ON A filthy old Tyneside night, Newcastle’s Champions League ambitions were doused by the cold shower of reality.
While the filthy-rich Geordies may have all the money in Saudi Arabia to chuck at Europe’s elite club competition, here was proof of their status as novices at the top table.
Eddie Howe’s side were undone by one who got away from them in the transfer market – midfielder Felix Nmecha, heavily linked with a move to St James Park in the summer, but who opted to leave Wolfsburg for Borussia Dortmund instead.
Nmecha’s strike, just before half-time, capped a thrusting move started by Nico Schlotterbeck, and left this group intriguingly poised with these two sides level on points ahead of a return match at the Westfalenstadion on Tuesday week.
Boss Howe was given the royal seal of approval from ‘King’ Kevin Keegan when the duo met at the theatre on Monday night – now he has to achieve what Keegan failed to do and win a trophy at this club.
Keegan, still a hopeless dreamer in his dotage, had raised the prospect of Newcastle winning the Champions League this season.
But it rarely works like that and Howe, a more grounded individual than his famous forebear, realises as much.
Manchester City had to wait a generation to get their hands on the famous big-eared trophy and Paris Saint-Germain – sploshed 4-1 here three weeks ago – are still waiting despite all of their Middle Eastern oil wonga.
That oil-firm derby had been played in a carnival atmosphere when St James’ Park welcomed back Champions League football after a 20-year absence.
Here the locals were again in fine voice but their side lacked the nous to unlock the seasoned European veterans of Dortmund.
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Nick Pope had made a stunning double-save early on but sub Callum Wilson twice went close to a second-half equaliser after Alexander Isak had been forced off through injury.
Howe named the same starting eleven who had trounced PSG for the visit of Dortmund, who arrived unbeaten in the Bundesliga but bottom of this group.
Group F consists of a PSG side shorn of Lionel Messi and Neymar, a Dortmund team with a Jude Bellingham-sized hole in it, and an AC Milan side which is far from vintage.
But it is still living up to its ‘Group of Death’ billing and the Geordies will now need a result or two in Dortmund and Paris before they return here to face AC Milan in December.
Sandro Tonali – facing a lengthy ban for breaking betting rules but lauded here by the club’s dizzy supporters after Saturday’s hammering of Crystal Palace – was left on the bench for the opening hour.
Inside the first two minutes, both keepers were tested – Pope saving with his feet to deny Donyell Malen and Gregor Kobel pushing away a curling shot from Anthony Gordon.
And soon, Pope was pulling off an extraordinary double save, hurling himself one way, then the other to thwart Malen and Niclas Fullkrug.
It is remarkable that Pope is currently being frozen out of the England squad by Gareth Southgate.
Still, from the resulting corner, Newcastle broke swiftly, Isak feeding Gordon, whose shot was blocked by Kobel at his near post.
It came at a cost though, Isak was injured by a tackle from behind as he made the pass.
Dortmund were a far more organised and threatening team than PSG had been, they frequently had the Toon back-pedalling and forced a string of corners.
But Bruno Guimaraes, who looks born to this Champions League manner, pinged a lofted pass to Miguel Almiron, who tripped over his own feet as he attempted a shot.
Almiron had gone down moments earlier, and the Geordies appealed long and hard for a penalty against Schlotterbeck but Portuguese ref Artur Dias was having none of it.
Gordon was becoming a real menace and the locals – happy as otters in the torrential rain – were celebrating with delirium every time their team won a corner.
Dortmund’s former Liverpool midfielder Emre Can had just hobbled off not long before the Germans seized the lead on 45 minutes.
Schlotterbeck won a crunching tackle in his own half and the Germany centre-back hurtled forward to play a perfectly-weighted pass to Nmecha, who fizzed home his shot.
Here was confirmation of what we’d suspected a few weeks ago – that PSG had been as bad as Newcastle had been good – and that Howe’s team would face sterner tests.
After the break, there was a full-throated response from the Toon Army, which seemed to inspire their boys.
Fabian Schar won a resounding tackle which turned into a pass for Wilson, who exchanged passes with Gordon shot, but had his shot saved by Kobel, sticking out a foot from point-blank territory.
Jacob Murphy was forced off by injury almost as soon as he’d arrived as a sub.
But as Newcastle staged a late rally, Matt Targett whipped in a free-kick from the left and Wilson connected with his shoulder and saw his effort crash against the crossbar.
And in the dying moments Gordon’s shot cannoned off the turf and on to the bar, as the hosts finished with a flourish which ultimately came to nothing.
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