Newcastle United face an uphill struggle if they are to qualify for the Europa League semi-finals, as they slipped to a 3-1 defeat in Portugal against Benfica. Things started well when Papiss Cisse put the Magpies ahead but goals from Rodrigo, Lima and Oscar Cardozo turned things in the Super Eagles’ favour heading into the decisive leg at St James’ Park in a weeks’ time. Alan Pardew selected his strongest available side for the clash in a clear attempt at grinding out a result against the Portuguese league leaders and Tim Krul returned in goal after a seven game layoff. The visitors enjoyed the brighter start too, with Cisse converting after 12 minutes to give Newcastle a potentially important away goal. Moussa Sissoko found space down the right hand side before supplying a perfect low cross which Cisse tapped home to give Newcastle the lead. Alan Pardew’s instructions became clear once his side were 1-0 up, as the hosts pressured for long periods before almost being stung on the counter attack. Cisse went close again after one of the black and white breaks but could only hit the post after his shot was deflected by the diving Ezequiel Garay. The shock of almost going 2-0 down made the hosts realise they were in for a game and they responded by upping the tempo and breaking Newcastle down. Rodrigo—who spent a year on loan at Bolton earlier in his career—equalised when Krul could only push Cardozo’s shot into his path, allowing the Spaniard to tap home. Cisse went close again as Newcastle looked to retake the lead after the break, calmly chipping over Benfica goalkeeper Artur, only to see his shot come back off the post. But then Newcastle self-destructed. First, Davide Santon’s attempted backpass landed at the feet of substitute Lima, who rounded Krul before finishing from a tight angle. Six minutes later, Steven Taylor was punished for handball and the home side had a penalty to seal the first leg win. Cardozo stepped up and scored at the second attempt, after the first effort had been made to be retaken. The defeat leaves Newcastle needing to win by two goals at St James’ Park in seven days’ time but there were certain signs of penetration against the runaway Portuguese league leaders. Had they taken their chances, the Geordies could have had three goals and barring the horrendous mistake from Santon, the deficit would have only been one. Add to the mix the raucous crowd that will greet Benfica when they arrive on Tyneside next week and you can be sure this tie is far from over.