Newcastle prove short of sparkle

Newcastle United 0 Marseilles 0
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The Independent Football

As celebrations go, it was a night for beer rather than champagne. On the day the great Tyne Brewery, the home of Newcastle Brown Ale, whose yeasty smells often drift over St James' Park, announced it would close, Newcastle United produced a display that was worthy of minor festivities but no more.

As celebrations go, it was a night for beer rather than champagne. On the day the great Tyne Brewery, the home of Newcastle Brown Ale, whose yeasty smells often drift over St James' Park, announced it would close, Newcastle United produced a display that was worthy of minor festivities but no more.

After achieving a 1-1 draw at Anfield, which they converted into a victory at the Stade Velodrome in the fourth round, Marseilles' players launched into a dressing-room sing-song that enraged Gèrard Houllier. Their coach, Jose Anigo, would certainly have taken a goalless draw in the first leg of a Uefa Cup semi-final as an excuse for a second verse.

However, Sir Bobby Robson's side was so depleted that simply holding Didier Drogba at bay was an enormous task, accomplished wonderfully by Jonathan Woodgate and Andy O'Brien.

When the Premiership and Le Championnat last met in the European Cup semi-final in Monaco, Chelsea were undone by their manager's infinite capacity to make changes. So thin were Robson's resources that the only tinkering he could do was to send on Michael Bridges, who almost produced a wonderful slice of romance with his first goal in four years.

To say that St James' Park still possesses the fervour it did when Bob Moncur led Newcastle to the Fairs Cup would be wrong. The great stadium is infinitely more elegant than it was in 1969 but sometimes it has been very quiet. Last night the noise was intense. Whatever happened this would be Tyneside's last taste of the Uefa Cup; there is just the Stade Velodrome and possibly the Ullevi in Gothenburg to come and it was an event which absolutely mattered.

That Newcastle were without so many players who ordinarily would have given them an edge would have been grindingly frustrating. Kieron Dyer, Jermaine Jenas and Craig Bellamy are fast footballers and without them Newcastle required guile and an ability to hold the ball up and only intermittently in a desperately-tense first half did they show it.

Shola Ameobi may not be quick but he is a supremely awkward combination of long loose limbs and throughout he proved difficult for the Marseilles defence to tie down, although perhaps it would have been better had his chances fallen to Alan Shearer. There was a far-post header which ghosted wide and then in the 17th minute came the opportunity of the first half. A short pass from his captain found Ameobi clear on goal some 10 yards out; his shot was good but not exceptional and it crashed against Fabien Barthez's knee.

These were aching misses, none more so than Gary Speed's as the captain of Wales reacted first to a Shearer free-kick which Barthez, clad fetchingly in all-red, could only palm away. From a dozen yards out, his shot slammed into the advertising hoardings below the Gallowgate End.

They were saves matched by Shay Given, who denied Drogba in similar circumstances as the Marseilles' striker, a man with the pace and athleticism of a boxer, broke clear.

The contest between Woodgate and Drogba, who would have signed for West Ham had Trevor Brooking succeeded in keeping them in the Premiership, was a duel between two supremely gifted footballers at the very peak of their game. The tackle Woodgate made when blocking Sylvain N'Diaye's low cross which Drogba seemed certain to turn in during the first seconds after the interval, was of the sort you might have imagined from Bobby Moore.

Hugo Viana must be in the very bottom of his form. Lauren Robert, who as a former employee of Paris St-Germain had a palpable incentive to perform against the club's great enemies, was adequate but Viana was disastrous.

When Robson signed him, Viana was regarded as one of the best young players in Europe, let alone Portugal but has faded to anonymity on Tyneside. This was his first start at St James' since 7 February and if Viana considered a European semi-final a fitting stage to display his talents he turned in a wooden line-fluffing performance worthy of the very worst amateur dramatics.

None of Viana's errors was, however, as potentially costly as the piece of wilfully sloppy play from Robert which began with his being dispossessed and finished with Drogba's shot hammering against the inside of Given's post. In most other circumstances it would have been a goal and if Newcastle have had precious little fortune this season they enjoyed some now.

Robert has complained he cannot comprehend how someone of his ability can continue to be ignored by the French national side. If he ever needed a response, the France coach, Jacques Santini, could send him the video of this and ask for countless other offences to be taken into consideration.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Hughes, O'Brien, Woodgate, Bernard; Ambrose, Viana, Speed, Robert; Ameobi (Bridges, 77), Shearer. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Elliott, Bramble, Chopra, Brittain, Orr.

Marseilles (3-4-2-1): Barthez; Beye, Hemdani, Méïté; Leite, N'Diaye, Flamini, Dos Santos; Battles (Celestini, 90), Meriem; Drogba. Substitutes not used: Gavanon (gk), Christanval, Vachousek, Ecker, Cicut, Ba.

Referee: V Ivanov (Rus).

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