Valiant Newcastle bow out with grace
Newcastle may lack the same wealth of silverware that many of the Europa League quarter-finalists possess, but on Thursday evening they proved unquestionably they have spirit in abundance. Their greatest son Sir Bobby Robson said it was facets like that which defined a football club, and he was right.
Benfica's definition is one of both European and domestic success - a Champions League campaign ended in December further highlighting the level they normally inhabit.
It was a perception furthered by their play. While the names may not be relevant in every house hold now, eventually some will. Quick and neat, the pace of the front three remained a constant threat against the home side as they whizzed around like bottle rockets. It is a side anchored by the imposing Nemanja Matić, his graceful yet forceful approach showing just why Europe's elite are coveting him.
Yet still Newcastle created chances, to the constant incredulity of Jorge Jesus. A tame shot from Gael Bigirimana was easily gathered as an evenly contested battle of the wings ensued between the two clubs. Each time Newcastle gained a glimmer of an advantage, a roar from the crowd and yet more gesticulating from the Benfica coach.
The quality of the opposition had seen Pardew opt for a more industrious side. Sylvain Marveaux made way for the aforementioned Bigirimana with his creative assets intentionally saved for the latter stages. Even with more discipline in the side they struggled to catch a Benfica side that shuffled the ball around the lush green turf like a hockey puck.
Denied the perfect end to the first half, Papiss Cissé was correctly flagged offside as he reopened his battle against the competition's officials. Having previously been incorrectly stopped by a linesman's flag in this competition, how Newcastle would have benefited from just one of Cissé's two flagged goals being incorrectly given.
As time ticked away Pardew's game plan began to run through its checklist. The arrival of Shola Ameobi on half-time indicated a shift in intensity from Newcastle even though they lacked the inventiveness that Benfica held in swarms. With the hour mark rapidly approaching, the terraces took the opportunity to tell Pardew what they wanted, not once but twice.
Hatem Ben Arfa's late inclusion in the side created a buoyant air around St James' Park. The mere sight of him warming up in the first half had brought them into choruses of his name, thus his arrival on the pitch minutes after his name was sung evoked celebrations as if it were the breakthrough. In some ways it was - his first dally down the wing reminding Benfica why they had once coveted his unique talents.
Taking the ball past a pair of opposition players, Ben Arfa collected his own poor pass, cheekily poking it through the legs of Ezequiel Garay. As an onrushing Ameobi chipped a cross into the path of Cissé, he headed home.
Instantly the goal had Benfica rattled. Once fluid passing moves were now steeped in nerves - their lack of composure typified by a pair of fluffed kicks from goalkeeper Artur. Temporarily forgetting their superiority, an impressive unbeaten record stretching back to October was now coming under an intense evaluation.
Like a pack of sharks, the crowd waited for any sign of weakness to pounce on and jeer. A strong contribution from the home support was the request of Alan Pardew pre-match and his demands were being met. With Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye and Sylvain Marveaux now all on the pitch, Pardew was playing with what he considered the most attacking side he had named.
Unleashing themselves onto the last throes of the game, effort outweighed quality as half chances struggled to evolve into clear opportunities. A fierce Ben Arfa shot over the bar represented the best of a clutch of half chances.
Looking to catch the home side on the counter attack for much of the evening, Benfica's plan finally came to fruition. Having so often benefited from injury-time goals, now Newcastle were ironically being punished - Eduardo Salvio calmly slotting the ball under Tim Krul inside the penalty box - the polarising emotions of joy and devastation sweeping over St James' Park. Yet instead of following it with boos or whistles, unanimous applause flowed out from all four corners of the ground - proud at what they had achieved.
Knowing he was now beaten, Pardew somberly applauded the deserved victors of the tie. Equally impressed, Jesus returned the sentiment as he admired the supporters' contribution towards cultivating an exciting quarter-final.
Embracing his opponent before the final whistle had even been blown, Pardew wished the victors luck as they enter the final four. Around him, choruses of the club's name were bellowed as fans chose to celebrate what they had achieved rather than focus on what might have been.
Able to share a smile as he gave his post match press conference, Pardew's focus was on the future and once again qualifying for the Thursday night competition. Although Newcastle's 44-year wait for success will now extend itself by at least one more season, their wait for a team to be truly proud of following 2009's relegation is now over.