Atromitos 1 Newcastle 1
Ryan Taylor spared Newcastle’s blushes with a fine free-kick to give them a slight advantage in their Europa League play-off clash with Atromitos.
A year and three days after he fired the Magpies to derby victory at Sunderland, he produced a set-piece of similar quality in first-half injury time to cancel out Denis Epstein’s 24th-minute opener and ensure that his side returned to Tyneside knowing a victory of any description, or even a 0-0 draw, will send them through to the group stage.
That may have been less than manager Alan Pardew’s ambitions before kick-off, but having made nine changes to the side which beat Tottenham 2-1 at the weekend, he saw his side put in a distinctly ordinary opening 45 minutes after which a draw was not the worst result.
Pardew, whose side face a tough trip to Chelsea on Saturday, handed striker Adam Campbell a late cameo and, in the process, made him the club’s youngest European debutant at 17 years and 236 days – 64 days younger than Andy Carroll was when he played in Palermo.
The temperature as Pardew and his players arrived at the Peristeri Stadium an hour before kick-off was still around 38 degrees, and had not dropped significantly by the time the game got under way.
Full-back James Tavernier had little time to become acclimatised as the home side repeatedly tried to play the ball in behind him for pacy wide-man Epstein to chase.
It was a ploy with which the Greeks were to persevere, ultimately to good effect.
The opening 20 minutes or so were, perhaps unsurprisingly in the prevailing conditions, tepid with both sides passing the ball confidently, although without making any real headway.
Njazi Kuqi and Matias Iglesias for Atromitos and Papiss Cisse and Dan Gosling for the visitors all shot tamely wide as keepers Steve Harper – making his first senior competitive appearance for the Magpies since April last year – and Charles Itandje did little more than spectate.
However, having survived a third-minute scare when he managed to recover to dispossess Epstein after he had collected Sokratis Fytanidis’ ball over the top, Harper was relieved to see the German side-foot weakly from a tight angle after being played in once again.
But it was a case of third time lucky for the Greeks when Nikola Beljic drifted a 24th-minute ball into the space behind the defender and Epstein finished calmly as the 37-year-old keeper came to meet him.
Newcastle, with summer signing Vurnon Anita pulling the strings in midfield, immediately raised their tempo and might have been level 10 minutes before the break when Itandje inelegantly, but effectively, hacked Taylor’s free-kick away before Gael Bigirimana fired the rebound over the top.
Harper had to deal with Ioannis Skondras’ well-struck set-piece three minutes later, but Dusan Bajevic’s men looked to be heading into the break with a deserved lead until the final kick of the first half.
Iglesias was fortunate to escape further punishment when he hauled Gosling back by the throat after losing his man, and Israeli referee Alon Yefet awarded a free-kick 25 yards out.
Taylor once again reprised his speciality to curl a dipping shot low to the keeper’s right to level and spare he and his team-mates a half-time dressing down.
The Magpies could have taken the lead within two minutes of the restart when lone striker Cisse, who had been largely starved of possession before the break, found space down the right to cross for Sylvain Marveaux, but the Frenchman failed to make meaningful contact with his header as the ball dropped over a defender.
But it was the home side, stung by their late capitulation, who were dictating the play once again and Kuqi sent a dipping 51st-minute volley over Harper’s bar.
Itandje had to help a 55th-minute Taylor corner out of the danger area under extreme pressure as the visitors responded, but the keeper was relieved to see Gabriel Obertan’s volley deflected just over the bar four minutes later.
Cisse passed up a glorious opportunity to fire his side in front with 67 minutes played when he controlled Obertan’s deep cross and attempted to round Itandje, but the keeper managed to get in a hand to deny the Senegal international.
Itandje was quick to leave his line and deny substitute Romain Amalfitano after Cisse had back-heeled him in on goal 17 minutes from time, but Konstantinos Giannoulis really should have won it for the home side six minutes later.
Tavernier was once again found wanting as the left-back surged past him into the penalty area, but he shot wildly high and wide with just Harper to beat.