Three goals up with 20 minutes remaining and showing shades of their 10-2 aggregate demolition of Royal Antwerp last month, Newcastle squandered their advantage in this second round first leg by allowing the Spaniards two late strikes. A one-goal lead for a team reacquainting themselves to European competition after a 17-year gap is anything but a comfortable margin to take to the San Mames Stadium, particularly as the Spaniards require only a 1-0 win to secure a third-round place.
The turning point proved to be the introduction of Gonzalo Suances after 67 minutes. Playing on the right flank, he provided the pass for Jose Angel Ciganda's goal four minutes later, and then forced in Ander Garitano's cross from close range 11 minutes from time.
'The tie was over,' Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager, said, 'and now through a combination of good play by Bilbao and a little bit of navety by us we have allowed them back into it.
'It's difficult to get angry with the players. To get into a position where you are 3-0 up against a good side like that is terrific, but in the last 20 minutes we needed a Barry Venison or a Paul Bracewell out there. Just someone to put his foot on the ball and say hold on boys.'
The night began as if no one would hold Newcastle, who had hoped to exploit frailties in opponents brought about by injuries to six of their first team squad including two of their Spanish internationals, Julen Guerrero and Juan Antonio Goicoechea.
Within nine minutes they were ahead, Philippe Albert sending a glorious 40-yard pass to the head of the overlapping left-back, John Beresford, who in turn found Andy Cole. The Spanish defence converged on the Newcastle striker but instead of the expected shot he flicked the ball on again and Ruel Fox, cutting inside his marker, stabbed the ball towards the goal. The shot was not particularly firm and normally Juan Jose Valencia would have expected to save it. Instead the keeper dived and merely diverted the ball into the corner of the net.
Albert was also instrumental in the second goal after 34 minutes, winning the ball in the centre of the field before passing to Peter Beardsley. The England striker passed inside to Cole who turned so quickly that Oscar Tabuenca's tackle missed the ball completely and brought the striker down inside the area. Beardsley, the epitome of calm, collected the ball from the sideline and then hit the penalty to Valencia's right.
The Spaniards needed to improve and for five minutes after the interval there was the first suggestion that Bilbao had not arrived on Tyneside to be anything other than sacrificial lambs. Eduardo Estibariz and Victor Alkiza both had shots that flew by the Newcastle posts, while Pavel Srnickek had to time his block tackle to perfection when he thwarted Ciganda's surge to the middle after 48 minutes.
Those were warnings that appeared to be false, however, as that Bilbao uprising was quelled by a quite superb goal. Beardsley and Lee Clark combined to free Fox on the right and the Newcastle winger's cross to Cole, who had peeled away from his marker at the far post, could hardly have been bettered if he had placed the ball with his hands. Even so Cole had a lot of work to do to beat Valencia but his header had pinpoint accuracy.
That goal came after 56 minutes and represented the high tide of an evening that would prove deeply frustrating for Newcastle. Where more seasoned European campaigners would have sat back and conserved their advantage, they went in pursuit of greater glory and Suances made them pay.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Hottiger, Peacock, Howey, Beresford; Fox, Clark, Albert, Sellars; Beardsley, Cole.
Athletic Bilbao (4-1-4-1): Valencia; Tabuenca (Suances, 67), Andrinua, Karanka, Larrazabal; Vales; Estibariz (Corino, 83), Alkiza, Garitano, Mendiguren; Ciganda.
Referee: H Krug (Germany).
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