THEY might be taking the Europa League seriously, but if Newcastle United are to progress beyond the last 32 of the competition, they are going to have to do it the hard way.
Despite fielding a first-choice line-up, Alan Pardew was forced to watch his side fail to break down obdurate opponents from Metalist Kharkiv on a frustrating night on Tyneside.
As a result they will travel to Ukraine next week as outsiders. Having not conceded an away goal, they are hardly out of things, but Metalist displayed enough attacking prowess last night to suggest they will be a daunting proposition in their home stadium.
Newcastle could have done with at least a one-goal lead to fall back on, but Papiss Cisse had two successful efforts controversially ruled out for offside, with the first decision in particular a mistake from the officials.
Metalist probably merited a draw given their unwavering commitment and impressively high work rate, and the Magpies' general lack of invention was a concern given that Premier League survival still cannot be interpreted as a given.
For all that their new signings have provided some much-needed impetus, there is still not much of a goal threat in the Newcastle ranks beyond Cisse and January signing Moussa Sissoko.
They will have to find a goal in Kharkiv unless they are going to progress on penalties, but after eight non-events in the early stages of the competition, at least it feels as though Newcastle have finally embraced the Europa League. Disruptive and dull in the first half of the season, the competition could yet provide some welcome excitement in the remainder of the campaign. Alternatively, of course, the Magpies' interest could be over in six days time.
Pardew acknowledged as much after the final whistle, although prior to kick-off, his team selection provided proof of his changed approach to continental competition.
Gone was the rotation policy that had been in place throughout the group stage; in its place emerged comfortably the strongest side Pardew had sent out on the European stage.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa made his full debut at right-back, with Gabriel Obertan the only other player not to have started at Tottenham five days earlier. Tellingly, the two players replaced, Mathieu Debuchy and Yoan Gouffran, were both ineligible.
Newcastle's opponents, Metalist, had warmed up with a 1-1 draw in a friendly at Whitley Bay, but any suggestion they would represent weak opposition was quickly dispelled by a glance at the results from last season's Europa League, where they made the last eight.
Fielding an outfield unit of nine South Americans and one Senegalese, the side lying fourth in the Ukrainian top-flight are representative of a new breed of former Soviet clubs with the finances to attract talent from right across the world.
Energetic, well organised and keen to press their opponents high up the field from the off, they restricted Newcastle to a handful of goalscoring opportunities.
The Magpies were their own worst enemies in the opening stages, with passes regularly going astray and attempted crosses failing to beat the first defender, a failing that has been apparent for most of the season.
Sissoko, so impressive in his first three appearances for Newcastle, was one of the chief culprits in terms of conceding possession, but the Frenchman should nevertheless have set up his side's opener in the 23rd minute.
With Metalist's right-back, Fininho, attempting to push up, Sissoko was onside when he squared for Cisse to tap the ball home, but an assistant's flag cut short the striker's celebrations.
Cisse beat the offside trap himself eight minutes later, but after racing on to Yohan Cabaye's through ball, he drilled a low shot straight at the legs of goalkeeper Olexandr Goryainov.
Newcastle could have done with the security of a first-half goal as Metalist's attacking play was bright enough to cause problems.
The visitors were comfortable in possession and willing to break in numbers, with their Argentinian skipper Jose Ernesto Sosa and Brazilian Cleiton Xavier especially inventive.
Sosa could have caused serious problems had he opted to shoot from ten yards out midway through the first half - his attempted pull-back was easily cleared - while Xavier forced an excellent low save from Tim Krul as he met Jonathan Cristaldo's cross in the area.
With Marlos and Sosa also drilling first-half efforts narrowly wide, Metalist's desire to claim a potentially crucial away goal was clear and they went close again five minutes after the interval when full-back Fininho headed wide from a corner.
Cisse had already fired a second-half strike wide at that stage, with a poor first touch preventing him from making the most of another wonderful through ball from Cabaye, and while Jonas Gutierrez flashed a low drive narrowly past the upright on the hour mark, the Metalist back four were able to repel Newcastle's attacks with surprisingly little fuss, with the imposing Papa Gueye particularly impressive.
The introduction of Sylvain Marveaux for the ineffectual Obertan was an attempt to inject some forward momentum, but the Magpies rarely looked like fashioning a breakthrough.
Cisse forced a rare save from Goryainov when he side-footed Davide Santon's shot towards goal from the edge of the six-yard box, and while the Senegal international found the net for a second time in the 76th minute, he was again left frustrated by an offside flag.
Again the call was an extremely close one, although Cisse appeared to have moved a fraction too early as he converted Yanga-Mbiwa's right-wing cross.
To complete a frustrating night for Newcastle's number nine, he was forced to watch Goryainov parry a stoppage-time diving header from Santon's cross.
Bookings: Tiote (28, foul), Cabaye (33, foul), Sissoko (81, foul), Gutierrez (86, foul), Willian (88, simulation), Torres (90, foul)
Referee: Tom Harald Hagen (Norway) 3
NEWCASTLE (4-2-3-1): Krul 6; Yanga-Mbiwa 6, S TAYLOR 7, Coloccini 7, Santon 6; Tiote 4 (Shola Ameobi 79), Cabaye 6; Gutierrez 5, Sissoko 5, Obertan 4 (Marveaux 62, 5); Cisse 6.
Subs (not used): Elliot (gk), Simpson, Haidara, Anita, Perch.
METALIST KHARKIV (4-2-3-1): Goryainov 8; Villagra 6, GUEYE 8, Torsiglieri 7, Fininho 7; Edmar 5, Torres 5; Marlos 6 (Willian 73), Xavier 5, Sosa 6 Cristaldo 6 (Jaja 81).
Subs (not used): Disljenkovic (gk), Berezovchuk, Shelayev, Blanco, Krasnopyorov.
Man Of The Match
PAPA Gueye - the Senegalese centre-half led the Metalist back four superbly and repelled a series of Newcastle attacks.
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