ON a rocky island, Newcastle United had to be tough and resolute.
And they were against Maritimo last night.
Alan Pardew’s youthful team stood up to what the Madeiran side threw at them.
They also threw plenty at their Europa League opponents.
And Pardew and his players, not least Shola Ameobi, left the half-built Estadio do Barreiros wondering how they hadn’t found the net.
Ameobi, second in the club’s all-time European goalscoring list, twice hit the woodwork, while Dan Gosling also hit the post.
But despite their failure to grab a goal, it was no disaster.
Pardew made seven changes for the game, which was a learning curve for the club’s younger players, not least 18-year-old Gael Bigirimana, who gamely attempted to protect the back four alongside Gosling in a deep-lying midfield role.
Goalkeeper Rob Elliot, making only his second appearnce for the club since his move from Charlton Athletic a year ago, also impressed.
Elliot’s early saves from Sami when Newcastle, still adjusting to the heat and humidity of Funchal, were up against it undoubtedly laid the foundations for this result.
However, the 100 or so United fans in the stadium, and those watching at home, will have again been frustrated by Gabriel Obertan, who got himself into promising positions time and again with his pace, but was unable to deliver a telling ball.
Maritimo dominated the first 25 minutes, and had it not been for Elliot, they would have been trailing by at least a goal by the time they got a foothold in the match.
Elliot twice denied Sami, with his first effort – a low reaction stop – the pick of his saves.
Not bad for a goalkeeper who hadn’t played a competitive game for 12 months.
Exactly a year ago, Elliot, by his own admission, hadn’t been at his best at the City Ground in a dramatic League Cup win over Nottingham Forest, for United.
But thanks to the 26-year-old, Newcastle were able to get themselves a foothold in the match.
By rights, Ameobi should have added to his 12 European goals, and his first effort, from a deflected Mike Williamson shot, was only just stopped by goalkeeper Romain Salin.
Gosling struck the post from distance, and the game swung back and forth for the rest of the half, which ended in acrimony after a disputed drop ball and back pass angered both sets of players and coaches.
Ameobi, playing as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, struck the woodwork early in the second half with a fine curled shot.
He was joined on the pitch by his younger brother, Sammy, later in the half, but chances came and went for United, who again had Elliot to thank for a fine stop from Sami in the 70th minute.
Davide Santon also stopped a header from Valentina Roberge on the line, and, mindful of the chances created by Maritimo and the age of his team, Pardew was content with the result.
“A lot of players were playing their first European game on a pitch, which, I have to say, was of poor standard for both teams,” he said.
“But there was a great application, and although we had a first 10 minutes where we struggled a little, after that I thought we were in control of the game.
“I’m a little bit disappointed we haven’t won it with the chances that we had.
“Maritimo are a team who are going to surprise teams here. They are very, very good – their record suggests that.
“Therefore, taking all that into consideration, I thought a draw was a great result.”
Newcastle in Europe, after a five-year absence, are clearly a work in progress.
But they should be a very different proposition at an altogether chillier St James’s Park when Bordeaux and Club Brugge visit next month.
NEWCASTLE UNITED: Elliot 8; Perch 6, Williamson 7, S Taylor 7, Santon 7; Bigirimana 7, Gosling 6; Obertan 5 (Marveaux, 80), Vuckic 5 (Sammy Ameobi, 53, 6) Amalfitano 6 (Ferguson, 76); Shola Ameobi 7. Subs not used: Harper, Tavernier, Abeid, Campbell.
MARITIMO: Salin; Briguel, Guilherme, Roberge, Olim; Miranda, Simao (Abreu, 75), Luiz; Heldon (Fidelis, 54), Dias (Adilson, 82) Sami. Subs not used: Lima, Diogo, Rosario, Rossi.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Rob Elliot – had it not been for him, United would have lost this game.
HIGHLIGHT: Elliot’s first save from Sami changed the course of the game.
LOWLIGHT: United’s three shots that hit the woodwork.
Bookings: Bigirimana 45, Simao 45, Amalfitano 68, Santon 86
Referee: Robert Schorgenhofer (Austria)
The Gazette’s Europa League coverage is in association with UTS Engineering Ltd. http://www.uts-ltd.com/