Levadia Tallinn 0, Newcastle United 1

Antoine Sibierski scores during the Uefa Cup first round, first leg match between FC Levadia Tallinn v Newcastle United.

When the signing of Antoine Sibierski was confirmed by Newcastle just before last month's transfer deadline, United's supporters could not have been more underwhelmed.

Prompting derision and disappointment in equal measure, it was a piece of business that was perceived, in certain quarters, to represent a lack of ambition.

The Frenchman was frank enough to admit this week that his was a capture that had done little to excite the Gallowgate faithful. Yet having spoken of his determination to win over Newcastle's fans, Sibierski made a good start in Estonia yesterday as he marked his maiden appearance with a valuable goal that has moved his new employers to within touching distance of the lucrative group phase of the Uefa Cup.

The 32-year-old's contribution was the decisive one in a difficult game in Estonia and, although Levadia Tallinn dominated for spells of this first round, first leg tie, it was the Magpies who departed the A. Le Coq Arena with an important advantage.

Having endured a testing week, Glenn Roeder's satisfaction was obvious at the final whistle. And although the United boss will be keen to guard against complacency ahead of the second leg in two weeks, his team are in a strong position to progress.

It is thanks largely to Sibierski, who could have hardly made a more productive start to his career in the North-East. The former Manchester City man looked rusty at times and, given his lack of match practice, it was understandable. Yet his goal was all that mattered and the importance of a positive result in the Estonian capital must not be underestimated.

Having lost at home to Fulham at the weekend and seen Kevin Bond caught up in a controversy that has left his future in doubt, United could ill afford another negative. There were times when it seemed they would not hang on but, to their credit, Newcastle departed in triumph.

It was Sibierski's compatriot Charles N'Zogbia who led the United challenge in a bright opening, the 20-year-old using his skills on the left flank to great effect, tormenting Tihhon Sisov and posing a constant threat in an encouraging opening.

A string of early openings emanated from the winger's cultured left boot. And although none were converted, Newcastle's determination to seize the initiative was plain.

That the positive approach paid off within 10 minutes was no surprise, that N'Zogbia was not involved was.

Damien Duff, again playing on the right to accommodate N'Zogbia, delivered a free-kick that was headed past Artur Kotenko by Sibierski. It was a goal of great simplicity, and a goal of great importance.

It was a dream start for Sibierski. In scoring so early on his debut, the 32-year-old justified Roeder's faith in his talents in the best manner possible and rendered his often erratic ball control an irrelevance.

Having made the breakthrough, Newcastle relaxed and began to play some fluent attacking football that suggested further goals would be forthcoming. Martins looked more comfortable than he had at any point previous in his fledgling career in the North-East and the explosive African was unfortunate to be denied his first goal by Kotenko's legs having used his pace to break free in the 19th minute.

Pinned inside their own half, Levadia were forced to play on the break. But, on the rare occasions that they unlocked the visiting defence, chances were wasted.

Nikita Andreev fired over following a well-worked move on 27 minutes, while Marek Lemsalu should have scored two minutes later. Yet picked out by a terrific free-kick from Konstantin Nahk, the defender dragged his shot narrowly wide with Shay Given exposed.

Tarmo Ruutli's team were getting closer and United's efforts were not aided by an injury that forced Titus Bramble to hobble off nine minutes before the interval.

With few viable alternatives, Duff was forced to fill in as an emergency full-back, as Peter Ramage switched to the heart of the United defence.

The ambitions of the home team obvious, Newcastle attempted to secure a vital second goal following the restart but although N'Zogbia remained a menace and substitute James Milner looked to be relishing his rare appearance, clear chances remained elusive and the Estonians dominated the final 40 minutes.

For as long as United's advantage remained so slender, Levadia remained a threat and as the pressure began to mount, Roeder's men were fortunate to survive.

A lack of composure by Stephen Carr and an untimely slip by Craig Moore left Given exposed in the 52nd minute and, although the Irishman kept out Andreev's initial effort, Konstantin Vassiljev was left with an open goal. An equaliser appeared inevitable but the midfielder somehow missed.

For once, Roeder's men had got away with a defensive mistake. But it was obvious that further errors could not be afforded. They were not and, although Levadia continued to press, desperation set in as time passed and their efforts became increasingly ambitious.

It was not pretty and it was not comfortable but it did not matter. A win is a win and should this prove the foundations for an extended campaign on the Continent, few will be concerned by the way in which it was achieved.

By Paul Gilder, The Journal


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