SOMETIMES giving everything you have isn’t quite enough. Newcastle United’s players exerted every last ounce of energy against Benfica last night. They never stopped trying, never stopped running and for a while hinted something truly was special was on the cards.
But an injury-time equaliser sent through this impressive Portuguese side that may well not go on and win the competition.
This was not the last-gasp goal Newcastle had in mind.
Benfica were the better side for the most part last night, as they were for an hour in the Stadium of Light last week.
But they were made to work for this result.
Oh well, there will be another time and Sunday and the derby provided Newcastle with he chance to make up for what was a disappointment.
And you have to wonder whether Alan Pardew had half an eye on the Sunderland game.
The lesser-spotted Mike Williamson in the centre of defence, his first start since January 19, and Gaël Bigirimana was drafted in to midfield. The FA Cup defeat at Brighton on January 5 was the last time he’s been seen.
Benfica weren’t at full strength either as Oscar Cardozo and Rodrigo were on the bench, which was a surprise move.
It mattered little for an hour as they dominated.
Benfica’s record this season is astonishing. Out of 37 games they had lost only twice. Few others teams it must be said will have given them as tough a time.
It was still an enjoyable night. St James’ Park was rocking and every early tackle was cheered, even if the ball stayed at a Benfica player’s feet.
The visitors came close to silencing the home crown in the opening moments
With less then three minutes gone, Andre Almelda’s cross from the right picked out Lima, whose backheel effort was ingenious and on target, only for Tim Krul to get his legs to the ball.
And the Dutchman was called into action 90 seconds later when he clawed Melgarejo’s cross out from beneath his own bar.
Newcastle, however, crept back into the game.
Papiss Cissé’s control let him down on 13minutes after Bigirimana’s lovely chip over the Benfica defence found his team-mate who had his first touch stayed with him would have had a shot from ten yards.
Still, this was better, although the lively Nicolas Gaitan skinning Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa on the touchline was reminded of the danger Benfica presented, although his cross-cum-shot was deflected wide.
And then Krul had one of those moments that goalkeepers have nightmares about on 28 minutes.
He came to collect a long ball he was always favourite for, but allowed it to slip from his grasp. Lima fed a pass to Gaitan, who took a touch before shooting, only for Massadio Haïdara to appear from nowhere to block on the line.
There was another collective intake of breath when Moussa Sissoko pulled something, or so it appeared, as he tackled Ola John. But he was fine to carry on, much to Newcastle’s relief.
Benfica went close again on 35 minutes. Cissé complained he had been fouled, which he was, but bizarrely allowed the ball to roll past him in midfield while he complained to Croatian referee Ivan Bebek.
Benfica weren’t for waiting for a decision to go against them and in the blink of an eye, John had the ball on the left wing, crossed for Eduardo Salvio, whose header was just wide.
And then an Enzo Perez shot from outside the box had Krul scrambling to his right.
Newcastle’s best plan was to give the ball to Sissoko who was one in black and white making things happen. His speed took him down the right win and he cleverly cut the ball back to Bigirimana outside the box, but his left-foot effort wasn’t up to much.
The Newcastle fans certainly didn’t think much of the linesman’s flag going up just as Cissé stroked the ball home at the back post from a Bigirimana cross. The striker was a yard off.
Pardew said pre-match he would have happy with a half-time score of 0-0, but he did feel a change was needed. Shola Ameobi replaced Bigirimana and a pre-second half huddle increased the decibel level, as if that were needed.
Big Shola didn’t take long to make a mark. He showed good skill to control the ball inside the box on the run, and his shot was turned past the post by Benfica keeper Artur.
Yohan Cabaye, who was having an uneven night, was given a free-kick 25 yards from goal, just his distance, after Williams was clipped by Lima.
Benfica keeper Artur showed a lot of his goal to the captain, but Cabaye’s effort never had a chance of dipping in time.
The cries came up for Hatem Ben Arfa and on 63 minutes the No10 came on for Anita. He made a real difference.
And the cheers went up for a goal, or so the Newcastle fans believed, on 64 minutes, when Cissé acrobatically sent the ball home, but once again he had gone too early as he latched onto Ameobi’s knockdown.
Pardew went for broke and sent on Sylvain Marveaux for Haïdara and with 19 minutes to go, that hope became belief. Ben Afra did well to steal position inside the box, Ameobi crossed to Cissé who wasn’t going to miss with his header from close range.
Benfica didn’t know what had hit them. What a finish we had in store now. Newcastle threw everything at Benfica and had all the pressure, but Artur only had one save – from a Cabaye free-kick – and then their fate was sealed by Salvio who set the ball past Krul deep into injury time.