Pardew proud of Newcastle but laments how 'rub of the green' favoured Benfica
Newcastle United 1 Benfica 1 (Benfica win 4-2 on aggregate): The final, fatal blow in European competition came late, in a part of the game that has in recent weeks signalled only glory for Newcastle United and their supporters.
In injury-time for the previous three games at St James' Park, Papiss Cissé had scored and all manner of celebrations had taken place. Three late goals, three hugely significant victories.
In the 92nd minute, a full St James' Park once more rocked and readied itself for something historic. Alan Pardew's side had absorbed punishment against a team who have only been beaten by Champions League opposition this season. In the 71st minute, Cissé had scored and belief had swamped the hearts and minds of all but those 1,800 Benfica supporters tucked away high in the corner of this stadium. Anything seemed possible, even a 2-0 victory that would have been enough to put Newcastle into their first semi-final since 2004, which was also in this same competition.
Such belief. North-east football exists through such blind faith. Only one side this season had beaten Benfica by that margin, Barcelona. Still, the 31-game unbeaten run was threatened to such an extent that in the 76th minute, as Pardew conducted his club's followers with both arms outstretched, hands upturned, like a choirmaster, Jorge Jesus ranted and gesticulated with the wild fury of a man returning to his car to find the wheels clamped.
He bellowed into the night but at that stage it looked futile. His team, who perhaps should have won the game by then, could not hear his fury. There had been plenty of opportunities. Pardew's team, with half an eye on the enormity of a derby with Sunderland between two sides fighting relegation on Sunday, had attempted to take punishment for an hour of this contest and emerge unscathed.
It was a high-risk strategy, but it had worked. Massadio Haïdara had cleared off the goal-line from Nicolas Gaitan, Tim Krul had reacted instinctively to deny a clever back-heeled finish from Lima and Salvio should really have scored from an Ola John cross, instead heading wide. For an hour Newcastle played against the instinct of their players and their supporters. Then Pardew introduced Sylvain Marveaux and Hatem ben Arfa – for only his second start since December – and a game turned on its head.
Cissé had already had two goals disallowed for off-side before finally beating Artur for real, heading in at the far post in the 71st minute after Ben Arfa had seized upon an error by Ezequiel Garay and Nemanja Matic which allowed Shola Ameobi, another substitute, to cross.
Ben Arfa became unplayable. Optimism soared. Twice he almost teed up Cissé and Marveaux. Noise grew. It is 44 years since they saw their side win a trophy. For 20 minutes there was hope. In the 89th minute Ben Arfa once more cut in from the left, took aim, but his shot was too high, Pardew span on his heels and grimaced. "I honestly thought when Hatem cut inside and got in their box that was it, that was our moment," he said. "Unfortunately he just put too much on it and it went over the bar." With it went Newcastle's hopes.
Yohan Cabaye's shot in the 92nd minute started a Benfica break. It was quick and punishing, ending with a cross along the Newcastle penalty area that Salvio slid in to end this tie.
"We nearly pulled it off," said Pardew. "I'm just proud of the football club tonight and the way we conducted ourselves in Benfica and the way the two games were carried off against great opposition. It was a fantastic effort from the whole club
"I said in the dressing room after, we have gained experience from this run and we've put ourselves back on the stage in a credible fashion. Now we want to get more of it. The only way is to get back into Europe next season and that is our aim now. We have a squad of players who can do that. We have shown that recently.
"If Hatem is fit in the first leg, who knows? Over the two legs, Benfica had the rub of the green really. We perhaps could have won that."
From Jesus came this admission: "We played against a great team," he said. "But our objective was achieved." Just.
Man of the match Matic.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee I Bebek (Croa).
Belfast Telegraph Digital