As I arrived back home from St James’ Park in the early hours of Friday morning, the smile imprinted on my face by Papiss Cisse’s last gasp header was still beaming.
After the tight first leg, I hardly expected an easy night’s work for Newcastle United but the drama they inflicted on over 45,000 fans was incredible. I fancied the Geordies to do it after finding their form in recent weeks, coupled with Anzhi never having won away from home in the Europa League since the qualifying rounds and being defeated by a team bottom of the Russian league at the weekend.
But fancying a job and executing it are two entirely different things.
With the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Mbark Boussoufa in their ranks, Anzhi are never going to be pushovers. Add to that the incredible organisation and resilience of their defence and the task that faced Newcastle was far from easy.
Alan Pardew set his side up in a strange way, too. Moussa Sissoko was deployed on the left wing, with Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote trying to shackle Eto’o from holding midfield.
Captain Cabaye was taken off injured before half-time to make Newcastle’s challenge even greater.
The game’s first turning point was the sending off of Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez, who was booked twice in quick succession after a pair of poorly timed challenges.
From then on, the onus was on Newcastle to take it to the Russians and make the breakthrough. In all honesty, it didn’t look like happening as numerous crosses into the box were repelled easily by Anzhi’s rock solid defence.
Guus Hiddink’s side were also threatening on the counter too, with Eto’o testing Rob Elliot from a tight angle after good work from Boussoufa.
Newcastle continued the onslaught though, with Massadio Haidara and Davide Santon becoming key creators. Cisse couldn’t connect with anything though and a strike partner was needed for the Senegal man.
Pardew turned to the bench and called for Adam Campbell. The 18-year-old was preferred to Shola Ameobi as a potential game changer and he looked promising, bringing pace and neat touches to the left wing when involved.
Anzhi countered again as the seconds ticked away and a poor sliding tackle from Tiote gave the visitors the chance to win it in the dying moments. Boussoufa’s sweetly struck free-kick crashed back off the crossbar in front of me and with it, a sigh of relief echoed around the buoyant St James’ Park.
With all three of the additional minutes almost expired, the stage was set for an emphatic winner.
Sylvain Marveaux, who had been excellent all night, cut inside and crossed from the right wing and Cisse was on hand—the one time Anzhi’s defence had made a mistake all night—to head past Vladimir Gabulov and send the home fans into raptures.
The noise from the 45,000 fans is still ringing in my ears and they now know that there will be more European nights to savour on Tyneside, starting with the quarter final second leg against Portuguese side Benfica.
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