No need to panic
There was probably a tendency among Newcastle fans to assume that their revitalized club would swiftly dispatch its Eastern European visitors. After all, Metalist Kharkiv isn't a major name in European soccer. From that standpoint, a scoreless draw at home could be viewed as pretty darn underwhelming.
Newcastle was far from great on Thursday, but created a sufficient amount of scoring chances and defended better than it has for most of the season. And, of course, United also found itself on the cruel side of two extremely harsh — and questionable — offside decisions that denied snakebitten Papiss Cisse a pair of goals.
So there's really no point to stressing over the result. The performance was adequate. With no Premier League match this weekend, Newcastle should be able to attack (note: I feel confident in saying this is the verb Alan Pardew will use) the second leg with a strong squad.
Service from the flanks clearly isn't one of Newcastle's strengths this season. With Cisse playing as a lone striker, there's also not a whole heck of a lot for United's wide men to aim at when they do get the ball in crossing positions.
Regardless of which is the initial cause — you could say it's a chicken-and-egg conundrum — Newcastle tends to play too narrow at times. Such was the case for much of Thursday's game. And, with Metalist clogging the middle of the field, United found it difficult to maneuver its way through (and the absences of Yoan Gouffran and Hatem Ben Arfa hardly helped its efforts).
Gabriel Obertan offered some bright moments before slowing down in the second half, but he was the only true wide player in Pardew's starting XI. Jonas Gutierrez, the other wide midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 formation, rarely threatens down the flanks these days. Left back Davide Santon cuts inside on his favored right foot at every opportunity (even those that don't seem to be there). Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa performed well away from his natural position, but didn't offer the sort of attacking thrust that Mathieu Debuchy would have at right back.
Pardew didn't really have any options to inject width into his team, either. As I've repeatedly argued, Sylvain Marveaux isn't nearly as effective when deployed on the wing. He played well after replacing Obertan, but that alteration shifted Moussa Sissoko out wide. Sissoko can certainly function in that position, but Newcastle is probably better served if he's central.
Metalist shows its mettle
It didn't take long for the Ukrainians — although that doesn't seem like a very accurate way to describe Kharkiv, considering the heavily South American makeup of its team — to prove they were no pushovers.
Metalist was skillful on the ball, clever in its passing and opportunistic on the counter attack. While Newcastle probably had the better of play overall, Kharkiv looked more incisive in its ventures forward.
So, while United still is in decent shape heading into the second leg, besting Metalist in Ukraine would be an impressive accomplishment.