HATEM Ben Arfa passed up a golden opportunity to celebrate his 26th birthday in style as Newcastle claimed a hard-fought 0-0 Europa League draw against Anzhi Makhachkala in Moscow.
The Frenchman, making his first appearance since tearing a hamstring at Fulham on 10 December, was played in on goal by compatriot Yohan Cabaye with 64 minutes gone, but could not beat goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov with an ambitious chipped effort.
An away goal would have seen Newcastle take a significant step towards the quarter-finals. That said, had keeper Rob Elliot, once again deputising for the injured Tim Krul, not made two excellent saves from Samuel Eto’o either side of half-time, Anzhi could have been heading for St James’ Park next week with a lead to defend.
In the event, Alan Pardew would have been the happier of the two managers after seeing his much-changed side cope with the artificial pitch and plummeting temperatures at the Luzhniki Stadium.
However, he will need no reminding that Metalist Kharkiv left Tyneside last month with a 0-0 first leg draw, but did not make it through to the last 16.
Anzhi began having not lost a European game on Russian soil – their only defeat came against Rangers in the 2001-02 season in a game played on neutral territory in Warsaw – and having only conceded their first home goal against Hannover in the previous round.
That record, combined with the pitch and weather – it was -5C at kick-off – suggested the visitors would have their work cut out. But to Pardew’s delight, Anzhi were hardly threatening in the first half.
Newcastle’s cause was helped in no small part by £30million Brazilian Willian’s premature departure through injury. In the event, it was Elliot who made the game’s first save five minutes before the break, tipping Eto’o’s dipping drive from distance over the bar.
Anzhi restarted in determined fashion and it took a brave block by central defender James Perch to prevent substitute Lacina Traore’s shot from heading goalwards.
Elliot turned Eto’o’s 61st-minute drive around the post, and Shatov acrobatically fired wide from the resulting corner.
But Ben Arfa was handed a glorious opportunity to give the visitors the lead three minutes later when he was played in by Cabaye, but saw his chipped effort easily blocked by Gabulov.
Eto’o blazed a free-kick high and Eschenko blocked Sylvain Marveaux’s long-range effort.
Elliot had to field a scuffed effort from Eto’o as time ran down – and the visitors held on.