Newcastle keep trophy dreams alive
Winning games in the first 90 minutes is beginning to look like something that doesn't appeal to Newcastle United. First Chelsea, then Stoke City and now Anzhi Makhachkala have all fallen to the Magpies' last-minute strikes, each seemingly more important than the last. "I don't really want to wish a last-minute defeat on anybody else," Alan Pardew compassionately admitted after the game.
So finite was the margin of their winning goal against the Russian side, that referee Deniz Aytekin blew the whistle during the ensuing celebrations, Anzhi's desolate looking players clearly drained of what little energy remained.
Even Pardew admitted to a moment of doubt over the goal, thinking the game had already been concluded. With the stadium a cauldron of noise (per the request of Pardew), it crescendoed with Papiss Cisse's winner, his header from a Sylvain Marveaux cross the second time the pair have combined in four a week. As much as Pardew appreciated the striking talents of Cisse, he was just as keen to note the contributions of Steven Taylor.
A man who revels in the atmosphere and passion of St James' Park, Taylor's pre-match interaction with the fans were tinged with an extra dash of enthusiasm. A locally-reared player, he knows more than most the importance of European competition to the club - the defender often reminded of Bobby Moncur famously lifting the then Fairs Cup in 1969.
Throwing every part of his body in front of the goal, his blood and thunder approach was complemented well by the supreme composure of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa - still just months into his Newcastle career.
Even trying to head the ball while flat on the ground, Taylor embodied the kind of determination that will see Newcastle be a match for whichever side the pull out of the subsequent draw. The rearguard action securing them a pair of clean sheets against a side who themselves had conceded just once at home in the Europa League.
Although the goals column may have read zero, Anzhi were not without their chances many of which were fashioned by moments of complacency from Newcastle. It took them just three minutes for Samuel Eto'o to garner an opening and fire wide, the striker later testing Rob Elliott with a stinging drive from a tight angle. As the game wore on however his involvement wained. Central to everything good Anzhi generated in the first half, he embodied everything a captain should be.
As Mehdi Carcela-González picked up his first yellow card, Eto'o pleaded for calm, urging the winger to use his head. Unfortunately for the visitors & Eto'o, his teammate did not listen and thus their striker became burdened with three markers everytime the ball landed at his feet.
Now with a man disadvantage, their game required far more patience. Alan Pardew had been keen to note Anzhi's counter-attacking style in his press conference the day before and it would become their only real hope for a breakthrough, as they sat patiently in a tightly formed unit ready to pounce. In the final few minutes, their best chance. Mbark Boussoufa smashing a free-kick against the crossbar, to gasps from the home fans and relief from Pardew.
With Anzhi's early dominance, it seemed Newcastle would need a stroke of luck in order to prevail. That fortune looked like it would evade them when Yohan Cabaye was forced off in the first half, yet ironically it appeared to improve the Magpies as their interchanges became faster and less ponderous.
Maybe a consequence of perseverance, eventually their desired prosperity appeared. While Mehdi Carcela Gonzalez will not contest his second yellow card and subsequent dismissal, he may feel aggrieved that Vurnon Anita did not walk for a stamp on Yuri Zhirkov minutes later. Hiddink admitted after he had desperately tried to ready a substitute for Gonzalez after his first caution - alas it was too late.
Unwilling to bemoan the referee, instead Hiddink spoke of the progress Anzhi had made, a theme of his press conference the day before. For a club that has been in existence less time than Shola Ameobi has been at Newcastle, their ascent is impressive. While many will target Eto'o as the standout, it was undoubtedly a collective effort. Jucilel and Joao Carlos in particular providing the kind of performance that could easily see them earn a move to one of Europe's top leagues.
Yet in their singular moment of weakness, seconds into the 93rd minute Papiss Cisse pounced. "Papiss does what Papiss does," Pardew said afterwards. The problem is however, that for parts of this season he simply hasn't. Described by Hiddink as a "lethal weapon", Cisse is potentially one of the competitions most potent frontmen, but there has been indifference sprinkled over his second season in English football.
"He was brilliant tonight, and then he scored." Pardew said with a wry smile. The manager had described his striker as awful after Sunday's win over Stoke City. That was despite again netting an injury time winner. The mercurial nature of Cisse is one that makes him a difficult player to manage. As he showed tonight, 92 minutes of nothing can be eclipsed with a second of venom.
In the wider context, the moment represents a plateau for Newcastle. This time three years ago they were toiling in the second tier of English football, a draw against Middlesbrough a stark contrast to a victory over a side as impressive as Anzhi. While the barren run without a trophy still hangs over the club, for a night, even a few days, Newcastle fans are allowed to indulge themselves in thoughts that maybe it is finally their year.
Man of the match: Steven Taylor - Pardew has routinely talked up the defender's England prospects. While he can occasionally stray into dangerous territory with his all action style, his commitment to the cause cannot be questioned. Not quite consistent enough to be talked of as starting for his country, his name in the context of potential candidates should at least be considered.
Newcastle reaction: A fantastic performance by the entire team, but still doubts remain over Cheick Tiote. Once operating with the precision and composure of a surgeon, he now seems wayward and complacent. Perhaps asked to do to much, the midfielder requires a regression in style to keeping the play simple. His decision to try and dribble past Lassana Diarra in the first half could easily have seen Newcastle give up a goal had it not been for Taylor's intervention.
Anzhi reaction: Guus Hiddink can leave Tyneside proud of his side's performance. While he was first to admit he hates losing, his side won many admirers with their determination to remain rigid and strength in the face of adversity. Missing Willian, the Brazilian playmaker would have made a significant difference to Anzhi's attempts to create. Instead they relied on Lassana Diarra who lacked the cuteness and invention needed to play such a role.