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Battling Newcastle fall just short

Newcastle United have been here before. Close but not close enough, but they still left the pitch to a standing ovation after pushing Benfica to the brink in a fascinating Europa League quarter-final.

For 20 minutes in the second half, Newcastle looked like they would score the second goal to take them through, but Benfica clung on before scoring in stoppage time.

Newcastle may have been trying to beat a Benfica side who held a two-goal lead after the first leg, and who had gone 30 games unbeaten before this trip to Tyneside, but there was no shortage of self-belief.

St James' Park throbbed with anticipation before kick-off, despite the loss of centre-back Steven Taylor to a knee injury and regardless of the fact he was replaced by Mike Williamson, who started his first game since January 19.

Benfica dominated possession, passing quickly and accurately. They were always comfortable on the ball and the closest Newcastle came to creating a chance in the first half was when Papiss Demba Cisse failed to control Gael Bigirimana's chipped pass.

The Portuguese league leaders should have scored before half-time, Tim Krul dashing off his line, only to lose the ball to Lima on the edge of his area. He picked out Nicolas Gaitan, but his shot was superbly blocked by Massaido Haidara on the line. Eduardo Salvio then flashed a header just wide.

Newcastle did have the ball in the net just before half-time, but Cisse had strayed offside before turning in Bigirimana's cross.

On came Shola Ameobi as Pardew moved to a 4-4-2 formation and Newcastle's longest serving outfield player almost grabbed a goal with his first meaningful contribution, Artur turning his low shot round the post.

Next came Hatem Ben Arfa to a standing ovation. With just over half an hour left, Newcastle's hopes seemed to rest on a player who has started just one game since November.

Cisse had the ball in the net for a second time, but again he was offside.

He did not have long to wait for one to count and it was Ben Arfa who made it happen. Picking the ball on the halfway line, he danced down the right and found Ameobi, whose cross was headed in from close range by Cisse.

Suddenly Benfica looked uncertain, wild clearances falling straight to black and white shirts as 50,000 Geordies roared Newcastle forward.

Wave after wave of Newcastle attacks came and went without testing Artur.

Benfica regained their composure, Krul keeping out substitute Rodrigo before Ben Arfa shot narrowly over the bar. Then, in stoppage time ,Benfica broke and Salvio pounced to put his side into the semi-finals. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent