Newcastle United: Magpies' Defensive Effort Results in a Europa League Draw

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Newcastle United: Magpies' Defensive Effort Results in a Europa League Draw
Stu Forster/Getty Images

On a freezing night in Moscow, Newcastle United entered their Europa League tie in the Round of 16 quiet as a mouse and left the same way.

But in holding an Anzhi Makhachkala squad carrying the likes of Samuel Eto'o, Willian and Lacina Traoré scoreless, the Magpies should be the happier of the two sides with the 0-0 draw.

Both sides entered the match under less-than-ideal circumstances.

For Newcastle, captain Fabricio Coloccini and striker Papiss Cisse both missed the match due to injury and illness.

Substitute striker Shola Ameobi would have been set to start the match, but because the pitch was synthetic turf (a surface on which Ameobi has physical difficulties), he could play only as a substitute.

That left 18-year-old Adam Campbell as the only true striker in the squad, so Alan Pardew instead chose Hatem Ben Arfa, making his first appearance in over three months due to a hamstring injury, to play as a false 9 rather than his preferred spot on the wing.

In any high-scoring contest, Newcastle would have been destined to fall short. And out of the gate, it felt as if that may be the case.

Anzhi from the start pressed forward, and new signing Willian seemed to be the man asking all the questions.

But in the 22nd minute, the Brazilian was forced off the pitch with a hamstring issue after falling awkwardly to a Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa challenge.

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From then on, it wasn't a pretty match for either side. Chances were squandered. Possession seemed harder to hold on to than a bar of soap. There were only four shots on target all game, with only one strike from Eto'o in the 60th minute ever feeling like it stood a chance of finding the back of the net.

Positive performances from the Toon included goalkeeper Rob Elliot, who confidently handled the few chances that came his way, and Gabriel Obertan, whose pace on the right wing in the second half led to nearly every Newcastle sniff at the goal. 

The man of the match, or rather men of the match, goes to the Newcastle back four. Massadio Haïdara, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Mr. Versatile James Perch and Danny Simpson (with a performance that might have kept him his first-team place had it come earlier in the season) smothered a potent Anzhi attacking unit that no other club had held scoreless in Russia.

Offensively, there were two clear weak links.

Sylvain Marveaux was virtually invisible on the pitch and failed to take care of his defensive responsibilities. A man who needs to take advantage of his opportunities in Europe to fortify his place in the Premier League first team, Marveaux provided one of his worst performances of the season.

Hatem Ben Arfa showed signs of rust. Although match conditions were not ideal for a man returning from injury, including the frigid weather and the turf, Ben Arfa wasn't the difference-maker most of the Geordie faithful are used to. He squandered the best Newcastle chance of the match in the 62nd minute just before coming off, failing to chip over Anzhi keeper Vladimir Gabulov.

Next week, St. James Park will host what could be a much more offensive second leg. Willian will most likely be fit for the whole 90 minutes, and Newcastle will have the full services of both Cisse and Ameobi.

Newcastle will be under the most pressure to score goals, as a road goal from Anzhi would require a two-goal response.

But if the match again comes down to defensive fortitude, it will be tough to bet against the Magpies.

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