Football: Gullit out to shock Belgrade

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YOU COULD say the Newcastle squad were pretty relaxed about flying into the Yugoslav capital for today's Cup-Winners' Cup first round, second leg clash against Partizan Belgrade despite the news that the city had been shaken by an earthquake.

There was the inevitable joke that Ruud Gullit must have dropped his wallet. And another about Newcastle playing "a flat back four", but then Newcastle's players have experienced enough jolts and shocks over the past turbulent year at St James' Park to take just about anything in their stride.

As it was, there was little evidence of yesterday morning's earthquake which cracked walls, temporarily cutting off the electricity and sending anxious locals rushing into the streets. It registered 5.7 on the Richter Scale and, while alarm was understandable among the 2 million-strong Serbian population, who apparently thought NATO was launching an attack, injuries were few and slight.

Under Gullit smiles and optimism at Newcastle have replaced the suspicion and fear which became synonymous with the last dark days of the Dalglish era. The extent of the sweetness which might lie ahead, however, will in part depend on Newcastle's ability tomorrow to preserve their slender 2-1 advantage from the first leg.

But such is the restored confidence in the Geordie camp that their captain, Rob Lee, was much more interested in how Newcastle were going to fashion a vital away goal than any thoughts of desperate defence.

"We know they will have to come at us," said Lee, who believes Newcastle should have been three goals ahead in the first leg before Chavet gave away the penalty which Vuk Rasovic converted to keep Partizan in the tie with an away goal and only 2-1 behind.

Lee said Newcastle could exploit gaps as Partizan go in search of a goal. "We contained them very well but gave away a sloppy goal which was disappointing. We have good players on the break, though, and if we create chances for Alan Shearer we are going to score goals," he said.

This is a testimony to the mood of optimism which is oozing through the club since the charismatic Gullit took over. Four successive victories, following two early defeats, have steadied the Geordie ship and, with David Batty and Keith Gillespie available following suspension and injury, Gullit's options for his famed "sexy football" have increased.

Batty, who played the last two minutes of the victory against Nottingham Forest on Saturday, is likely to forge an abrasive midfield partnership with Lee, while Gullit must choose between Gillespie's searing pace and crossing ability and the precocious skills of Stephen Glass. Gillespie hopes his undeniable ability to counter-attack will win him the vote.

The squad, including Steve Watson whose future on Tyneside is in the balance with Everton still interested in signing him, trained yesterday evening at the JNA stadium, a stronghold in which Partizan have a 100 per cent record this season in all competitions.

Against that there is the trademark calm and confident, some might say cocky, demeanour to Gullit. He was, of course, robbed of Cup-Winners' Cup glory last season when he was sacked by the winners Chelsea at the quarter-final stage.

If Shearer is supplied with the appropriate ammunition tonight, however, Gullit could take another major step in his rebuilding programme on the Tyne. It would provide another shock wave to disturb the night in Belgrade.