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United in driving seat after fun trip.

Byline: By Paul Gilder

Newcastle's Continental challenge last night took their supporters to a city in which LSD was first created; it was to prove some trip for the travelling Toon Army.

United's pairing with FC Basel was, Sir Bobby Robson insisted when the Uefa Cup second-round draw was made, the toughest test his side could face at this stage of the competition.

Yet, by the conclusion of a fascinating evening of football at St Jakob-Park, the Magpies had put themselves in the driving seat in a tie of fluctuating fortunes by securing a valuable 3-2 first-leg triumph.

Having twice trailed to goals from Mario Cantaluppi and Scott Chipperfield, Robson's men showed remarkable resolve as Laurent Robert, Titus Bramble and Shola Ameobi sealed a victory which had, at times, appeared impossible.

Newcastle's fans will take nothing for granted after their heartbreaking failure to bring Champions League football back to Tyneside. Yet with three precious away goals in the bag, there should now be no repeat of Partizan Belgrade's unforseen comeback when Christian Gross leads his shattered side to the North-East on November 27.

The outcome could have been much different and, for long spells, Robson must have feared that his team would leave Switzerland with a mountain to climb.

But, having ridden their luck for much of the evening, the Magpies demonstrated a ruthless streak as Ameobi put his previous profligacy behind him to fire the visitors to victory.

Basel conquered the likes of Juventus, Deportivo La Coruna and Spartak Moscow during last season's sortie into the Champions League and, determined to add another scalp to their rapidly-growing list, the home players made a positive opening.

Hakan Yakin, earmarked by Robson as the main threat to United's European ambitions, demonstrated his shooting capabilities after just three minutes with a low drive which flashed narrowly wide of Shay Given's left-hand post. It was a warning the visitors did not heed.

Defensive deficiencies almost gifted Christian Gimenez the opening goal soon after. But the home supporters did not have long to wait to see their spirited side secure a deserved advantage.

A weak clearance from Jermaine Jenas did not carry sufficient weight to alleviate the mounting pressure in the 12th minute and, with the visitors struggling to clear their lines, Cantaluppi was allowed way too much time to steady himself for a shot.

Given could see what was coming. But the Irishman - his Euro 2004 dreams dashed at this venue last month - was unable to stop the midfielder's rasping effort flying past him from 25 yards for a spectacular opener.

To concede so quickly was a major blow for Newcastle and Robson made his annoyance clear to his players. A quick response was called for and the Magpies delivered within two minutes.

Jenas quickly made amends for his role in the goal by winning the ball and supplying Ameobi and the 22-year-old split the home defence with an incisive pass which sent Robert galloping away. The in-form Frenchman had scored five times in his previous six starting appearances. A player who has done more than most to rescue United's season in recent weeks continued his remarkable sequence by sliding the ball brilliantly past Pascal Zuberbuhler from the edge of the penalty area.

After such a frenetic start to the game Robson appealed for calm and composure. He got neither as, within two minutes of Robert's leveller, the pendulum swung back Basel's way.

Again the goal resulted from some indecisive defending, with Andy O'Brien heading a home throw-in straight to the lurking Chipperfield.

The ambitious Australian tried his luck from 18 yards out. And, with Given this time unsighted and wrong-footed by a slight deflection, the ball again found a path to the Newcastle net.

Robson had briefed his players on Basel's aeriel threat.

For Given's goal to be breached twice from outside the penalty area was not what United's experienced manager had anticipated when making his meticulous preparations. Their lead restored, Gross' men increased the pressure in an attempt to secure a decisive advantage in an encounter which was proving to be surprisingly open.

But the Magpies held firm and, with the Swiss unable to reproduce their earlier accuracy from distance, resolute Newcastle found a way back.

This time - eight minutes before the half-time break would give both managers welcome respite - it was Basel's turn to show defensive frailty by failing to clear Robert's probing corner.

The ball eventually fell to Bramble and the defender, a scorer against Breda in the previous round, thumped it powerfully past Zuberbuhler to restore parity.

Robson was far from happy with some of his side's play during a frantic first half. But for the courage they had shown to twice come from behind, the United boss could have no complaints.

The second period quickly became as intriguing as the first as both teams traded attacks. And, although Robson was indebted to the recalled Nolberto Solano for a goal-line clearance to deny substitute Julio Hernan Rossi, it was Newcastle who looked most likely to add to the scoring.

Ameobi, who has produced some of his best performances on the continental circuit, twice got into good positions as the marauding Magpies turned up the heat. Yet on both occasions, the striker's finishing skills let him down.

An inviting cross from Robert was steered off target in the 57th minute. Given an opportunity to atone by Olivier Bernard six minutes later, Ameobi fired straight at Zuberbuhler.

To his credit, the England Under-21 international did not let his head drop and continued to lead the line responsibly alongside the industrious and tirless Alan Shearer.

And Newcastle reaped the reward of that 15 minutes from the end.

Thimohee Atouba lost the ball to Solano midway inside his own half.

And, after the Peruvian playmaker had fed Ameobi, the striker skillfully burst past Marco Zwyssig to secure victory and spark celebrations amongst the travelling ranks.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 7, 2003
Words:983
Previous Article:Reserves leave it late to snatch a victory.
Next Article:McCarthy facing injury poser.


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