarter-final stage.
Same city. Different ground. Same old problems.
Then they had led by two goals in the second leg of their tie with Sporting Lisbon in the Jose Alvalade stadium. They conceded four straight and went out. It is Alan Shearer’s worst memory of his time as a Newcastle player. Last night they led by one, through Papiss Cissé after only 12 minutes following a quite brilliant start at the Estadio da Luz.
Then Rodrigo Moreno equalised and in the second half, once again, the walls fell in.
There will be only seven days to contemplate the self-inflicted errors that did for them. It will be a painful week, especially for Davide Santon and Steven Taylor.
European competition is defined by slim margins. Alan Pardew could find little to criticise his side for, and there was justification in that, not just for the fact he must lift them for a Premier League campaign in danger of spiralling out of control, and also for the second leg, at what should still be a boisterous St James’ Park next Thursday.
But they were glaring mistakes, and the penalty could be European exit, just when the competition got interesting.
Sixty-five minutes had passed and a storm had been weathered when Santon, under pressure from two Benfica players, inexcusably played a weak back pass to Tim Krul that never looked strong enough to reach his goalkeeper, a busy man for much of the evening. Lima, who had been on the field for only four minutes, sensed danger and seized the misplaced pass. With his left foot he took Santon’s effort past Krul, with his right he swept the ball into the Newcastle goal.
Santon looked stunned. It was a devastating blow. Six more minutes had passed when Ola John took a corner from the right. The rush of blood this time belonged to Taylor, who controlled the ball with his right arm. There was a brief delay before the referee, Antony Gautier, awarded a penalty that Oscar Cardozo smashed past Krul. The goal was not given. A Benfica player had encroached into the penalty area, but that was as much respite as those defenders from Tyneside were to get. The result from the retaken penalty was the same.
“We have to accept individuals’ mistakes as part of our team,” Pardew said. “There is no responsibility there. We’re disappointed with the result because the performance level and for some parts of the game we played very, very well. We probably had them just where we wanted before the second goal and then it was two poor goals from us, obviously a mistake for the first and then the second one, Steven is so unlucky, it looks like he caught his bootlaces in his stud and it has affected his jump. We ended up gifting them a third. At our place the away goal could come into it.”
Could. That can be added to the what ifs. Newcastle were excellent at the game’s start. Cissé had missed two fine opportunities in the first four minutes but his confidence was unharmed. Eight minutes later he rounded off a superb, sweeping move that characterised what this Newcastle side can, at their best, produce when he finished from Moussa Sissoko’s cross.
At that point the lead was completely deserved. In the 23rd minute Cissé clipped the post with a deflected, mis-hit shot and Benfica woke up. Krul could only parry a Cardozo drive into the path of Moreno and as he equalised, the game turned on its head. Krul was forced to save well from the goalscorer, Andre Gomes, Rodrigo again and from Nemanja Matic. Newcastle rallied, and Cissé almost restored the lead at the start of the second half with an audacious chip. It hit the post. Newcastle hit the self-destruct button.
“We had a fantastic opportunity to take the lead again in the second half and the post has denied us twice,” added Pardew. “I can’t really say anything more. I was overjoyed with the performance but not the result.”
Booked: Benfica Moreno, Perez. Newcastle Perch, Shola Ameobi.
Man of the match Cardozo.
Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Benfica 51%. Newcastle 49%. Attempts on target: Benfica 11. Newcastle 4.
Referee A Gautier (Fr).
Attendance 44,133 .
* Second leg Thu 11 April, St James’ Park