Newcastle United secured a very respectable 0-0 draw in their 1st Leg Europa League tie away at big spending Anzhi Makhackala.
The result keeps the tie very much on a knife edge, but The Magpies will fancy their chances of getting the result required to progress to the quarterfinals. Especially before the backdrop of what promises to be a hostile St James’ Park atmosphere.
Neither Alan Pardew nor his players have much experience in European competition, so it's very much a case of “learning by doing” for Newcastle. But what have we learnt about The Magpies and their Russian opponents from this first leg stalemate?
Well, this Newcastle side are going to be tough nut to crack in this seasons tournament. They are the first team to come away from Anzhi with any kind of positive result in this season’s competition, with the Russians previously boasting a 100% home record in the Europa League.
It would have been easy for Newcastle to go the same way as Liverpool and Udinese in this game. Both who are top teams that have been well beaten by Guus Hiddink’s men in Russia. But Anzhi’s attacking talents like Samuel Eto’o, Willian and Lassana Diarra were left frustrated for the most part, as Newcastle limited their space and shackled them well.
The home side started brightly, but when Willian limped off after 30 minutes, most of Anzhi’s cutting edge went with him. Giant striker Lacina Traore came on in his place, and whilst he offered a physical presence, he never really posed Newcastle with any direct threat.
If Anzhi are going to win the tie at Newcastle, their £30 million January signing needs to feature. Without Willian, Newcastle soaked up all of Anzhi’s pressure, with the Russian’s looking somewhat one-dimensional without their Brazilian creator.
Alan Pardew will no doubt be delighted with the defensive contribution of his players. But in attack, they looked pretty toothless. The absence of Papiss Cisse was certainly a factor in their attacking naivety.
Newcastle welcomed back Hatem Ben Arfa after his spell out of the side through injury. On his birthday nonetheless! The French international operated primarily as Newcastle’s most advanced forward.
It was not the happy return Ben Arfa was hoping for however, as he was left isolated for the majority of the game in sub-zero temperatures. He also wasted Newcastle’s best chance of the game, as he went for a flashy chip six yards out when a well struck shot would have surely been better.
Despite his frustrating evening, the return of Ben Arfa is a massive plus for Alan Pardew. The Newcastle manager recently expressed his dissatisfaction at Ben Arfa’s efforts (or lack of efforts) to get back to match fitness. But when all is said and done, he is Newcastle’s most creative player. If he gets some game time at the weekend, expect him to be raring to go ahead of the second leg at St James’ Park.
But overall, Newcastle will be content with their chances of progressing in this one. Especially if Willian is to miss out. With Cisse likely to feature in the return leg, he will provide Newcastle with the attacking potency that was so lacking here.