Football: Dalglish pragmatic about taking on a Catalonian institution

Newcastle United may have passionate fans but such fervour pales alongside the obsessions that surround Barcelona and burden their coach. Simon Turnbull reports
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The Independent Online
The team picture on page 19 of the programme for what the Evening Chronicle has dubbed Newcastle United's "Match of the Century" depicts Kenny Dalglish and his players with the Tyne Bridge arcing above them. Either a trick of photographic deception has been played or the boys in black and white are able not just to walk upon water but can stand on it, too.

Such has been the advance homage paid to the visitors from Catalonia, it would seem that Newcastle may indeed need miraculous powers when they make their Champions' League debut at St James' Park tonight. They are, after all, playing a club whose home games attract the equivalent of the population of Norwich, whose season ticket holder No 108,000 happens to be the Pope, who run an art competition of such prestige Salvador Dali once entered, and whose squad has been valued at pounds 400m.

According to the legend, and the club motto, Newcastle are playing "more than a club." Not that Dalglish sees it quite the same way. "We'll give them the utmost respect," the Newcastle manager said, "but we're not playing tradition and history. We're playing the Barcelona team as it is at the moment - a good side with a new manager who has brought a new system that might still be a bit strange to one or two of his players."

Dalglish is not just one of football's great pragmatists. He happens to have won the European Cup three times, which is twice more than the venerable Barca and, indeed, their new guiding light, the former Ajax coach Louis van Gaal.

Tonight's match is a trophy in itself for Newcastle. For Van Gaal, though, there was a reminder yesterday that nothing short of emulating Johan Cruyff, by putting the European Cup in the Nou Camp cabinet, is likely to keep him as Barca coach beyond next season.

Daubed on a board at New Ferens Park, the home of Durham City and Sunderland reserves, where the Dutchman had taken his players to stretch their expensively- insured legs was the message: "Welcome Home Bobby. All the best for Wednesday. SAFC groundstaff."

Unfortunately for the Sunderland club groundsmen, who prepare both the first-team and second-team pitches, Bobby Robson, a native of Durham, was in Cairo watching the Under-17 World Championship tournament in his capacity as Barcelona's head of recruitment. Lifting the European Cup- Winners' Cup and the Spanish Cup last season was not enough to keep the English coach in the driving seat.

Job security was the theme of the Anglo-Spanish press conference Robson's successor conducted at Durham City club bar, the coaches Jorge Valdano (Valencia) and Vincente Cantatore (Valladolid) having been sacked three games into the season. Barca's Champions' League opponents did get a mention, though it was clear the prospect of facing Newcastle had not kept Van Gaal awake at night.

"I always sleep well," he said, and with good reason. He does have Ivan de la Pena and Rivaldo in his team, not to mention the Pope on his side.