DEPENDING on your point of view, Newcastle United either took a step forward last night or gave themselves more problems by reaching the Europa League knockout stages.
If you are of a positive nature, then qualifying for the final 32 of a European competition is definite progress for this team.
However, it will mean at least two extra matches and further travelling and that could have a detrimental impact on a squad which has understandably found balancing the Premier League with their European adventure anything but easy.
There was also one inarguable negative – an injury to Hatem Ben Arfa who, at best, tweaked a hamstring in the first-half.
The club will discover today the full extent of his problem.
Of course, a way to deal with extra games and a squad which might be another man down – Yoahn Cabaye will undergo an operation on Monday – is if some money is spent during the January transfer window.
That would give manager Alan Pardew a much better chance of being able to cope with both domestic and Europa League duty.
We shall see. Pardew gave the impression before the match he still was not sure whether this whole Europa League lark was worth the bother.
However, the teamsheet suggested he was deadly serious about going through to the latter stages of the competition.
Tim Krul started in goal. Captain Fabricio Coloccini was in the team, as were fellow first-team regulars Davide Santon, Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa, who started his first European match of the season.
Pardew didn’t put out that strong side unless he really wanted the three points which secured their passage out of Group D.
A point was enough in the end, but they lost the lead in the group to Bordeaux, who won 2-1 in Brugge.
The weather was wild and wet. That, and the time of year, explained the empty seats inside St James’ Park. Those who made it along, including 36 hardy souls from Portugal, almost witnessed an early goal.
Just over two minutes had passed when Davide Santon cut in from the left and from distance and at an angle he sent a rocket of shot in on goal, which goalkeeper Romain Salin needed both hands and strong wrists to beat away.
This was encouraging, as was the news from Belgium that Bordeaux had gone a goal up on Club Brugge.
Cisse looked in the mood. A nutmeg here, a nice flick there; this was more like it from a player who has been so subdued.
Hoever, the game had an almost pre-season friendly feel about it early on and we needed something to liven up things.
Ben Arfa provided much-needed excitement after 22 minutes when he seemed to glide over the grass and past three Maritimo defenders before running out of space inside the box.
However, within 60 seconds, the brilliant Frenchman set-up the game’s first goal. His pass outside of left-back Ruben Ferreira was judged to perfection as the ball fell into the path of Sylvain Marveaux.
He took two nice touches as he made his way into the penalty box before sending a shot through the legs of Salin for his first Newcastle goal.
Danny Simpson tired his luck with a shot from inside the box, following good work by Sammy Ameobi, which Salin got behind.
Cisse had the ball in the net after 36 minutes when he was denied, correctly it must be said, by the linesman’s flag.
However, the manner in which the Senegalese quickly reacted to Salin’s save from Gael Bigirimana’s shot and the smart finish was reminiscent of last season. It was not all sweetness and light. Ben Arfa didn’t last the half because he pulled up after being tackled in the lead-up to the Cisse chance.
The hope, of course, will be it was nothing serious. Demba Ba was the man who replaced him.
Maritimo were not great. Their only shot of the first-half came from David Simao, whose long-range effort along the wet grass was a good 10 yards off target.
By the time referee Danny Makkelie blew for half-time, Bordeaux had scored a second, meaning Newcastle were all but through no matter what happened at St James’ Park, and if had been allowed the official would surely have ended the game there and then.
However, we had another 45 minutes to go and Maritimo were much better.
Romain Amalfitano got a run-out after 50 minutes when he replaced Cisse, who took a knock on his thigh.
It is hoped he will be fit to face Southampton on Sunday, and his sharpness would have pleased Pardew.
Ameobi was first to threaten after the break with a speculative deflected effort which posed goalkeeper Salin a problem, although he did deal with the shot.
Maritimo kept going and Danilo Dias produced a wonderful drive on 53 minutes from well outside the penalty box that Krul did well to keep out. Then striker Sami wasn’t too far away with a header, a reminder the game wasn’t done and dusted.
Ruben Ferreira forced Krul into a smart save on 73 minutes and Maritimo equalised with 12 minutes remaining.
Substitute Fidelis skipped past Steven Taylor inside the box and squeezed a shot through the legs of Krul. It was a goal they just about deserved.
Fidelis had a golden chance to steal victory in the dying moments but his shot went wide.
This means Newcastle need to beat Bordeaux in two weeks’ time in France to avoid those sides who fall out of the Champions League in the next round.