Gabriel Obertan's rare screamer against Bruges puts Newcastle on verge of knockout stage
Newcastle United 1 Bruges 0: Reaching a final where 32 teams still remain gives an indication of how much Newcastle still have to do in Europe's second competition, but that they are within touching distance of the knockout stage of the Europa League deserves credit.
With three games to play in their group, Alan Pardew's side sit top with a four-point advantage over the third-placed side, who by the time the rain had once more started to fall on a cold Tyneside night, was Bruges.
One second-half goal from Gabriel Obertan was enough to create daylight and the hope that this competition, which is slowly picking up pace, could yet prove something special.
For Pardew, there has been a balancing act between progress in the competition and the progress of his youngsters. Once again, his call was correct. He made nine changes to the side which drew at Sunderland in the Tyne-Wear derby last weekend. Intriguingly, one of those who started and did not finish that game, Cheick Tiote, was the player to struggle.
"Cheick was affected by the sending off on Sunday," admitted Pardew. "There was a lack of focus in his game, probably because it was so soon after Sunday's game, he is hurt. No one was more hurt that Cheick."
The eye was caught by those pushing for greater recognition. Sammy Ameobi has his brother's shadow to emerge from, Shane Ferguson craves a starting role and Obertan still has a Tyneside public to convince.
His winning goal yesterday will do no harm. Its creator was the younger Ameobi, who carved open the Bruges defence and sent Obertan scampering through. The finish was emphatic, crashing a right-footed drive past Bojan Jorgacevic.
"Gabby is pushing but he is being kept out by our best player, Hatem Ben Arfa," added Pardew. "He was brilliant tonight. He is only 23. This young group is pushing hard. (Gael) Bigirimana is showing he will be a player and Sammy and Fergie had great games for us. Fergie could peel oranges with that left foot. We are looking strong and we have to make sure they evolve. They have the foundation to become Newcastle players. The challenge lies with them. We have a really good feeling at the training ground at the minute."
Papiss Cisse could have won a first-half penalty when he tumbled under Jordi's challenge. He headed wide and in injury time his rising drive was well stopped by Jorgacevic. It is still not falling for him, but it is for Newcastle. Maxime Lestienne and Lio Refaelove both went close for the visitors, who, by the finish, had one foot out of the competition.