Tonight in Newcastle sees the second of three monster games taking place at St James’ Park in one week; three games that will undoubtedly make or break the Magpies’ season.
Following hot on the heels of the monumental 94th minute victory against Fulham last Sunday, comes the Europa League quarter-final second leg against Benfica tonight; with the trio of home games cumulating with the huge Tyne-Wear derby on Sunday. A derby bestowed with even greater importance than usual given both side’s current struggles at the bottom end of the table.
It is estimated that 155,000 people will have clocked through the St James’ Park turnstiles in eight days, an incredible figure by any clubs standard.
Newcastle go into tonight’s game with confidence boosted massively thanks to the sheer, unbridled joy of the Fulham victory. The Toon huffed and puffed for 93 minutes on Sunday before Cisse’s strike practically took the roof off the place as both striker and manager alike found themselves in the crowd following the Senegalese hitman’s last gasp goal. The goal was one of those moments that makes going to the football so worthwhile, a full afternoon of frustration and nerves all released in one fell swoop as 52,000 fans all went completely ballistic in unison.
After a tough start to his second year in Newcastle, Papiss has now scored 12 goals this season, and encouragingly, four in his last six games. Unbelievably, three of those four goals have come in injury time, or ‘Papiss time’ as its now becoming known on Tyneside.
The big question now is, with the pressure once again on, can Newcastle get the job done for a second time this week? This time round however, and with no disrespect to Fulham, Benfica offer a far sterner test.
Last Thursday night at the wonderful Stadium of Light (not often I say that), Benfica showed just how good they are. After dominating possession for large portions of the game and forcing Newcastle into unnecessary errors, the Portuguese side now take a 3-1 lead into the return fixture; had it not been for Tim Krul, it maybe could have been more. Benfica are a technically excellent footballing side, their movement and their possession of the football is superb; they are easily the best side Newcastle have faced in Europe so far this campaign.
That being said, but for a mad five minutes where they conceded two, Newcastle did not play badly at all. In spells our lads were excellent and had chances of their own, they were unlucky not to have scored a second with Cisse hitting the post in agonising fashion, not once, but twice. With the score at 0-1, had the first one gone in, then that could well have spelt a very different first leg outcome to the one we got.
The chances that Newcastle carved out in the first leg came from their exploitation of the incredibly high line that the Portuguese back four were playing. Marveaux and Sissoko managed to get in behind the Benfica back line on numerous occasions and were unfortunate not to score more than just the one away goal.
I find it difficult to believe that Benfica will play in a similar fashion at St James’, but given the joy Newcastle got last week, it does give hope that they can be got at in tonight’s game. If Newcastle are to cause an upset and progress to the semi-final, then an early goal is crucial.
An early goal would massively lift the packed home stadium, potentially unsettle the Benfica boys and give our players the belief that the tie is actually winnable. The longer it goes without a Newcastle goal however, and given this Benfica side’s ability, the more potential there is for them to pick us off on the counter attack.
Whilst most Newcastle fans are eagerly anticipating this evening’s encounter, we are realistic in our expectation. Most realise that given the current aggregate score and the quality of the opposition, progression is most probably unlikely; but all hope is far from lost.
Of course 3-1 is a big deficit to make up, but it’s not huge, its only two goals, and we do have one precious away goal. With Cisse starting to find his goal touch again, and as Dortmund showed on Tuesday, anything is possible on European nights like this. A 2-0 victory will be enough to go through, and whilst a home win is certainly a possibility, it is the ability to keep a clean sheet that poses the biggest question for Newcastle.
Whatever happens tonight, for all it has taken out of the club’s domestic campaign, Newcastle United and their fans have certainly embraced and enjoyed their European adventure this season. Unless we miraculously go on and win the whole thing, we won’t be back next year, so after it’s all said and done tonight; we can only hope and prey that we have a few more games to come this season.