With Hatem Ben Arfa in the starting line-up for the first time since December, Newcastle were hoping to get a solid away result against Anzhi Makhachkala on a sub-zero Moscow night to set them up for an easier second leg at St James’ Park. In a relatively empty Luzhniki Stadium, the game got off to a tame start without any real attacking threat from either side. Oleg Shatov’s weak cross was unable to find main target-man Samuel Eto’o in the box as the Russian side started to pick up the tempo in the first 15 minutes. Big money signing Willian was brought off due to injury midway through the first half to the delight of the visitors, as the Brazilian looked dangerous going forward. Nearly 40 minutes in, the game had its first shot. Eto’o picked up the ball from deep and shot from range but young keeper Rob Elliot did well to palm the dipping ball onto the roof of the net. Despite a lacklustre opening period, Newcastle looked comfortable and kept a good shape throughout the 45 minutes, but the whole half was not one for the highlight reel as they failed to create a single opportunity.
The second half was a complete contrast to the first as Anzhi started to push forward with purpose. Newcastle remained disciplined in defence as they absorbed the pressure from the home side. Eto’o tested young goalkeeper Rob Elliot shortly after the restart as his strike forced the keeper down to his right, tipping the ball past the post. From the resulting corner, Shatov fired just wide from outside the area. Ben Arfa nearly capped a perfect return to the side as he tried to chip Vladimir Gabulov after a sweeping counter-attack, but the keeper stood his ground to make a clever save. Newcastle were on the attack again when Vurnon Anita’s speculative long-range effort flew just over the bar as the Magpies started to come out of their defensive shell. Eto’o was Anzhi’s only attacking threat throughout the game as manager Alan Pardew would have expected, and Newcastle looked to have the Cameroon international covered as Mapou Yanga M’Biwa and James Perch were in excellent form. A more free-flowing second half was still unable to provide a goal for the 70 travelling Newcastle fans but a draw seemed a fair result.
Pardew will be pleased with his side’s defensive performance. It is the first time this season that Anzhi have not won in Moscow as Newcastle kept superstar Eto’o at bay. The tie is evenly poised going into next week’s second leg and Newcastle have given themselves a good chance in qualifying for the last eight of the competition. This game might not live long in the memory of many spectators but it is job done as far as Pardew’s Toon army are concerned.
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