A comfortable but unspectacular performance in the sweltering Greek heat saw Newcastle United pick up an away draw against Greek side Atromitos in the suburbs of Athens tonight. Alan Pardew will be happy with the result, and the way his largely second-string side coped with some spirited play by the Greeks, as Newcastle dominated possession for most of the game despite the closeness of the score-line.
The first twenty minutes saw the sides trading soft blows, the heat clearly playing a part in the tempo for the away team especially, and though they weren’t tested very strongly, frustrating play, particularly thanks to Gabriel Obertan’s lack of touch and inability to complete the simplest of passes.
The only threats from the Greeks came down their left hand side and German Dennis Epstein who got round the back of youngster James Tavernier all too easily twice. Both were snubbed out, but it was a worrying trend for the Magpies early on.
Newcastle themselves had two shots in the first half of the first period, first by Papiss Cisse who speculatively flung a leg at a ball over the top, just failing to control his volley, and then Dan Gosling a minute or so later who shot from distance but didn’t test the goalkeeper. They also had an opportunity when former Liverpool player Charles Itandje flapped at a cross with one hand, with his defender forced to clear up the resulting spill for a corner that came to nothing.
It was ultimately Epstein and the Greeks who made the break-through on the 23rd minute mark thanks to a clever ball through the back line that found Tavernier out of position and the German sneaking in to slot coolly past Harper in the Newcastle net. To be fair the Greeks deserved their lead, as Newcastle failed to string any real attacking play together and Tavernier failed to learn from his early problems with Epstein.
Newcastle responded slowly, the first time Obertan attacking his full-back bringing a half chance that the Greeks dealt with, which then lead to a long-throw into the box from Gosling which Mike Williamson almost got a head to in the box. Atromitos weren’t coping well with balls into the box, but another corner that came from some clever play by Papiss Cisse again lead to nothing.
Vurnon Anita stood out as Newcastle’s best player in the first half with some good touches and an impressive eye for a pass, but his team-mates never looked quite as interested, though Ryan Taylor almost took advantage of some dangerous Atromitos defending shooting from a distant free-kick after he was fouled out by the touchline. Itandje through himself at the ball to block the shot, but it was a far from assured first half display from the Frenchman.
Newcastle spent the end of the first half looking more like their billing as a Premier League team, though Obertan once more wasted a chance to get a good ball into the box and Itandje for once looked assured in claiming it around the 37 minute mark.
Whenever a half chance came for Atromitos it looked like the Greeks were more than happier trying to loft the ball over the top, and other than the goal they never really looked a threat, though their passing game was impressive and meant the travelling Magpies could never get into a rhythm in the first half.
Just before the 43rd minute mark, Dan Gosling tried an acrobatic bicycle kick from another long Ryan Taylor throw, but his shot ended up somewhere in Cyprus. Ryan Taylor’s effort on the stroke of half-time was by some distance better, the Liverpudlian native scoring another sublime free-kick from distance past the prone Itandje to level the scores before the half-time whistle was blown.
The second half began tentatively, no changes made by either coach, with Atromitos looking to claw back some of the possession after half-time saw confirmation that Newcastle had enjoyed an impressive 63% of possession. Alan Pardew will have been hoping to inspire his team to take more advantage of the possession stats.
An early chance for Dan Gosling almost brought immediate spoils for Newcastle, after some excellent wing play by Cisse, but the midfielder was caught out, clearly expecting the defender to win the header only to see the ball hit his own head and fall into the grateful hands of Itandje.
Newcastle looked a lot more purposeful at the start of the second half, but some lax play from James Perch almost lead to a good chance for a second goal with the rest of the former Nottm Forest defenders team-mates coping with the threat. That threat was amplified considerably by the referee’s willingness to blow for any and all contact in tackles but Atromitos failed to take advantage of a couple of early free-kicks.
The Magpies continued to control the game, taking it steady and controlling the majority of the ball without really testing and holding their opponents until the 58th minute when a good free-kick from Ryan Taylor saw an excellent shot by Obertan deflected over the bar for a corner. That corner lead to a free header for Gosling, but he couldnt get it on target under pressure and it went out for a goal-kick.
The 60th minute saw a double change for Atromitos, Njazi Kuqi going off after a largely ineffectual (and frankly quite lazy) performance, and the team responded well with a little more freshness. Three minutes later Dan Gosling joined him on the benches, replaced by Frenchman Romain Amalfitano, and his compatriot Obertan almost provided a second goal for the Toon, after Atromitos ‘keeper Itandje flapped at another of his crosses and dropped the ball at Papiss Cisse’s feet, only to recover well.
A good break by Newcastle almost brought a second goal, after good play by Obertan led to a back-heel by Cisse into Amalfitano’s path, when he perhaps should have left it, but the Frenchman was foiled by a brave dive by itandje, who picked up a knock in the process.
The 78th minute saw Adam Campbell become Newcastle’s youngest ever player in European competition as he replaced Papiss Cisse, but the North Shields native almost immediately had to watch Atromitos score at the other end of the pitch, though thankfully Konstantinos Giannoulis fluffed his lines and his attempted lob lofted high over Steve Harper’s net.
The game then largely petered out, with Campbell showing some flashes of his willingness to run, and Obertan beginning to look more confident but with few real chances. Newcastle controlled it once more, taking a sensible rather than spectacular approach to the game to see out their spirited opponents, aside from one classy run by Amalfitano which saw him take on two men before Itandje came out to claim off the end of his toes. That proved to be the last major event of the match and the referee blew to send Newcastle into the second leg with a very slender advantage thanks to the draw and the away goal.
Atromitos (4-1-4-1): Charles Itandje; Ioannis Skondras (c), Sokratis Fytanidis, Nikolaos Lazaridis, Konstantinos Giannoulis (Athanasios Karagounis 86); Matias Iglesias; Nikola Beljic (Marinaldo Chumbinho 60), Elini Dimoutsos, Eduardo Luiz Brito, Denis Epstein; Njazi Kuqi (Anastasios Karamanos 60)
Subs not used: Velimir Radman, Eustathios Taylaridis, Sebastian Pitu Garcia, Evaggelos Nastos
Newcastle United (4-2-3-1): Steve Harper; James Tavernier, Mike Williamson (c), James Perch, Ryan Taylor; Gael Bigirimana, Vurnon Anita; Gabriel Obertan, Dan Gosling (Romain Amalfitano 64), Sylvain Marveaux (Jonas Gutierrez 71); Papiss Cisse (Adam Campbell 77)
Subs not used: Tim Krul, Davide Santon, Steven Taylor, Yohan Cabaye
Referee: Alon Yefet
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