By Alex O'Henley at St James' Park
Newcastle United FC and Olympique de Marseille served up an entertaining but goalless UEFA Cup semi-final first leg to leave the focus on the Stade Vélodrome in a fortnight. Both sides had chances in an absorbing contest but Newcastle will rue a string of squandered chances if they are eliminated.
Newcastle manager Sir Bobby Robson was forced to field a makeshift side after injuries robbed him of the services of Titus Bramble, Craig Bellamy, Kieron Dyer and Jermaine Jenas. Andy O'Brien came in at the back, Hugo Viana slotted into midfield and Shola Ameobi partnered Alan Shearer up front. Marseille started without influential forwards Ahmed Hossam 'Mido' and former Fulham FC player Steve Marlet, who both failed to recover from injuries sustained in their domestic win against Lille OSC at the weekend.
Marseille were the first to threaten after five minutes. A through-ball from Camel Meriem found Didier Drogba running into the penalty box, but his right-foot shot drifted harmlessly wide of Newcastle goalkeeper Shay Given's right-hand post. Meriem was involved again three minutes later when he sent in a dangerous cross from the left and Jonathan Woodgate had to be alert to head the ball away with Drogba waiting to pounce.
Laurent Robert's delivery from set-pieces has been crucial to Newcastle's progress in the UEFA Cup this season and on 13 minutes the French midfield player created another opportunity for the home side's forwards. His left-footed delivery from a free-kick 35 metres out was perfect for Ameobi, but under pressure from Abdoulaye Méïté, he failed to make significant contact.
The 22-year-old striker should have done even better on 17 minutes when a Shearer flick-on sent him right through on goal with only Fabien Barthez to beat. However, despite a good connection from Ameobi, the French international goalkeeper demonstrated his experience by blocking the shot at the expense of a corner.
The home side were settling into the game now and they had another shot on target on 24 minutes. Again Shearer provided the assist, teeing up Viana on the edge of the box, but his shot was gathered comfortably. Within a minute Given had to be alert at the other end as Drogba turned and twisted past O'Brien only for the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper, making his 300th career appearance, to make a crucial save.
Within a minute of the second half, Sylvain N'Diaye broke down the left for Marseille and his low centre would have been knocked in by Drogba had it not been for a superb last-ditch tackle from Woodgate. Play immediately swung to the other end and Robert was tripped five metres outside the penalty area by Habib Beye, earning the Senegalese player a yellow card. Shearer's powerful free-kick was well saved by Barthez, but Gary Speed should have scored from the rebound rather than crashing the ball wide.
Newcastle had a narrow escape midway through the half after Robert needlessly surrendered possession in midfield. Demetrius Ferriera Leite crossed the ball to Drogba and his fierce shot beat Given, only to rocket back off the inside of the post and away to safety.
Beye came to Marseille's rescue when he hooked the ball away with Ameobi, who was later replaced by Michael Bridges, through on goal. Newcastle pushed for a late goal and Bridges almost scored with five minutes to go after a mistake in the Marseille defence, but his shot went agonisingly wide with Barthez beaten.
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