BURNED steak was on the menu in Lisbon last night – along with a juicy slice of humble pie.
“Estas Feito o Bife!” screamed the front page of local sports ‘paper the Record, the same excitable publication that charged Pardew with leading a “Mission impossible” at the Estadio da Luz last night.
Roughly translated it means United are “burned steak” – a Lisbon way of saying “you’re done”.
United didn’t want beef, but it appeared that they got it in Portugal thanks to Pardew’s declaration that Benfica would finish between eighth and 10th if they were subjected to the weekly rigours of the Premier League.
A chippy Jorge Jesus bridled at that suggestion, pointing out that Benfica knocked champions-elect Manchester United out of the Europa League last year. A fair point, but it felt overly sensitive for the otherwise welcoming Portuguese to be seeking a fight with their English visitors.
Pardew had, after all, spoken of his admiration for the country and the football before visiting.
Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas are both managerial mates and Pardew took his Magpies to the Algarve last year for a generally successful pre-season workout under the Atlantic sun.
He had thoroughly scouted Benfica too, seeking the counsel of Neil Lennon – whose Celtic team eliminated them from the Champions League.
Top 10 was no idle assessment of their opponents, but it did appear to be slightly underselling one of the form teams of Europe – who showed their class after a sticky opening last night.
The movement and precision of their forwards was a joy to behold at times as they swarmed over Newcastle’s midfield.
The nimble feet of Oscar Cardozo, Nicolas Gaitan and Rodrigo caused United problems, and it’s safe to say they would do the same for nearly any English club.
But if Pardew’s verdict was conservative given their attacking arsenal, we should also consider a back four that Newcastle sliced through at will during their purple patch early in the game.
The Premier League isn’t exactly a monument to strong defences these days, but the lack of power and poise in their backline might push them down a few places if they moved over to England.
The war of words was an intriguing subplot on a night when it felt like big-time European assignments were back on the agenda for United. With respect to the vanquished foes in previous rounds, a trip to a ground the locals call “the Cathedral” had a romantic ‘big-game’ feel to it.
You only had to stroll around the perimeter of the impressive stadium to see evidence of the club’s pedigree, with a bronze statue of the legendary Eusebio near the ground’s entrance, to be reminded that this is one of Europe’s biggest football concerns.
The eagle that swoops among the stands is another reminder of this club’s famous pedigree.
His five-minute flight was part of an elaborate pre-match ritual designed to hype up a febrile home crowd, and it worked.
The jeers for Newcastle when they strolled out of the tunnel were tremendous; the whistles from the stands pitched at a decibel level that would slice most ear-drums. If United thought they had avoided a cauldron by dodging Fenerbahce in the last-eight draw, the raw reception that awaited them in Portugal last night was no less raucous.
But the visitors drank it in and made precisely the sort of start that Pardew would have dreamt of.
Jesus had talked of United’s “directness” sniffily before the game but there was crispness to their distribution in the opening exchanges that was markedly different from some of Benfica’s ponderous play.
United’s early lead was fair reward for their smart start, with Sissoko driving through a sea of red shirts before sending a fizzing low cross into Papiss Cisse’s path.
Up in the god’s, it was celebrated by the travelling Newcastle fans who understood its signficance with lusty acclaim.
It got harder as the night wore on, and some of that self-inflicted, but there is still something in this despite a 3-1 reverse in Lisbon. And at St James’ Park, it won’t just be the burned steak that will be tough to beat.