Newcastle fall short against Benfica
Cisse gives Toon hope before Portuguese finish them off
Newcastle United 1 Benfica 1 (Benfica win 4-2 on agg)
In the end, Benfica deserved their passage into the semi-finals and Newcastle will have to think back to those defensive lapses in the Estadio da Luz. Alan Pardew’s team gave everything in the drama that followed Papiss Cisse’s 71st-minute header but the goal that would have taken them into the semi-finals eluded them and the final, decisive blow was inflicted at the other end of the pitch.
It was a thrilling finale but it was always likely that Newcastle’s desperate search for a late, decisive goal would leave them vulnerable to the kind of breakaway goal Eduardo Salvio scored in stoppage-time to soothe Benfica’s nerves.
Newcastle had no choice but to gamble and Salvio took advantage by turning in a left-wing cross from the substitute Rodrigo. Pardew's men can take dignity in defeat but the bottom line is the damage that had been inflicted in Lisbon was too great.
Only two sides have overcome a two-goal first-leg deficit since this competition adopted its new structure. Newcastle were also missing enough players to highlight some of the areas of the squad that may need strengthening this summer.
This was Gael Bigirimana’s first start since the FA Cup defeat at Brighton on January 5th. Mike Williamson's last appearance had come two weeks later in a home defeat to Reading. Facing the side four points clear at the top of the Primeira Liga, it was probably inevitable there would be times when Newcastle found it difficult to enthuse their crowd into thinking this could be one of the great St James’ Park occasions.
Lima’s clever backheel from Andre Almeida’s cross required an alert save from Tim Krul after only two minutes and, for much of the opening exchanges, Benfica demonstrated greater refinement on the ball. This was not a side looking to suffocate the game and hold on to their advantage.
They played with great fluidity at times, passing the ball crisply, creating space and denying Newcastle the opportunity to invigorate their support.
As it was, all the clear chances in the first half were at Krul’s end of the pitch. Eduardo Salvio's dummy and turn to get away from Jonas Gutierrez on the right touchline was an early measure of Benfica's quality.
The same player flashed a header wide and Nicolas Gaitan really ought to have scored after Krul had come to the right of his penalty area to gather the ball in front of Lima but then let it out of his grasp. Gaitan could have picked his spot after Lima’s cutback but never looked entirely confident and Massadio Haidara, playing for the first time since the knee injury inflicted by Callum McManaman, spared Krul with the goal-line clearance.
These were anxious moments for a Newcastle side struggling for great cohesion and rhythm. Papiss Cisse looked isolated at times and it was strange, perhaps, that Pardew did not start with Sylvain Marveaux and play with a greater sense of ambition.
Without him, this was a side lacking in guile and creativity for long spells. Cisse did turn in a right-wing delivery from Bigirimana just before half-time but had strayed at least a yard offside in the process.
Though Benfica had been the better side, the encouraging part for Newcastle at that stage was that they had not gone behind and could approach the second half with the attitude that if they could get one goal the pressure on Benfica would suddenly be considerable.
It was imperative, though, that they started to operate with less constraint and commit more players forward to examine whether Benfica’s weakness might be their defence.
Pardew brought on a second striker, Shola Ameobi, for Bigirimana and the players broke with the norm to go into the sort of motivational huddle that would usually be expected before a match. The volume went up but, sadly for Newcastle, the quality did not.
Yohan Cabaye had one opportunity from a free-kick 25 yards from goal, but floated it harmlessly over. Earlier, the same player had picked out Haidara, even further out, from a corner. At that distance, however, a shot on the volley was always going to be incredibly difficult and, that apart, there was not a great deal else to worry their opponents in the early part of the second half.
This was the period of the match when they really needed to start getting on top. Instead the more inviting chance fell to Lima, finding space in the penalty area only for his shot to go into the crowd.
The breakthrough was starting to feel unlikely until Pardew brought on Hatem Ben Arfa, back from injury and straight into the business of running at defenders. His run on the right created the danger but he had lost the ball until, inexplicably, Melgarejo and Ezequiel Garay left it to one another. Ben Arfa nipped and crossed for Cisse to turn in his header from point-blank range.